The Story Of My Ph.D.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t go to the postgraduate school for my Ph.D. First, I could not afford to go for several years on the postgrad stipend instead of salary, and second, it wasn’t easy to get in. I do not even remember whether it was Boris or I who first came up with the idea that I should go for a Ph.D., in some sense, both wanted it to happen.  

I registered with the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics and became “an aspirant.” For the benefit of the Russian-speakers, the Russian word aspirant means “a postgraduate student,” and a Russian word “soiskatel” means “an aspirant.” Super-confusing, I know 🙂

So, I became an aspirant, and then my timeline was entirely up to me. I didn’t have to attend any classes, except for if I felt I need it to pass the qualification exams. I had to pass four of them: English, Philosophy, Speciality One (which was Computer Science for me), and Speciality Two (which was Data Management).

I registered in 1989, and the only exam I passed before Vlad and Anna were born was English. For our English exam, we had to “submit thousands.” If you do not know what it is about, you will never guess. We had to take any book, or books, or journal articles related to our specialty, computer science, in my case. There was an official estimate of how many characters are there on each page, and we had to be ready with something like fifty pages. The examiner could open the book on any page and ask us to read a paragraph and to translate it. Also, we had to prepare several newspaper pages, and they had to be actual US or British newspapers, not Moscow News. Only the Communist Party newspapers were available, so in my case, usually, it would be “The Morning Star.”

In winter 1993-1994, I attended a philosophy class. I have zero recollection of how I passed the exam, but I did. I remember that it was extremely odd to take my Computer Science exams since I worked at the University lab and since everybody knew about our inappropriate relationships. But by the beginning of 1995, I passed all exams and was ready to defend my thesis.

The work was there. The research and development were done by that time. I started that research almost immediately after I returned to work after my maternity leave. All four of us: Boris, Yuri, myself, and Irina, worked on different parts of that project, which can be best described as developing our data management system, starting from the lowest level. I wrote the said lowest level – buffers management. 

When I was still employed by Urbansoft, I asked John to bring me a book on transactions theory, and I said I would pay for it. It cost fifty dollars, which is not a small sum for a book, but back then, it was approximately a quarter of what John paid to me monthly. I think he was shocked when I paid with no hesitation. 

I read that book, and I learned about non-standard transaction models, like nested transactions. I then came across a paper by C. Mohan, in which he described that relatively new write-ahead logs techniques. I was excited that so many things that interested me could be combined and enjoyed the project. 

Even putting my results on paper was not difficult, since I had the material. Speaking about writing, I understand that it is hard to believe, but I actually wrote my Ph.D. Thesis! With a pen on paper! And then, from February to May, it was all about “getting the paperwork done.”

By that time, Boris was through several thesis defenses of his students, and he had a system that he shared with me. 

Following his advice, I made a list of processes I had to complete, and for each process, I put down specific tasks, and if all became a complicated flow chart. Without it, it could take me a year! Having this chart, I was never idle; I always knew which process I need to speed up, and what I can do next, while I am waiting for yet another signature. In short, getting all this done was a full-time job!

I was supposed to submit an autobiography when I was registering with the Scientific Council – a body that was assigning degrees. And if you think that it is just another name for CV, let me tell you that it was not. We had to submit autobiographies each time we were applied to any new job or any educational institution. We had to include information about our parents, date, place of birth, nationality(!), marital status, spouse’s information, children, and more. I handed my bio to the secretary along with other papers, and next time I came to check on the progress, she shook her head: all is good, but why, why are you not married?! This question haunted me throughout the whole process. On the day of defense, the council chair read my biography aloud, pausing before saying: “And we also learn that the aspirant is not married and has three children.”  

Back then, and many years later, I considered all these comments a usual academic lounging for gossip. And only several years ago, after reading some fiction related to that period, it suddenly occurred to me that the reason was different. I asked Boris: “Did they all think that you wrote my Ph.D. thesis for me?” He said – yes. Now that I think about it, there was a common stereotype of a female aspirant using her feminine powers to get better grades. Ironically, Boris was demanding from me way more than from any of his aspirants or students. Whatever I produced had to be perfect. Fortunately, it didn’t occur to me back then. The work was mine, and it was good work. I spoke flawlessly, and I knew what I was talking about. 

There was still more paperwork to be completed after the defense. The degree had to be approved at the Central Qualification Commission in Moscow. One of the pieces of information which had to be submitted was a typed transcript of the defense. There were very few people who could do that, and there was one stenographer/typist, whom I had to contact. That was the closest to the horror movie story; she was an alcoholic, and lived in the middle of nowhere, and didn’t answer her phone. It took me several trips to this middle of nowhere to get all the stuff done, and I never felt as helpless as then. 

All of that was happening in parallel with our Bank Saint Petersburg gig, and I still do not know how I made it all work. My Ph.D. diploma finally arrived; I got that insane money from the Bank. And you will never believe what I decided to do with that money! I decided to take kids to Poland! Why to Poland, and how it all happened – that will be coming next. 

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

2 thoughts on “The Story Of My Ph.D.

  1. This is so interesting! I knew many parts of this story, but it never occurred to me to wonder the about the how and why of the Poland trip. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t you think though that it was a pretty crazy way to spend money when not all of the basic needs were met:)?


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