This is guest post by Juan Castro (@_jpcastrog_). He holds a PhD in Artificial Intelligence (AI) from the University of Nottingham. After his PhD, he worked as a research associate at the same university. Juan is now the co-founder of Writefull, an application that helps you improve your academic writing. You can find Juan on LinkedIn.
I completed my PhD in Computer Science at the University of Nottingham. While I enjoyed doing research and I felt motivated to write a good thesis, I also felt the need to do something on the side. I wanted to start a side project, something that would force me to take a break from my PhD now and then. I wanted to develop something that had nothing to do with my thesis, and if possible, something that would be of help to myself and other PhD students.
It wasn’t hard for me to decide on the aim of the application: it was going to help people with their writing. I often struggled with writing myself – every new thesis chapter to write felt like a mountain to climb. And I was one of many PhD students feeling like this. While some enjoyed writing, most dreaded the part where they had to write their chapters, even postponing it as long as possible, until the whole thesis had to be written up in just a month or even less.
So yes, the app would focus on academic writing. And I decided that it would be called Writefull. That much was clear.
But how could an application help students with their writing? I thought of what I usually did when I wasn’t sure about my writing: I would check phrases on Google to see how frequently they occurred and how they were used. I did this intuitively. If ‘complex problem’ yields more results than ‘complicated problem’, it’s a more widely accepted form, and I should probably go with that one. Talking to other PhD students, I found out that more of them used this approach. When I asked them if they would like me to develop an app in which they could do these searches more easily and quickly, they all said YES.
And so I started my project. I first developed the most basic part, which shows the frequency of phrases on Google. I sent it to a few of my friends, who loved it. They even asked me to give the app more functions: there was more information they would like to see, besides just frequency. They wanted to see what might be the best way to complete a phrase (for example: which verb do I use in the sentence ‘This study has … that’?), and what synonyms would be appropriate to use in a phrase (for example: can I use ‘increasing concern’ instead of ‘growing concern’?). I appreciated getting their feedback. I felt like it enriched my app: this way it would offer what writers really needed.To make sure that the options I was adding really ‘made sense’, I also talked to a few PhD students from the university’s School of English. They were enthusiastic about the idea behind the app and helped me to think of other functions that (second language) writers might find useful. They also advised me to look into the field of Corpus Linguistics, which they thought could help me to come up with additional functions. Reading into this field, I soon learned that we can analyse databases of language not only to find out what is correct or not, but also to reveal how language differs based on variables such as formality, tone and genre. I found this very interesting and thought of the ways in which such information about linguistic patterns could inform our writing. Of course, if I was to develop a writing app, I had to critically think about what kind of language I would use to define ‘correct’ writing.
The more I learned about Corpus Linguistics, the more I realised that I was merging this field with my own field of Computer Science. Of course I wouldn’t have been able to develop the app without my skills as a computer scientist, but content-wise the app heavily draws from the field of Corpus Linguistics. This interdisciplinary focus only motivated me more to keep developing. While I had always seen this app as an excuse to take a break from the PhD, it now felt so even more, for it was pushing me to dive into a field that was completely new to me.
As I said, it’s now about two years ago that I finished my PhD. Although I still like research, and still consider myself a researcher, I now devote all of my working hours to this application. What started off as a side project during my PhD has actually become my job. Of course, this is thanks to people liking and using the app – but I have also made this my job because I truly enjoy working on it.
Of course not everybody can develop an application during their PhD. But I guess that the main point I want to make with this blog is not ‘Develop an app’, but ‘Start a side project’. And if possible, pick a side project that has absolutely nothing to do with your PhD. Pick a side project in a new field, one that requires you to read into new topics and meet new people. And, for the extra motivation, one that helps people around you, so you can see the contribution that it makes. Who knows, if you pick a project you really like, you might end up doing it for a living.