product designer, cyclist, armchair urbanist

Personal PhD

I'm always tweaking my approaches to learning. With goals like mine (goals towards becoming skilled at writing and designing software), I find that I need mental frameworks for hanging my learning on.

It's usually *lifestyle* constraints not *cognitive* decline that makes hard-core learning slower for many adults. Two words: Practice Time.— Seriouspony (@seriouspony) April 29, 2014

Right now, my mental framework for learning is simple. In addition to squeezing everything I can out of my job, I have one or two difficult skills I plan to master. To achieve mastery, I'm strategically working on side projects that force me to learn these skills. Nothing fancy. I just try to write some code for these projects every day... and embrace the chaotic, robust learning that happens as I build a real product.

I've been tossing around another learning framework. It's slightly more complicated than my "just build stuff" model, but it's intriguing.

What if I treated the next 2 years of my career as if I were pursuing my doctorate? I could call this a "personal PhD": a system of intense personal learning toward the pursuit of my goals.


I'm at about the right age. I'm 24 years old—I'll be 25 soon. It's not uncommon for students my age to be in the middle of, or beginning the pursuit of their postgraduate doctorate work. I'm far enough along in my work that I know precisely what I intend to focus on, yet not so far that I'm unwilling to adapt if neccessary.

Note: This is just a curiosity. If you're 30 or 40 years old, undertaking a self-taught PhD program is still absolutely within your reach! I'm not concerned about age. I just find it interesting that if I were pursuing a real PhD, I might actually be doing it now.

It puts me in the proper frame of mind. I expect school to be grueling, because I expect to learn. If I'm in the mindset that I'm expending significant resources (time, money, brainpower) in the pursuit of my goal, I might be more likely to adopt a "deep learning" mindset.

Thinking about learning this way gives me helpful language to use. Under the Personal PhD approach, I have some really descriptive words at my disposal:

  • Study. I need to study. In my world, this means reading (technical books, articles, and lectures) and practicing (making stuff—writing code, designing experiences). I like this word. It's a different angle on words like "hacking" or "programming" or "building". Study. Extended periods of focused, difficult practice. This time isn't optional. It's crucial to survival at the institution.
  • Degree. I work toward something with a finite end. Give this a start date and an end date. Enjoy the monument of accomplishment at the end.
  • School. It's not work. It's school, and I'm a student. This re-frames my discussions with my family and friends. I'm learning and growing—not whiling away time by focusing on myself. No one ever thinks of working hard at school as time selfishly spent. Everyone thinks of it as an investment.
  • Dissertation. I amass an impressive body of work during this short, intense, focused time period. I do significant "research", and I build something of merit. I'm working to push the limits of my field. I provide value by creating.
  • Graduation. There's a cutoff. I'll need to make sacrifices to get to this day. But it's an investment I'm willing to make, since I believe that it's for the eventual improvement of my family's lives.


I'm still in the early stages of working this out. In the meantime, here are a few ideas on how I might implement this:

  • Define a start and ending date. Stick to it. Two years, four years—whatever.
  • What's my thesis? What am I working toward?
  • Lay out the cirriculum. Read, but practice twice or three times as much. All of this is "study"—but since computer skills are best learned by trying, it needs to be heavy on building. The curriculum should probably be a bit chaotic. I should set myself up for exploration and change.
  • My workspace matters. Study is sacred, so I need the right spot do so. In school, I'd use the library, or my quiet room. Where can I go to have a long chunk of quiet, distraction-free time?

I think there's potential here, at least as a thought exercise. I'm a little afraid that the rigid structure would be difficult to maintain. I'm a little afraid that I'd get lost in the implementation of the learning framework at the expense of actual learning.

But I love the way it feels in my brain. I love the paths it carves out for me. There's something here I like.

What do you think? Would this model be helpful for you? How do you approach learning? Let's talk!