Saturday, July 15, 2006

My PhD Scholarship Application

Here's my PhD scholarship application, from early 2004.

Looking at its content, it does feel quite personal. Largely, I think, because it's so focused on selling myself. Not that I mind it having that focus, as that's what the application required, but it feels a bit funny putting it online.

So why have I? In part because this is the kind of thing I would be interested in seeing if someone else did it. Also because I spent all that time writing it, so it also feels a bit funny keeping it tucked away in a drawer.

I often get asked what my PhD research is about, and it always frustrates me that I can't give a very articulate answer - so this may help a bit for that. Even though two years have passed now, it still provides a pretty accurate description of what I'm doing.

Thanks goes out to the following people. To Bob Colomb for his assistance with the application. To my dad for proofreading the first draft of the application. To Karen Henrickson for helping out on short notice and proofreading the second draft. To Trevor Chorvat for insight into the sorts of things the people evaluating the application would be looking for. And to Zoran Milosevic for giving me the flexibility and support at work that helped make it possible for me to get it done.

Academic Merit and Research Potential

I believe my academic performance demonstrates a strong research potential, in terms of both my overall honours grades and my performance in the most significant research component of the degree, the honours dissertation.

My first semester studying honours was affected by illness, and while I successfully applied for special consideration for the impact of this illness on my study, I believe my performance in the remainder of the course provides a more accurate reflection of my academic merit.

In that first semester, I received grades of six, two fours and a failure, and while the special consideration removed the failure from my academic record it left the other marks standing; this resulted in a grade-point average of 5.33. For the remainder of the course (for five eighths of the honours course load), I achieved the highest possible grades, receiving straight sevens across all subjects. For my academic achievement I was awarded a place on the Dean's List. At graduation I was awarded honours 2A.

My research capabilities are clearly demonstrated by my honours dissertation for which I received a 95% and a grade of seven. My dissertation is now used as (the only) example of dissertation work on the FIT/QUT honours coordinator's web-site, at:

My academic and research achievements led to employment within the IT faculty at QUT, and I believe this employment further reflects and reinforces my capabilities. As a result of my strong performance in an Artificial Intelligence subject, I was offered a research assistant position where I worked on a data mining project that was undertaken for an external client.

I was also offered employment within the faculty to develop all of the content of an online Java bridging course aimed at programmers already familiar with the C language. At the time, the faculty was switching to Java as their primary programming language for teaching, and this course was required for students that were entering degrees after the first year and as a result had not undertaken the introductory Java subjects.

My academic merit and research potential are also demonstrated by my success in gaining employment after graduation as a research scientist. This work is described in further detail, below.

Match with Research Strengths

A strong alignment between the proposed research and the ITEE School's research strengths in data and knowledge engineering and complex and intelligent systems places the proposed research firmly within the province of the faculty's research strengths.

The topic of the proposed research concerns the nature of information. What, ultimately, is information? In brief, what is its fundamental structure and nature, and what material items and processes does it map to in the real world? The intention is to approach this primarily as a fundamental question, rather than as a means to solve an applied problem. It is difficult to think of questions that are more fundamental, particularly to Information Technology, than the question of ‘what is information?’ and yet this question has so far — it seems widely agreed — eluded an adequate answer.

There is a strong match between the proposed research and the ITEE School's research strength in the area of data and knowledge engineering. The School's Data and Knowledge Engineering research group identifies three main research concentrations and strengths; the proposed research primarily matches their Semantic Issues strength, which covers Ontologies and Knowledge Representation.

The question of 'what is information?' can be considered to be largely an ontological one. This provides a clear and definite link between the Ontologies strength and the proposed research. This link is further strengthened by the way ontologies are conceived in the Information Technology domain. In Information Technology, ontologies are primarily considered from the perspective of 'what is the structure of a particular type of information?'. This question inherently requires, and is reliant upon, some conception of what information is.

For these reasons, the group's research knowledge and experience would provide valuable input into the proposed research, and in turn the proposed research could contribute to the group's strengths, such as through its application, in a collaborative context, to applied Ontological research that was being undertaken.
Primary supervision has been arranged with Associate Professor Bob Colomb, whose research focuses primarily within this Semantic Issues component of the Data and Knowledge Engineering research group. Associate Professor Colomb has undertaken research in the area of the proposed research topic and maintains an active interest in it.

Another of the ITEE School's research strengths there is a strong match with is the area of complex and intelligent systems, as embodied by the School's Complex and Intelligent Systems research group. The group's primary aim is to understand the principles that underlie complex systems. In the view of information I hold at this early stage, information arises primarily from the complexities of the perceptual systems of humans (and other information processing agents) — which are complex systems. Thus, the research knowledge and expertise in this group would provide valuable input into the proposed research.

I also believe that the evolutionary perspective, which is taken by many researchers in this group, aligns well with the proposed research; this perspective figures prominently in my intended approach — at this early stage — to understanding what information is and how it can arise. Additionally, I believe that a better understanding of information could provide leverage in understanding the structure and nature of complex systems — as complex systems are often defined and understood through the way they represent and process information.

For these reasons, the group's knowledge and expertise could contribute substantially to the proposed research, which itself could provide leverage for approaching topics within the research group's areas of interest, particularly in analysing and modelling complex and intelligent systems. The match with the Complex and Intelligent Systems research group is realised through the co-supervision which has been arranged with Dr Tom Mandeville. Dr Mandeville is a member of that research group, as well as being a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics.

In addition to helping realise the link with the Complex and Intelligent Systems group, Dr Mandeville's involvement would also foster inter-faculty ties between the proposed research in Information Technology, and the Economics faculty, where this research topic is also of interest. Furthermore, Dr Mandeville has done considerable work closely related to the topic of the proposed research.

In summary, there are strong and definite matches between the proposed research and the faculty's research strengths in the areas of data and knowledge engineering and complex and intelligent systems, and these are made operational through arranged supervision with staff members who have research expertise in and relating to the proposed research topic.

Demonstrated research performance

Both my accomplishments while studying and my employment record demonstrate a strong research performance. As mentioned above, I received very high marks for my honours dissertation, and its use by the honours coordinator as an illustration of honours work is a strong recognition of its quality.

While studying, I worked as a research assistant, and after graduating I obtained a position as a research scientist in an IT research center — the Distributed Systems Technology Centre (DSTC) — where I am presently working. DSTC partakes in research under the federal government's Cooperative Research Centre program. As a research scientist, I have three and a half years of research experience, including international collaboration and a number of papers published in well respected forums (as detailed below).

I work on a project at DSTC that undertakes electronic contracts research. The project is focusing primarily on the design and development of an electronic contract monitoring (as in, detecting contract violations) and management system, and consists of five researchers. As an illustration of my level of involvement in this research, I have been entrusted with the primary role in researching and designing our Business Contracts Language, which is used to encode the details of a contract in such a way that it can be monitored by our system.

This language is has several novel features, which include novel constructs for detecting patterns of events (required for detecting occurrences that should/should not occur as per the contract) and a unique model for managing the assignment of contractual obligations to roles, and those roles to people (and other entities).

My research has also involved a number of collaborations, involving researchers located in Australia, the UK, and the US. This has included two months spent earlier this year as a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Kent in the UK. This time was spent investigating electronic contract issues in collaboration with Dr Steven Neal and Professor Peter Linington. This collaboration was undertaken as part of a DEST grant, "Monitoring for B2B Contracts".

The research has also produced a number of publications, and I have been an author on six papers, including a journal paper (to appear in Data & Knowledge Engineering, Elsevier), two in IEEE conferences and one in a Springer-Verlag conference (EDOC 2002 and 2003, DEXA 2002), and two in IEEE workshops (ITVE 2001, Policy 2001). The paper I presented at the 2003 DSTC Research Symposium, "Iterating Over Time", was awarded best paper.

In summary, my research performance has been demonstrated in my honours dissertation and research assistant work, and more recently in my full time role as a research scientist.

Working at DSTC has been a rewarding experience that has, I believe, equipped me with a number of valuable skills. At the same time, I have long held an interest in the proposed research topic — I have been spending some of my own time over the last few years investigating it — and this interest has gradually increased to the point where pursing this topic has become a primary goal. I wish to take on this topic because I want to research something that is deep and substantial, because I want to grow from the challenges of doing so, and because I have strong belief in this topic’s significance.

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