Experiences,  IIITD,  StudentGiri,  Students

My PhD journey … up, down, and then up

A PhD journey is never easy, and it becomes even more difficult when you are doing it alongside a regular faculty job at IGDTUW. But, there are many factors that have helped me sail through in this journey.

The first factor is my PhD advisor (‘PK’ as he likes himself to be called, without the ‘Sir’). This in itself should give you a sense of his humility and down-to-earth attitude. He has been extremely understanding to me all throughout this amazing journey. He is one among those who has dedicated his life to academics. In this journey, I have had so much to learn from him, not just the technical paths, but most importantly the academic life lessons. It has been a phenomenal journey and I feel grateful and extremely privileged that he is my advisor.

The second factor that helped me immensely is the wonderful support I got from my family. Everyone offered their bit and offloaded many tasks only to ensure that I spend quality time in my PhD studies. My parents have always been supportive right from my childhood days. My wife would tirelessly work to ensure I get my time to study. My son, born during the midst of my PhD journey, would always help in easing the pressure and stress with his innocence.

The third factor that kept me going is my interest in teaching. Whatever I would learn in my PhD journey, again not just the technical skills, but also time tested practices of ‘PK’ of leading a research group (‘Precog’) successfully, I would try in my teaching and my guidance to students. And the positive feedback from my students kept me going.

Coming back to my PhD journey chronologically …

I met PK for the first time when I invited him as one of the guests to speak in the valedictory ceremony of summer workshop 2012. Back then, I was not too inclined towards social media. My interest in social media developed when I was guiding a talented bunch of masters students in the first batch of MTech (Information Security) 2013-15 at IGDTUW. In 2014, along with my students, I visited IIITD and we showcased our projects and learnt from the projects being done at Precog. I attended the Security & Privacy Symposium 2015, and by this time, I was quite sure to work in the domain of security and privacy in Online Social Media. So, I prepared hard for the PhD entrance exam, qualified and started my PhD with PK.

Thus, I started my PhD journey in 2015, I was happy and at the same time worried, because I was going back to the classroom as a student after a long time. The initial research problem that I explored, was to work on the idea of organizational or individual privacy score. After a lot of digging into literature and trying out a couple of directions, I realized it was quite a hard problem, so conveyed to ‘PK’ that things would be difficult to move in this problem. I was also doing the course on ‘Security and Privacy in Online Social Media (PSOSM)’, and was working on a course project on identifying inappropriate video content. I continued to work on the same problem, resulting in a couple of publications in PST 2016 and SAC 2019. With PST 2016, I had my first international travel to the beautiful city of Auckland, New Zealand.

In parallel, I also started working on another problem which would eventually go on to become my focus problem in my PhD thesis. It was the problem of linking user identities across social networks. Initially, I began exploring this problem as an extension to the work done by Paridhi (PK’s PhD student), and got a lot of help from her. We published a paper on linkability nudge where the key idea was to help users control linkability of their profiles across social networks, which got accepted in SocInfo 2017, and I got the opportunity to present the work at Oxford University. I got very good feedback at the conference which motivated me to pursue further in the direction of this problem.

But, then comes the next year 2018. It was the year of the dilemma. I was simultaneously working on two problems side by side, one the video related and another user linkability, with very little overlap / connection among them. And I had one publication in each of these two broad problems. The good thing I could manage was to continue to work in both the problem threads, and was hoping for one to give better results. But this strategy of sailing in two boats was not working, I knew that I was not able to devote my best to both the problems. Consequently, year 2018 I had no publications, and there were back to back rejections.

Realizing that it is not going to work this way, after a lot of thinking, I discussed with ‘PK’ and decided to lay more weight on the user linkability problem. I relooked and strengthened the data that we had collected and revamped the work done on identity detection. Besides the data collection and identity detection work, I started working on two new ideas under the theme of user linkability. The first idea was inspired from the dataset biases in image datasets. So, I asked the question, if different image datasets exhibit biases, then why not explore biases in the datasets obtained from different data collection methods to collect ground truth linked user identities? To this end, I started reading about biases and discrimination literature and was able to detect dataset biases in user identity datasets as well. The second idea was to make a contribution at solving the user identity linkage problem using a better methodology. To this end, I started reading and understanding network embedding approaches, and proposed a novel framework to link user identities across social networks by modifying node2vec embeddings. I was quite satisfied with both of these works.

Finally in the year 2019, things started to turn around. Every work submitted got accepted at different places SocialCom 2019, MIKE 2019, SAC 2020, and NetSci-X 2020. To add to it, my application for Summer School on Computational Social Science at Berlin, Germany was accepted with a full travel grant. And our team won the best project award in the school. From the back to back rejections, to back to back acceptances, that is what just a year can do to you. Year 2019 was also the year of international travel which continued till Jan 2020. Perhaps, in hindsight, it was as if the almighty had destined me to travel before the Covid-19 pandemic struck like no other pandemic has affected us before. I travelled to Cyprus, Germany, China, and Japan in April 2019, July 2019, Dec 2019, and Jan 2020, respectively. So, if you love travelling, and like working on challenging research problems, then take a ride on this journey called ‘PhD Life’ 🙂

With PK, post my Ph.D. thesis defense!