Two years ago I was in the middle of my Bachelor's in Munich and had almost no clue about all this Artificial Intelligence stuff. I would have assigned a probability of almost zero to being in my current situation in April 2020: I am about to immigrate to Canada for a PhD at Mila, the biggest AI research institute in the world. So how did I get to that point? How did I figure out what I want to do in life?

This is the first of two blog posts:

  1. Tell the story of how I decided to do a PhD in North America and how I ended up being so driven for research in AI.
  2. Give others out there insights into the the whole PhD application process from the first vague ideas/plans to the final visit days. This is even more useful if you come from a similar situation: European with only a 3-year Bachelor, feeling like you don't have enough "formal background" in the field.

The story

I can pinpoint 4 events or choices that turnt out to be important and "the right one" in retrospect. Of course there are always countless more factors involved but let's simplify life for now:

  1. Quitting my studies which left me with 9 months to determine where my life should be going and to learn to reflect.
  2. Joining a Deep Learning startup full of driven and supportive people. This showed me that work does not feel like work with the right people, and reaching ambitious goals together is amazing. To foster each other's ambitions, keeping each other accountable. Questioning conventional thinking.
  3. Hearing about PhDs in the US without having a Master's.
  4. Twitter.

1. Learning to face myself

I had finished high school with a (sort of) perfect final grade and was ready to go to university. I had awkwardly decided for mathematics because that's what I liked in school and what was philosophically the "purest, cleanest path". I knew that it was not like high school maths (everyone tells you that) but I still thought: I'm smart, it will make sense to me and things will magically work out if I just "do the homework well etc." To be honest, I can't really understand anymore how the Benno of 5 years ago truly thought about life but it seems very different to my current self.

In hindsight I was naive and had spent embarrassingly little time actively going out into the world to find out what I want to do. Or to critically reflect more. Next to studying and having fun discussions with people, I had tried few academic activities during high school that would have given me a clear direction. I had spent much of my spare time playing Ultimate Frisbee and computer games. Sure, I was very engaged in classes, always eager to discuss problems with teachers or friends, and read or watched some sciency things here and there.

But actually attending university lectures to see how a real university works? Actually cold-emailing people from industry or professors? Actually joining clubs? Learning to commit to personal long-term projects? Nope, I simply wasn't that pragmatic, brave or proactive. I was happy just playing Frisbee and getting good grades. This is still a pleasant life in some sense but at the same time I had naive ambitious career dreams, I just didn't have the right "mentality".

Quite frankly, I was also sort of addicted to playing computer games during my last year of high school, a story for another blog post maybe. So it was surprising that I had managed to finish my final high school exams with good results and even still played Ultimate Frisbee regularly.

After three months of studying mathematics I was quite unhappy. I decided that I needed more time to figure out where I want to go in life and how to get rid of my computer game addiction, which was my way of avoiding to face "real life" (the more common method for that nowadays seems to be Netflix). So I stopped attending my maths classes. This was a big turning point in my life and I am grateful that I took this tough step. However I am careful to say it was "the best decision of my life", since there are too many of those.

I made the decision around Christmas and in the following weeks I spent my time just writing and writing, page after page: about my social life, about what I care about, what it means to be a good person and have a fulfilling life, and also about some past issues. Eventually after 2 or 3 monthts I also quit playing computer games fully. The newly gained time was also spent on a part-time job at a search engine company, before I decided for Computational Linguistics as my major.

For the first time in my life I truly learnt to reflect and take active control of my life.

This was also the point where I became "my own best therapist" through writing and very honest reflection. Since then I can trust myself to handle every big life issue if I just sit down and write long enough.