My PhD Journey

June 29, 2017

by LIOR ZOREF @lior

The American writer Rita Brown once wrote that the recipe for happiness is very simple: someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. Seven years ago, at the midst of my 40-year-old crisis, I went through this checklist. I had someone to love, I had something to do, but what did I look forward to? What are my dreams?

Thus began my PhD journey towards achieving my doctorate.

This post concludes my seven-years journey, from the moment I left a long career until the completion of my doctorate. What is a doctorate? What crises would I encounter on the way? What do you actually learn? Where can you find the most beautiful sunsets in the world?

But before moving forward with all of this, a few words about the doctoral dissertation itself. The work is supervised by Prof. David Passig in the Department of Education at Bar-Ilan University. It’s written in Hebrew, but the abstract at the end and is written in English. You are welcome to download it.

Here is a link to download my PhD dissertation (English version starts at page 146).

And now, my journey and the insights I have accumulated along the way.


Mid-life crisis

The most difficult phase began long before formal studies began. Every long journey begins with fear, and my PhD journey was no exception. Here is a short excerpt from my book, Mindsharing, in which I described the 40-year-old crisis that led me to my doctorate:

It all started with a mid-life crisis.

It was the summer of 2008, and I had just celebrated my thirty-eighth birthday. Life was exactly as it should be. I had a successful career at Microsoft, an incredible wife, Ayala, and two amazing children, Maya and Ori. Life was comfortable and my daily routine was spent balancing a demanding career in the high-tech industry with the demands of raising two young children and spending time with my family. I hadn’t had a life full of many adventures. I had gone to work for Microsoft immediately after graduating as a computer science engineer. Technically, I was still in my first full-time job. Was this it? Had I made all my big life choices already, and was there nothing left to do, to accomplish, or to reach for?

Then I started thinking about turning forty. If you have just turned thirty-eight, take my advice: don’t start ruminating about turning forty. Or do. It depends on just how quickly you wish to completely upend your comfortable life. On that day, I started thinking how far I had come from that scared, awkward boy who spent his days alone in his room. And then I started in with the questioning. Had I achieved everything I wanted to achieve before I turned forty? What was left for me? What was still ahead for me in the second part of my life?

I thought about an old dream I had of getting a PhD and felt my heart begin to beat faster. This is my sure sign that whatever I am thinking about is something I need to do. Some people hear ringing in their ears. Some people begin to sweat. For me, a rapid heartbeat is a sign to pay attention.

What do you secretly dream about that makes your heart beat so loud and so fast you simply can’t ignore it?

It took me two years of thinking about this dream, talking it over with my wife, friends, and colleagues, before I decided to retire from Microsoft and begin pursuing my PhD in education, with an emphasis and dissertation on crowd wisdom. All of this happened before my fortieth birthday. My mid-life crisis was complete.

I began to think about where to study and who could be my advisor. My first option was Professor David Passig. His lectures and books fascinated me. I knew him superficially from a number of lectures I had invited him to deliver at Microsoft. I called him, told him about my desire to study for a doctorate, and asked if he would agree to meet.

He invited me to a meeting and I arrived with great enthusiasm. The enthusiasm disappeared very quickly. It was a difficult meeting that left me depressed. He spent a great deal of time describing to me how much doctoral studies would not be what I thought they were. How many difficulties there would be in the way, how long the journey is, how much effort a PhD requires. He concluded by saying, “What do you need this headache for?”

I left with a sinking feeling. Maybe I should give up. Maybe it’s not for me. Maybe I’ll look for another supervisor. Ugh.

For the next two years I searched and searched. I spoke with over 20 professors and doctoral students, from Israel and abroad, in the hope of finding the right advisor, and today I understand how important these two years were.

At the end of two years, not only did I not find another supervisor, the opposite happened. I was only strengthened by the motivation to learn and the feeling that there was only one supervisor I really wanted: Prof. Passig.

After two years, I went back to him and told him: “It cannot be helped. I want you to be my advisor.”

He smiled and replied, “Now you’re ready.”

Now, after getting my doctorate, I understand that choosing Professor Passig as my advisor was the most important decision I made. From every encounter with him, I learned and left with a spark in my eyes. I feel fortunate and grateful for the privilege that I was given to undergo this journey under his guidance.

WhatsApp Image 2017-06-28 at 19.05.54

For anyone considering studying towards a PhD, your advisor, in my opinion, is one of if not the most important consideration. The long period of time required in order to find the right advisor is not only to ensure an ideal doctoral study but also in order to mature and be prepared to embark on the long journey ahead.

Not long ago, I heard a beautiful sentence:

“Easy choices, hard life; hard choices, easy life”, Jerzy Gregorek

It was time for me to make a tough decision. I decided to retire from Microsoft, focus on my studies, and later to develop an independent career in the field I studied. I returned my leased car, the keys to my office, my laptop, and – most importantly – the sense of security I had working for a good company with a lucrative monthly salary, and I became a student. At the same time, I began teaching MBA students at a private college. I decided to learn and teach at the same time, and I hope to continue on this path my whole life.

The decision to devote most of my attention to research was the most challenging step I took in my PhD journey. This is the most frightening phase. Fear accosted me from all sides. Fear of earning a living (with 2 small children and a mortgage). Fear from the academic challenge. Perhaps the biggest fear was actually the question, “Who am I, if not Lior from Microsoft?”

I found comfort in having completed my master’s degree with a thesis so that I could immediately begin my doctoral studies (in Israel, anyone who has a master’s degree without a thesis can explore the possibility of studying for a thesis track and then pursuing a doctorate).


2011: Discovering the ‘wisdom of the crowd’

Prof. Passig asked me to attend the courses he was taking and at the same time we began to meet to think about the field I was going to investigate. The courses were fascinating. I was thrilled by every meeting. Each time we met in person, he would go to his book-laden coffers, chose one of them, and say, “I think you should read this book.”

So I read. And I read. Then I read more. We discussed various areas of knowledge, interesting research problems, the fields that interested me, and the areas that interested him. At one of the meetings, he presented me with James Sorowitsky’s The Wisdom of Crowds. Wisdom of crowds is a process in which groups of individuals act collectively in ways that seem collectively intelligent. The most notable example is Wikipedia.

From the first moment I began reading the book, I realized that this was the area of knowledge that most interested me. The book described the phenomena leading to the advent of social networks, and all my senses were leading me to choose this field.

“It will take you at least 5 years to complete your doctorate, so do not look for a research question that will be interesting only for the next five years,” I was told.

The next few months were full of reading and deliberating about the research question.

At this stage, I understood the difference between a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctoral degree. This chart prepared by Matt Might (link to detailed description), to my mind, best describes this difference:

I looked for the limits of knowledge and wondered what was important to investigate; what new knowledge might be valuable in the next 20 years? Many hours of reading books and articles ensued.

I wandered around my favorite places in Tel Aviv, such as the promenade, Neve Tzedek, or Rothschild Blvd., and sat down on a bench (or a deckchair in the case of Rothschild Blvd.) and read.

For the first time in my life I became a book worm.


2012-2013: The twist

Writing a research proposal is the main stage of the doctorate, and some say that it is also the most difficult of all the stages in writing the dissertation.

Before going into detail, however, a small confession: when I enrolled in my doctoral studies, it became clear to me that my advisor and mentor was a part of the education department. After two science degrees from the Technion (the Israeli MIT, in a sense), what did I have to do with education? For a long time I was ashamed to say that I was studying in the Department of Education. As if it were something inferior.

How wrong I was.

Throughout my studies, I found an increasing interest in education. The two highest areas of research, in my opinion, are life science and education. Today I am proud that my doctorate is from the Education Department. I found my destiny.

Back to the research proposal. For months, I wondered what my research question should be. A good research question should describe the field of knowledge, the problem, and the main issue examined.

Then comes writing the research proposal, writing an extensive literature review, and forming a detailed plan for everything that will be done in the research. The research proposal is actually the recipe for everything that will be done later. Therefore, this is a long and complex stage. It includes readings of hundreds of studies and books. Academic writing of a detailed research proposal is then carried out. If a doctorate turns a person into an expert, this is the stage where the expertise begins to be built.

Writing takes a long time. Dozens and even hundreds of drafts. Long months of writing and editing. Like writing the book, here, too, I have done a great deal of writing off the Tel Aviv coast. I found inspiration in beautiful sunsets on the most beautiful beaches in the world (well, except perhaps for the beaches of Hawaii).

At the same time as writing the research proposal, I passed the courses required of every doctoral student. It’s a relatively small number of courses: a few completions, a course on academic writing, statistics, and a few more. Two hours a week for several years. Hard work, to be sure, but not insurmountable.

During this period, there was a turning point in the journey, which was a sign of my interest in the subject I had chosen for my doctorate. The doctorate led me to deliver a lecture at TED (full story appears here).

Immediately after I gave the TED talk, I started a parallel journey in writing my book, Mindsharing. Again, a wonderful sign that I had made the right choice about a subject that not only fascinated me but which has now become my primary profession.


2014: The Fall

The research proposal is sent to be judged by two readers from the university and then to two external judges. It is requested of the judges that they give comments and feedback for the amendment and improvement of the research proposal and then approve it.

The internal judges approved my research proposal, but then came my first major setback. After a few months waiting for the opinion of the external judges, I received a letter saying: “I cannot recommend its approval.” I read this over and over and refused to believe it.

The judge presented two main arguments (followed by a long list of additional comments). His main remark was substantial. The judge believed that wisdom of crowds applies only to measurable things, while my proposal suggested examining a complex qualitative question. The famous example of the ox’s weight has been widely publicized, so there are those who think that the wisdom of the crowds only applies to quantitative questions, such as the weight of an ox or the amount of candies in a jar. In reality, however, it turns out to be quite the opposite. Hundreds of studies show how collective intelligence works for qualitative problems such as writing entries in an encyclopedia or solving complex problems.

At this stage, I wrote a letter of reply in which I reviewed dozens of studies that examined the phenomenon in non-quantitative problems. The letter of reply was the size of a full research proposal and the process of writing it took about six months.

To my delight, a few months later, the research proposal was approved.

Before submitting my final research proposal, I found myself reading the text dozens of times, correcting it over and over again, sending the text for proofreading and more. This is the least glamorous stage of writing a PhD dissertation but it is necessary. The constant improvement makes the text more coherent.

In parallel with the periods of time during which I waited for the approval of my research proposal, I was preparing to launch my book in the US – another wonderful journey I was fortunate to experience.

2015: Dissertation writing

One of the biggest challenges in quantitative research is recruiting enough volunteers to participate in a study. Most PhD students spend months or even years finding suitable participants, carrying out the research process, and completing long questionnaires.

Happily and surprisingly, this process was easy for me. I posted a few Facebook statuses with a request for volunteers to participate in my research. In less than a month, the list was filled and I was able to set out on the experiment.

At this point, I fell in love with research. I enjoyed every minute. I enjoyed collecting data, analyzing them, giving them meaning, writing, thinking, explaining, correcting, and explaining again and again. I enjoyed all the previous stages, but this stage was the pinnacle of the work for me. I now felt my work was meaningful and hoped it would be valuable to others as well.

The last course in the degree was “Thinking Methods for PhD Students,” a vague name that hides a fascinating subject – the history and philosophy of research. This course was taught by Prof. Dvora Kurt. It was one of the most fascinating courses I went through among all the courses in all the degrees I have studied. What is the role of research? What are the approaches to research? Who are the people who led the significant breakthroughs in research? What is academic courage?

Each student was asked to present a short lecture of about 20 minutes on his or her research field. My lecture went from 20 minutes to an hour and a half. At the end, a few students came to me and said, “We did not imagine that a doctorate could be so fascinating and important.” This course led me to suggest that the wisdom of crowds should be accepted as a scientific theory. It’s hard for me to describe how excited I was to write this part. Writing was one of the highlights of my entire journey.

One can make a parallel between doctorate and pregnancy. Although acquiring PhD takes longer, in both cases it leads to a birth . The birth of a baby and the birth of a dissertation. A first child turns us into parents. A first book makes us authors. A PhD makes us experts and researchers. Some women say they thrive during pregnancy and there are other women who find it an extremely difficult time. The same is true of a PhD. I met with students who chose to talk mainly about the many difficulties along the way. I must admit that most of the time I enjoyed this journey. Even in the difficult stages, it was the difficulties that taught me and developed me most of all.


2016: Submission and repairs

After hundreds of rounds of reading and corrections, it was time to submit the work for external judgment. The waiting is exciting and frightening. After so many years, it becomes time to introduce your newborn research and see what experts think about it.

Each dissertation is sent to two external judges. The judges are asked to review, send comments for correction, and, when they see fit, approve it.

About six months after the work was submitted, I received the judges’ responses. I was very excited to see that one of the judges had written that my work was sweeping, interesting, profound, and important.

The second judge’s answers included a long list of comments and requests for correction. I immediately sat down to make all the revisions as best I could.

Admittedly, this was the first time I thought to myself, “Enough, I’m tired of it.” Again go through all the text, again add and correct, again verify results with a statistician and then find out that one is not available, search for another statistician, send for further editing. By now I had reached the point where I wanted to be done. But there was no other way around it. After a few more months of hard work, I submitted the corrections for another judgment and waited patiently.

At the same time, I went through a wonderful time during which I was invited to launch my book in South Korea, the Netherlands, China, and other places. Once again, I realized how much the subject I had chosen was important and how much it was gaining interest around the world.


2017: The journey comes to an end

On May 2nd, 2017, I received an email from the university entitled “Confirmation of my PhD”.

I submitted a final copy and began filling out my exit papers – a process that reminded me of my last day at Microsoft. I moved with the form from building to building collecting signatures and felt joy mixed with sadness.

Albert Einstein said: “I like to travel, but I hate to arrive.”

Suddenly, I realized I had arrived. After almost 20 years, throughout which I had been a student in some way or another, now I wasn’t a student any more. I sat in the cafeteria in the center of the campus, drinking coffee, looking around sadly. I realized that this was the first time I had sat there so calmly. Until that day, whenever I’d bought something in the cafeteria, I immediately kept going to the next place where I should be. But now I arrived at the destination.

At the Technion, I learned to stretch the limits of my intellectual ability. At my BSc, I had learned how much I love to learn, to take a short break from work, enter a campus I love so much, and study. I’ll share with you my key learning during my PhD soon. But as I filled out the form, I realized that I was no longer a student.

A short while later, a letter arrived in the mail containing a certificate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

A 7-year journey ended with one piece of A4 paper.

As I read this letter I decided to write this post. The certificate is less important than the journey itself. I wrote this post in order to remember hoping it will give my children an opportunity to read when they grow up and perhaps consider studying for a PhD themselves. I also wrote it hoping it will offer an encouragement and maybe some advice to anyone considering going after a PhD.

Finally, here’s what I learned on this journey:

Studying towards a doctorate (and in every major challenge in life), we have to choose a mentor who inspires us, someone who fascinates us. In my case it was Prof. Passig. I could not have made a better choice.

Do you know Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hours rule? “In order to become an expert in a particular subject, it is necessary to spend about 10,000 hours.” I did not count the amount of time I spent in my doctorate, but as for 10,000 hours, this sounds reasonable to me.

I learned how much I enjoy quantitative research. Perform an experiment, collect data, and give it a meaning. The intellectual challenge of writing large-scale academic paper is fascinating.

A doctorate is a long journey. There are things in life that take a long time, and rightly so. This is why, the longer the journey is, the greater the feeling of satisfaction at the end.

We have a duty towards our parents. Take care of them and make them proud of us. This is what I wish for my children to do when the time comes. My dream of studying for a doctorate was also borne due to the importance my parents gave to academic studies. I’m glad they got to see me finishing my doctorate and maybe got some more satisfaction.


Dr. Lior Tsoref

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