Computer Science PhD: A Simple Formula for Massive Success ?

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Almost precisely four years ago I watched a TED talk that changed my life. 

I had just finished my computer science master and was starting out as a fresh Ph.D. student in the department of distributed systems…

… and I was overwhelmed.

There are many computer science students reading the Finxter blog so I hope to find a few encouraging words in this article.

Not only was I overwhelmed but I seriously doubted my ability to finish the doctoral research program successfully.

I was so impressed by my colleagues who were much smarter, wittier, and better coders.

So what were (some of) the things that were bothering me?

  • Reading and understanding code.
  • Reading and understanding research papers.
  • Designing algorithms.
  • Maths.
  • Presenting stuff.
  • English.
  • Writing in a scientific way.
  • Selling my approaches to my supervisors.

The list goes on and on — and I really felt like an imposter not worthy to contribute to the scientific community.


Then I watched the TED talk from a former investment banker who claimed to possess the formula to achieve anything.

How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals | Stephen Duneier | TEDxTucson

The formula: break the big task into a series of small tasks. Then just keep doing the small tasks (and don’t stop).

I know it sounds lame but it really resonated with me. So I approached my problem from first principles: What do I need to do to finish my dissertation within four years?

  • I need to publish at least four research papers.
  • I need to submit at least ten times to top conferences — maybe even more often.
  • I need to create a 10,000-word research paper every three months or so.
  • I need to write (or edit) 300 words every day.

So my output was clear: if I just do this one thing (it’s really easy to write 300 words) — I will have enough written content for my dissertation.

Quality comes as a byproduct of massive quantity. 😉

But to produce output, any system needs input. To brew tasty coffee, you have to put in the right ingredients: high-quality beans and pure water. To produce better outputs, just feed the system with better inputs.

So what’s the input that helps me produce excellent 300-words written output?

Reading papers from top conferences.

So the formula boils down to:

INPUT: read (at least skim over) one paper a day from a top conference in my research area.
OUTPUT: generate 300 words for the current paper project.

That’s it. After I developed this formula, the remaining three and a half years were mainly following my own recipe (even in the presence of serious distractions, doubts, highs, and lows).

Yesterday, I delivered my defense. Based on my sample size of one, the system works! 😉

So what is your BIG TASK that is overwhelming you? How can you break into a series of small outputs that guarantees your success? What is the input that helps you generate this kind of output?

Leave a comment below with your struggles and your plan of how to overcome them!

Where to go from here?

As a code master, life is much easier — whether you are a computer science student or a professional software engineer. You need to constantly polish your coding skills.

Sharpen your saw: solve code puzzles, and test and track your skill level at It’s fun!

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