This post is just about what I’ve been up to recently, the first post in a veeery looong time. It’s a story about why (on Earth?) I’ve decided to come back to Romania and stay here for about two/three more years.
Somebody once told me that you should start a PhD only if you have an itch for it that you desperately need to scratch. I have an itch for making pretty plots and going over my written sentences about 10,000 times, so I thought that comes close enough to it. So I’m doing a PhD. Now the story behind that.
Starting from April, I had been working on my Master’s thesis on indoor localization using some really cool devices that communicate to each other using something called Ultra-Wideband (UWB) signals. The main thing about this technology is that it allows you to measure the distance between two devices very precisely, with an error in the range of decimeters. I might do a separate post about this, because it’s pretty hyped right now, as Apple included it in the latest iPhone and people seem to be curious about it. Anyway, I was working on my thesis and I saw a call for a position in an European Joint Doctorate program called A-WEAR on precisely the topic of my Master’s thesis. The “joint” part in the title of the position means that, out of the three-year period during which you receive the funding, you spend about two years in a main location (in this case, the University Politehnica of Bucharest) and about nine months in a second location (the Tampere University in Finland), so in the end you have a degree awarded by both institutions1.
To pause a bit, at the moment when I saw the call, I had already decided that I didn’t want to do a PhD nor I had any intention of moving back to Romania (zero, really). Don’t get me wrong, I love my field and I was surely going to pursue it, but when I was looking at “jobs” that would allow me to do so in an innovative way, two possibilities appeared: either joining a startup2 or starting a PhD. Out of these two, the startup way sounded more exciting and I was already scouting for possible jobs. I had this image that a PhD can get quite boring — you stay in an office all day long, work mostly on your own, maybe you interact with other PhD students if their heads are not too deeply stuck in their own monitors, you see your advisor once per month if you’re really lucky and all the planets align, etc.
You can argue that working in a startup is not the same as doing a PhD, but I actually think both jobs require a similar skill set. It also depends on the kind of startup. There are some flashy startups whose magic sauce resides more in the advertising, selling, and creating an attractive product. Those may indeed be a bit far from the idea of a PhD. But there are also “nerdy” startups, where you create a great technical product. I did my Master’s thesis in collaboration with such a startup called 3db Access and it was amazing. They created an UWB chip, a colossal task that requires 4+ years of development, which is why most of their employees have 10+ years of experience. This kind of startup looks more like a PhD.
As for my doubts regarding the moving-back-to-Romania part, it’s pretty simple: Switzerland generally offers better career possibilities. Period. So I wanted to take advantage of that.
Quite surprisingly, the call made me reconsider both of these points. The fact that you change locations between the two universities once in a while makes it a bit more dynamic, so I liked this aspect. Moreover, the network funds in total 15 PhD candidates who work on adjacent topics, so there is plenty of room for collaboration. After a careful inquiry into the groups that I would join, I found that they were really competent people, publishing in top conferences, that could help me move forward. So the PhD way didn’t sound so boring after all. The moving to Romania aspect didn’t matter as much when I knew I had a nice opportunity before me, so I quickly grabbed it.
It’s time to address the elephant in the room:
If you decided that a PhD is indeed a good fit for you, why didn’t you do it in one of the top 10 universities in the world (ETH Zürich) but decided to go to one that is not even in top 500?
I’ve already mentioned one of the reasons: this opportunity sounded more exciting. Plus, the ranking of a university is an average of multiple factors, among which the research quality of all of their research departments. However, the average does not necessarily coincide with the quality of an individual group. But I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t thought about what ETH could offer me. The institute which was supervising my Master’s thesis (alongside with the startup) would have been the choice closest to my needs, but at that point I was not sure if they had an open PhD position on this topic. Also, they were more focused on the hardware and electronics part, which is also cool but didn’t interest me as much.
Apart from this, there weren’t so many other options — the world of research is quite small, after all, and it’s hard to find somebody working on precisely your tiny slice of interest. The wireless communications and signal processing fields have in recent years suffered from a lack of interest, since students often migrate to machine learning (ML) topics which are very similar in some regards and offer a greater flexibility in the job market (and often higher salaries, if I might add). Some of the labs with a focus on wireless communications that cease their activity (due to a professor retiring, for instance) aren’t necessarily replaced by a group with the same specific. On the other hand, groups focused on CS topics pop up like crazy. To get the perspective, 6 out of the 13 new professors appointed at ETH this year are in CS-related fields and 3 of them in ML and computer vision alone. What I’m getting at is that in some fields, to a greater extent than others, it might be harder to find a group working in a narrow field.
Even after I give (part of) this motivation when people ask me the question, I feel like they aren’t satisfied. They either look at me like I’m crazy or even plainly state this. Because, apparently, there’s nothing in Romania to come back for. Apart from this statement simply not being true, fortunately enough, I am the kind of person for whom being called crazy is actually a compliment. Still, I would hate to pose in a heroine that returns to her highly imperfect country despite having plenty of opportunities abroad. That’s because the plan is to stay here only until I’m finished with my PhD. After that, who knows, the world is so large… :) Until then, you can find me rolling in Bucharest (or Tampere), so let me know if you’d like to have a coffee!
PS. I wrote this post about two weeks ago but I just didn't find the time to publish it. In the meanwhile, I've been to a winter school in Tampere which was kind of the kick-off meeting for all the people involved in this project — students and supervisors alike. Now I can confidently say that I made the right choice and I'm super ready to start working. More about this in a future post.
1. There are actually two very similar flavors of these PhDs that are done in two different institutions. The joint one that I was talking about means that, at the end of the program, you are awarded a diploma on the behalf of both institutions, hence the "joint" name. The second flavor, which is actually the one I have, means that you get two diplomas, one awarded by each institution. In the end, it's almost the same thing but with different formal papers. [Back]
2. "Why not founding a startup?" you might ask. Well, the Master’s degree was more of an investment for me, so I was not in a stellar financial situation at the end of it. When talking to startup founders or mentors in Zürich, they all mentioned that you kind of need to have some savings when starting a company, since you probably won’t get a salary from it for the first one or two years. Therefore, I was not in a position that could allow me to be jobless for so long. An alternative was to work somewhere part-time or full-time, which is something that I also considered — selling my soul to a corporation, how sweet — but then it becomes very hard to work on an idea in your spare time. [Back]