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spires from Carfax

the road not taken

Books + Ideas, Life, — September 2010

Being in Oxford has made me think about one of the turning points in my life, which came when I finished my undergraduate degree. Having had a traumatic honours year, I took the course of least resistance and enrolled in a PhD at the same university, with the same supervisor I had had for my honours thesis. That went nowhere — eventually I abandoned it entirely — and also served to put me off academia.

In retrospect, it would have made more sense for me to go overseas to do a PhD, or if not a full PhD then something like the one year Cambridge Tripos (now the Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics), which is what my friend Sean did. Getting out of the country would have been good for me personally, as well as better academically.

My subsequent life would probably have been very different. I might have ended up as an academic, or working in finance like so many of my friends did, rather than in practical IT. On the other hand, while I ended up with a job as a Unix and then Linux sysadmin more or less by accident — Bernard happened to come by the Madsen canteen with a job offer — my interest in systems was already quite strong. (Which reminds me how much I miss David Hogan.)

Anyway, I have no regrets. I just don't think that way about the past, and biographical counterfactuals are always speculative — I could also have been hit and killed by a bus a week after leaving Australia.

Would I ever consider having another go at a PhD? Possibly, but my interests are now so broad it would be hard to narrow my focus for three or four years.


  1. Actually that Wikipedia article is a bit out of date and if you read down the CASM should by now be a Master of Mathematics for Cambridge undergrads (to ensure government funding) and a Master of Advanced Study for others.

    Before the PhD you didn't seem that interested in maths and transferred from maths to computer science to do honours. Talking any sort of break after honours including travelling or working as well as oversea study and figuring out what you really wanted to do may have been better. But when you are 20 something and haven't travelled or worked hard to know.

    With the arrival of the internet Computer Science was very interesting field, though that also brought plenty of distractions. Whatever you did would need funding and Dawkins's reforms meant tax free PhD scholarships were fairly easy to get and in theory should have been a good path to academia. Though it would be hard to argue that taking a PhD scholarship at Basser in 1991 turned out to be a brilliant career move for most people.

    Me, I should have never gone to Sydney in the first place and gotten a job before the 1991 recession instead of graduating into the middle of it.

    Comment by David Watford — September 2010
  2. it would be hard to argue that taking a PhD scholarship at Basser in 1991 turned out to be a brilliant career move for most people

    Yes, I seem to remember that 12 out of 20 people in my honours year stayed on to do graduate work at Basser, but only a few of them completed. I think Matty and Dhog were the only ones who finished PhDs, and that took them quite some time.

    My honours thesis was effectively mathematics.

    Comment by danny — September 2010
  3. Hmm...the road not taken, if only I had a crystal ball.

    I am not in the same league as those of you who are in the rarefied stratum of higher mathematics and science. My options are few.

    I do look back with misgivings on how life might have unfolded for me. There are so many ifs.... what if Mao had been run over by a tank at Tiananmen Square soon after the so-called liberation in Oct. 1949. Would I be a happy chappie peasant farmer in South China, tending the rice fields, fish pond, lychee trees, bee hives and vegetable patches?

    What if my elders did not arrange for me to come to Sydney, how life might have been for me in Hong Kong? Would I be able to get an education, learn a trade or have the drive, mean streak, and resourcefulness to cash in on many of the boom and bust cycles sweeping the former British colony? There was also the distinct possibility of my being an amigo had not Fidel Castro succeeded in turning Cuba on its head. What if the attempt to take me to Canada on false papers came off, would I make good in Canada?

    How life has been for me Downunder? The journey has not been a smooth one nor particularly rocky. No big traumatic events to shape my outlook on life. Nothing to plague my conscience. No great fortunes were won or lost. Life is just centred on a few blue collar jobs over the decades. Of course, there were many turning points, with the benefit of hindsight, I could have acted more prudently rather than to my detriment.

    You still have your very portable and highly-prized skills which empowers you. There is your soul mate Camilla. I have met her but a few time, she is so very precious and special. At whatever juncture or crossroads, the direction you have taken did not inhibit the blossom of your broad range of interests and intellectual pursuits. Only now, do I get to know you a little better after an absence of at least of a quarter of a century. What I see, I like.

    Comment by DL — September 2010
  4. And I seem to remember Dhog doing most of his PhD on a 12 month extension working mostly between sunset and dawn. Though a lot of non-directly thesis related stuff he did was part of the reason he got the job at Bell Labs.

    Your honours thesis was on networking theory, that was related to routing wasn't it?
    And the PhD thesis more applied and on the routing?

    Comment by David Watford — September 2010
  5. My honours thesis was in distributed algorithms. It had practical applications - the GHS Minimum Spanning Tree algorithm is used in switches - but wasn't oriented towards applications.

    Comment by danny — September 2010
  6. Your interests were always too broad!

    But yes, you probably should have gotten away sooner. All my successfully phd'd friends went and did something else first.

    But then you might never have met Camilla! So our life's path goes the way it does and good things come either way.

    I still sometimes think of dhog. I hadn't seen him for so long that it still doesn't seem quite possible that he's gone :-(

    Comment by Carol — September 2010
  7. A Ph.D. now seems to me also a narrowing down for a polymath, a most disconcerting and painful one, after several years of having to follow required courses and going through hoops of uncertain value.. Very very little that I see in the institutions where I have taught encourages extension beyond intense specialization in this era. As someone who left NZ to do a Ph.D. in Anthropology in Chicago in1969 and stayed in the US, I have supervised about forty dissertations, and the main benefit I can see from them is that students learn how to make a case, argue for it, interrogate it and draw some conclusions, Certainly you do not appear to have needed that. The focus overwhelmingly is on employment potential and that does not necessarily create a scholar or an intellectual. Usually students feel too busy to take advantage of the opportunities in a University that would expand their intellectual lives. What I appreciate about your reviews, which is the only aspect of your work that I know, is their superbly wide-ranging span, so rare and extremely valuable. I wonder if a Ph.D. would have clipped your wings from soaring so far across knowledge and literature. I am struck by the regrets about careers in the postings: Going overseas does expand one's perspectives; staying overseas raises other issues, such as exile.

    Comment by Margaret Mackenzie-Hooson — February 2011

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