Signal to Noise ratio

Four months ago, I was offered the opportunity to become a grad life blogger at McGill University.
First week. I was ecstatic. I was telling everyone I knew, “I am a blogger now”. Turns out I actually have to post something before I can claim that title.
Second week. I complained that everything I wanted to write about – the beautiful fall weather, great things to do in Montreal, etc – had already been covered by the awesome crew at grad life blog.
Third week. I wrote, erased, re-wrote, wrote some more, deleted, claimed I had writer’s block and basically got nowhere. I guess it’s practice for my thesis writing.
End of the month, and what do I have in front of me? I finally decided on a great title for my post – signal to noise ratio. Now what?

There you have it – procrastination.
The act of putting things off for so long, you have no other choice than to blog about it. In all honesty, I have beenv busy. Some new developments in my research project have moved it to the fast lane and I’ve been spending lots of late nights in the lab, but one post could easily have been done. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve also been going through some sort of a PhD existential crisis, if you will.

I had been thinking about what to write for my first blog post for quite some time, and then, it came to me. Unless you have been living under a rock or writing your thesis, you are aware Steve Jobs passed away recently. My supervisor threw this quote up on the fridge in his honour. And right then, everything that had been brewing became quite clear.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Now, I am not an Apple fanboy, but I thought the quote was very eloquent. It reminded me of a concept known as signal to noise ratio. It is an engineering/science term that applies to how much of what you observe is noise (background) and how much is what you’re actually interested in observing (signal). I feel it’s a concept that applies to anything in life, but, as I roll into my sixth year of a PhD, it could not be truer. The end is near, and yet not here.

I am a dreamer. I always have been and always will be. Every day I have a new idea, a new travel plan, a new revelation. I tried to remember the reasons why I decided to start grad school, and I think one of them is that research lets you dream up new possibilities all the time. Research in general is a foray into the unknown. When you take on a research project, you have no idea where it is headed and this allows you to dream up innumerable
possibilities. That, of course, is the easy part. The other, more frustrating part is slowly dissecting away your theories until you find the right one.

No matter what you’re doing in life, particularly things requiring a significant time commitment, you will always have to deal with negativity within yourself and around you. So in this case, signal would be focusing on wrapping up this PhD, but there is so much noise around that it’s easy to get distracted. Noise is that nagging question of what’s
next. Noise is: why is it taking me so long to graduate. Noise is: did I pick the right project. Noise is: getting easily annoyed when someone asks why you aren’t done yet. So much noise.

I realize that, more than anyone else, the pressure comes from within. I have a good project, although it has been very challenging. I work in a great environment, surrounded by supportive people, and have an understanding supervisor. So why all this noise? Sometimes I wonder. When I started my PhD, I was a happy-go-lucky kid. I had tried my hand at research while I was in school and loved it. So I said to myself, why not give it a shot. At the beginning of grad school, my project looked promising and I had all these indications that I was at least decent at it. Awards, scholarships, positive comments at committee meeting. But after a while, all that dies down and what remains is your publishing record, which is meant to speak for itself. And I haven’t published yet. I am close, yet not there.

Since I started drafting this post, months ago, I realized the worst thing I can do is over-think it. As a friend pointed out, a PhD is a process. Everyone who does it understands that you’re not working towards milestone or a big payout. You have to think of it in terms of a process, not as a means to an end. A PhD does not have a defined set of rules like school does, and the process is unique to every individual. You can’t compare yourself to others.

How am I going to tackle this problem? I’m going to do what I learned from my father. Put my head down, my blinders on, and keep on trucking. Soon enough, hopefully, I’ll have arrived to my destination.

One thought on “Signal to Noise ratio

  1. Great post. I was nodding my head in agreement with much of what you said. I am (hopefully?) in my 5th and last year of PhD and experiencing very similar signals and noise. I feel slightly less anxious knowing other people are in the same boat.


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