Wednesday, March 28, 2007

So you want to do a PhD?

While I was working in Houston some years back, I have a good friend by the name of Dr Saby Sen. He had just joined the Houston office when I were there. Saby and I got along just fine. Funny guy this Dr Sen – when he introduced himself for the first time, he mentioned that he has a sister by the name of Sushmita (Sen and I am sure you Bollywood fans would know her well). I knew he was pulling my leg, but I went along with it.

So last year when he emailed me after losing contact for nearly 7 years, I jokingly asked him about his sister Sushmita. He replied, “Rahman, I have a confession. Sushmita isn’t really my sister.” He must have thought that I had fallen for his joke. I didn’t actually. Of course I knew all along he didn’t have her as his sister (at least not the Sushmita we all knew) eventhough they share the same surname. Otherwise I would have asked him to introduce me to her! On the same breathe, someone in the Houston office asked me if I am related to (the late) Rafiq Hariri, then the Lebanese Prime Minister. My response was simple, “If I am related to him, chances are that I may not be working for this company and we may not have this conversation!” Hah, someway to strike a conversation with your new colleagues, right? Of course I enjoyed my tenure at Hyprotech and I thought it was one of the best run small company in the world, but you know me and my convoluted way of answering a simple question!

The sister that never was for Saby (Left) and the relative that never was for me (right).
On second thought, just may be that Dad has slight resemblance to Rafik Hariri, if only in size. But then again, most likely not. We don't have any blood from the Middle East at all. May be a little bit Indian (the bulk from Pagar Ruyung & Aceh - in fact I believe the Indian blood came from the Aceh side), but definitely not from Middle Eastern for our family.There is a better chance that I am related to Sushmita than to Rafik Hariri!

Actually that was not the reason why I wrote this piece. One day I asked him,”Saby, do you think I can do a PhD?” His response was straight forward. “Rahman, anyone can do PhD, if they are willing to take poverty!” He went on telling me what he went through while doing his PhD.

I smiled while listening intently to his story. I know what he was talking about. In the US there is no PTPTN or MARA and is not easy to get government scholarship (you can get loans tho). You would probably need to supplement your income by teaching or tutoring. You can forget the luxury of life while you are doing your PhD.

Matjepun has been pushing me to do my PhD. "You should," he told me, "it is easy and I am sure in 2 years you will have the title in front of your name." “Give me half an hour of your time, I will explain all that you need to do to get your PhD,” he added, while we were both seeping teh tarik at the cafe in Bank Negara. I am sure it is nice to have that title in front of my name. Dr Rahman Hariri..hmmm, there is a nice ring to it. It would surely be nice to see that on my credit card, right? Then again, may be not. I can’t afford poverty. In which case, I will not have a credit card to begin with! I might as well settle for the title Pak Guru from my clients and students from Pertamina! That is good enough I guess.

So recently I had a chat with my partner-cum-advisor-cum-friend, Peter. This guy has two masters degree – in Math and in Chemical Engineering, and and he used to teach at Institute Of Gas Technology in Chicago and currently like me, semi-retired, and he is old enough to be like a father figure. Being American, of course he is biased towards the American PhD compared to say British. But he has his points. If I were to consider doing it, I am more inclined to the American system, to be honest. I have read the book So You Want to get a PH.D. by Dr Kamarul Zaman Ahmad. (The book is not convincing to be honest. For a book written by a PhD graduate (a UM lecturer at that) for prospective PhD students, it is not scientific and based too much on hearsay.)

But in any case, he did explain the difference between UK PhD and US PhD, noting that UK PhD is more unstructured. In the US there are several taught subjects and students have to sit for exams for those subjects. Anyway, I think more highly of the US PhD and I think it is more suitable for me and is the way to go for Malaysians thinking of doing PhD.
Anyway back to getting PhD - what does it take to get one? Peter categorized them in three different types:

  1. PhD in History, Literature, social sciences etc – you need perseverance. Keep pounding on it, write a book and you should be getting your PhD. In the US you have 7 years to complete, and if you are taking PhD in these areas, you will get your PhD.
  2. PhD in Engineering – what I am targeting. Now this one is very dependent on your professor. If he can get you the funds to buy the equipment that will enable you to measure and get all the data you need for your research, then you should be ok. If not, it will be a long wait.
  3. PhD in Mathematics – this is the most difficult. You may have an inspiration and you may be able to solve the theorem in a flash and in 6 months you should get your PhD. But you may be staring at it, and pound at it for for 6 years and have nothing to show for it.

He quoted an example. I think most of us know how to solve for the roots for quadratic equation, right? Do I hear someone groaning somewhere? Hahaha, I don’t blame you for feeling that way. In any case the roots for a second order polynomials (ax2 + bx + c = 0), solving for x, one would get

Simple stuff for F3 and may be F4 for sure. This is old stuff. This solution was known by the people of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt circa 2160-1700 BC.

The same goes for cubic equation – the polynomials of the 3rd order (ax3 +bx2 + Cx + d = 0). One can find the solution to this albeit it is more convoluted, but definitely doable. But it is too lengthy for this blog. Visit this site to know more.

My point is, mathematicians have found the roots up to the polynomial of the 4th order (quartic equation). However, scholars including PHD students had been working hard at solving for the roots for the 5th order polynomials, the quintic equation. Afterall, if there are roots from second to fourth order polynomials, surely it was a matter of time before someone break the code for the quintic, right? Well, for 350 years they tried and if we were one of the PhD students hoping to solve it for our PhD, well, bad luck my friends.

Quintic equation can’t be solved algebraically. It took Abel’s Impossibility Theorem (1826) ( and also by Galois independently) to prove that it can’t be solved and I guess one can be awarded a PhD for proving wrong what was thought for 350 years to be solvable! But for the rest of us mere mortals, well, you have just 'wasted' 7 years of your life!

Ah well, I don't have 350 years to get this title. I Think I will settle for the simple En Rahman/Pakcik Man/Abgman. Or better still just call me Rahman.


Originally Posted at Time in a Bottle
Tuesday March 27, 2007 - 10:02pm (MYT)