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I have a master's degree in Computer Science. I have applied to PhD programs, and decisions are trickling in. I may soon have to choose between two or more PhD programs.

Unfortunately, I have diverse interests. I was advised that a successful PhD application is usually quite specific, so I made each of my applications very specific. I wrote to a professor working in decision making (AI), another working in computational learning theory, another working in computer music, another working in quantum & parallel computing, another working in logical foundations & philosophy of computation. With much enthusiasm, I informed each professor that I was interested in pursuing a PhD in his / her field. This is true. I am interested in each of these fields, and know something about each of them. When advised to apply, I did.

The problem is - being interested in each of these fields also means that I'm interested in all of them. (There are more areas of CS I'm interested in. What's worse - my interests are not even restricted to CS. For the purposes of this post, I'm restricting myself to only the mentioned areas.) So when I choose between PhD programs, I'm choosing between completely different areas - and that is surely going to be excruciating.

This is not a case of not knowing my 'true interest' now, only to discover it later. I have no 'true interest'. I have always pursued numerous unrelated things in parallel. I love all my interests equally. In fact, I love the feeling of 'being interested' more than the interests themselves. Whenever I've tried to restrict myself to one topic of study - even for a month - that feeling is lost, and I am quickly bored. As a result, my skill-set is a classic case of a jack of all trades - master of none. The worst part is - everybody knows that a PhD is about getting deep into one specific topic. It's not about breadth - it's about depth. Even if I were to choose one of the PhD programs (and I must choose one), I have a feeling that I might get bored quickly and be prone to constant topic-changing / transferring. Again, this is not about being fickle - it's about following my heart, and my heart takes me to different things at different times.

Do you think I'm likely to fail / never complete my PhD? Does anyone have any advice about dealing with diverse interests? Has anyone felt the same way and dealt with it? I'd love to hear from you.

1 Answer 1

I found your question today. I also have "diverse interests". Worse, my interests are more diverse than yours. I am interested in quantum physics, in biology, in history, in computer, in mathematics, in electronics, in music, etc.

Your problem is just in what JeffE had found: "Whenever I've tried to restrict myself to one topic of study - even for a month - that feeling is lost, and I am quickly bored". I get bored after a month of intense reading, or after half a year of leisure reading. It might be with the "instant gratification" vs "delayed gratification" kind of thing. Picking low hanging fruits in a new field is exciting. Having to do hard work for difficult fruits is boring. You might even have procrastination if my theory is right.

I worry that you might not be able to finish your Ph.D, like me. I chose one of the above as my Ph.D direction and I lost interest in reading boring (difficult?) papers and spent easy time in other fields. My GPA was good, I had no problem to pass exams. I just did not want to read those boring papers (the truth was that they were more "difficult papers" than "boring papers") in the field. I finally dropped out after years of struggling and got a job with my master's degree. Today, a day I find out that I am reading in parallel many materials on diverse topics at the same time, I decided to google and found your question.

If you can't focus, it might be better for you to get a job with your master's degree in CS and live an everyday Joe's life, like what I am doing now. On the other hand, if you can untwist your mind so that you realize that life is difficult, research is difficult, and doing difficult work is unavoidable, you might be able to escape being bored ( Now you know it is not about being bored, it is about being unable to face difficult problems for delayed gratification), you may be able to survive your Ph.D life.

[Update after 3 years] Today I found this answer made by me three years ago. I can tell you what I have done to overcome the problem. I am proud of myself as an amateur scientist that I have focused on one narrow field unrelated to all my previous interests for three whole years and got deep understanding of it. I almost dropped all my other hobbies and interests. How?

The first reason why I can make this change to my style was three years ago I suddenly realized that the old saying that we used only 5% (or 10%) of our brain capacity thus we had enormous capacity for learning was a lie. This is easily seen if you believe in evolution (why keep an energy hungry giant brain if there is no need). The truth is we have limited memory capacity. Don't jam garbage information in it! The second reason is somehow related ---- Those highly respected big figures in the past had limited brain capacity too! I believe if a person with good IQ and required education spends 10 years (sometimes 3 years) focusing on on topic, he can surpass almost all past and existing experts in the field, except for maybe one or two greatest.

With this second reason in mind (Most great figures are average Joe's themselves) I think I have made a discovery in a field I once was interested in. I have to pick it up and set aside my current main focus for a while (maybe as long as a year). Hope the above two reasons can help some people here.