PhD-ish On the Internet

TL;DR: I think it’d be possible to set up a small community on the Internet that works like a lab full of PhD students. This would enable us to have shared community on long research projects (even when not working on projects together), sounding boards, peer review, and collective mentorship, which are all good things one can find in a PhD setting. I’m wondering who else might be interested in such a program.


This is a request for comments. If you think this proposal is crazy, do let me know. I don’t claim this proposal is fully fleshed out just yet, but it’s something I wanted to ask the Internet about.

The problem statement

I do research. I do research on my own; my day job doesn’t have a research program / 20% time program, and in any case, my research tends to be outside the field of interest of a small consultancy. This means I don’t have to confirm my work to what’s currently fashionable in security research, but it comes with a problem: doing work outside of work is, well, haaaaaaard.

This is not a new result. Outside work, life exists, and can be of great interest. Life includes theatre, music, or even just wandering around. (Note: if your life includes none of these things, I suggest you try at least one of them.) It’s a perfectly valid thing to do only relaxing/entertaining things outside of work.

I like creating new things, however. Sometimes they’re small-but-fun things, like when I made an ice cube sphere cutter for my brother. Sometimes they’re large, crazed things that scare people; that project took, all told, nearly two and a half years (September 2011 - March 2014). Sometimes they’re in between, like my spending more hours than I’d like to admit on creating an HTML5/CSS3 CV that has interactive elements without JavaScript.

Keeping motivation up, however, is an issue. Also an issue: having very few people off whom I can bounce ideas, or with whom I can commiserate (for instance, swearing at JavaScript) or simply work in agreeable community.

How does academia do this?

We have an existing model for groups of people working together on independent projects: PhD programs. (Note to those of you with PhDs: I’m going to summarize, here, so I don’t pretend this description is universal. Feel free to leave correcting comments, however.) Unlike college or professional graduate programs (such as MDs, JDs, and the like), PhD programs involve few classes. Instead, a new student joins a research lab with other students in approximately the same specialty, where the student will work for several (3-7) years on several (1-5) long research projects. These projects will culminate in one long paper, the dissertation, which represents a significant contribution to the state of world knowledge on a given topic. Different disciplines do this in different ways; computer science seems to favor several smaller (say, yearlong) projects, whereas lab disciplines (like biology or Biomedical Engineering) seem to favor fewer, longer projects.

So while the students work “together” in the sense of being in approximately the same space and time, they’re working on independent research. There’s a shared community. There’s also shared mentorship; the lab leader (often called a Principal Investigator, nearly always a tenured faculty member) can provide direction, mentorship, advice, or whatever else is necessary to any or all of the students. (In a real lab, the PI is also responsible for winning the grants that fund the research; I’m going to set that aside because it’s not relevant to this discussion.)

Can we do this?

While a great friend of mine has spoken movingly on why everyone in security should consider doing PhD work, I’m not sure that’s for me right now. It’s certainly not for everyone; after all, we have jobs, careers, goals we don’t want to set aside for years. There are reasons we don’t all get PhDs.

That said, the shared community, the lightweight obligation to keep making progress (to talk about at weekly or monthly lab meetings), and the sounding board? I could definitely use that. Interacting with a group of people who are also driven by the same weird impulses I am would be great.

The proposal

I suggest that it is possible to create a PhD-like lab on the Internet. While we wouldn’t be physically in the same space, Slack provides a great “water cooler” / “random muttering” space that can be selectively ignored when one needs complete focus, or clicked over to when it’s a good moment for a break. For lab meetings, Hangouts or other video chat would suffice; it’s nice to be able to see your colleagues, even for a few minutes a week, and it helps to build that shared community (as well as the lightweight obligation to keep working I mentioned earlier).

This group could help members to keep progressing, but also provide motivation and feedback and peer review when it becomes time to explain results (whether in a whitepaper, a prestigious journal, or a conference with or without proceedings). For mentorship, rather than a single PI, a roving cast of characters who wish to at least keep a finger near research could help out; there are PhDs and other academics among us all the time, of course, and I think a few of them might be willing to give of their time.

Speaking of time: a real PhD lab is your job. It’s more than full time, and it’s your life until you’re done, one way or another. This wouldn’t be such a commitment, but certainly one would be spending a good chunk of time on their work each week. (What that would look like for each person would depend primarily on their goals.)

The call to action

There are lots more questions to be answered. Some of them include:

  • Does a person “graduate” from this program? When, and who decides?
  • Should it be allowed to grow without bounds, or should we keep it small–and if it’s going to be small, how should we let in new people? Applications? Rap battles? Something else?
  • Should it be security-focused, CS-focused, or broader? (Obviously we couldn’t support a wet lab environment–as my sister is fond of pointing out, keeping an engineering environment sterile for a long term is hard, and not yet doable in a garage–but it wouldn’t have to be only people who want to submit DEF CON talks.
  • Would it be sustainable?

For now, however, while I welcome suggestions on any of these (or other) fronts, I’m mostly curious: who else would be interested in such a group, if it existed? You’d only commit to continuing to do your own research, and it’s not like we’re collecting tuition to hang over your head (no sunk cost fallacies here). If you think this could be worthwhile, though, leave a comment below, or email me: bfo @ ussjoin dot com.

For my part, I think I’ve got some Raspberries Pi that need weeding….