PhD: Completed It!

2022 marked the end of a big chapter of my life. The culmination of my PhD journey, easily the most challenging project I have ever undertaken. Alongside graduating from my PhD as a Doctor of Philosophy, this year I formalised my relationship as a Consultant Requirements Engineer at Legendary Requirements, helped to produce RWOT the Hague and participated in a research sprint focused on Digital Identity in Times of Crisis coordinated by the Berkman Klein Center where I wrote a soon to be published short hopepunk story titled Experiences in Memory Space.

This post is a brief reflection on and celebration of this last year and the PhD adventure that brought me to this moment. It will likely be the last post I submit to this site, as I experiment with new self-presentations of myself online.

First, I have to say what an honour, joy and privilege it was to participate as one of the first PhD students at the Blockpass Identity Lab at Edinburgh Napier University. I didn’t fully comprehend what I was getting myself into back in 2018, but it exceeded my expectations.

That I had the freedom and support to explore the boundaries and the depths of human knowledge is something I will be forever grateful for. To perceive the interconnections and evolution of human scientific thought stretching back into our past, back to the seeds of ideas and the subsequent foundations upon which our modern information society has been built. It has been both an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. I am grateful to all those who influenced, shaped and supported me along the way, especially my PhD supervisor and mentor Professor Bill Buchanan.

It is telling that the last post I made to this site was almost two years ago in March 2021. Since then, almost all of my writing energy was turned towards producing my thesis. In the process I wrote over 200,000 words on, a lifesaving practice where I worked through my goals, fears, doubts and initial drafts. Then there were the countless words produced iterating through drafts, revisions and rewrites as I attempted to corral my thoughts and sythesise my learnings into a coherent, consistent body of text. The end result being an 80,000 word tome titled Identity and Identification in an Information Society: Augmenting Formal Systems of Identification with Technological Artefacts that I imagine few will ever read. Regardless, it is a piece of work I will always be proud of.

My thesis presents my unique perspective on the identification systems, shaped by my academic research across multiple disciplinary boundaries and my practical experience as an implementer and participant in the rapidly evolving decentralized identity space. I believe there are some nuggets within its pages. My personal highlights include:

  • The chapter titled Security without Identification which traces the history and evolution scientific thought on cryptography through the lens of cryptographic credentials first conceptualised by David Chaum’s seminal paper Security without Identification.
  • My determination to include a broader, sociological understanding of identification systems, despite advice that it should be left out of scope. See Chapters Identity, Trust and Privacy in an Information Society and Identification Systems.
  • The workshop I ran at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh that introduced verifiable credentials and explored issues and perceptions around their use for clinical passporting solutions.
  • The subtle influences of Ludwick Fleck’s work: The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact that I attempted to weave throughout my thesis.
  • The diverse, high quality references throughout my thesis, that are testament to the depth and breadth of human knowledge produced on identity and identification throughout the last 100 years.
  • The content in my appendix, especially my wacky abstract diagrams and a paper I wrote but never published that talks about identity and interaction in terms of complex adaptive systems.

Of course there are some aspects I am less pleased with, but I imagine that is always the case. I completed it, passed my viva and graduated which is all that really matters at the end of the day.

I have ambitions to synthesise and adapt parts of my thesis into more digestible content which I will make available on my new professional self-presentation - We will see how that goes. In the meantime, if you are interested to give it a read I am happy to send it across.

It is also important to point out that the thesis is not the journey, just like the map is not the territory. There were so many other explorations, side quests, learning opportunities and experiences that shaped my perspective throughout my PhD and are not well reflected in the thesis. Growing into a researcher and developing my academic voice, exploring the beauty of Edinburgh and Scotland, learning Rust, participating in the interdisciplinary TAPESTRY research sandpit, over two years collaborating with the OpenMined community, the Odyssey hackathon where I contributed to the initial POC for the Commons Stack, RWOT Barcelona, MyData, my attempt at the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas as part of the unfortunately virtual Edinburgh Fringe, my evolving thoughts about memory and meaning and countless other experiences. With at least half of my studies against the backdrop of the pandemic, adding its own layer of challenges into the mix and changes to adapt to.

My PhD journey was daunting, exhilarating, stressful, inspiring, exhausting, humbling and joyful at different moments along the way. A rollercoaster of emotions, motivation, exhaustion and determination. I am glad it is over, but I will be forever grateful for the opportunities and experiences that it opened up for me.

Looking to the Future

The future is unknown and unknowable. However, despite this I have repeatedly seen the value of setting expectations of it. Imagining, outlining and articulating possible futures that I would like to see come to pass. In fact I am playing around with a whole new space - - to playfully explore and experiment with just this in the context of the climate emergency. Even if it is more of a placeholder at the moment. I enjoy learning a new voice and style with which to write in. Crafting new identities you might say. Which if I have learnt anything over my PhD, it is that the identities we hold, take or have applied to us shape our experienced present and inturn influence our future. I believe there a few things more powerful that intentionally constructing loosely held identities for yourself as a means to explore yourself and who you might want to be in the future.

Another thing I learnt during my thesis, is that I love the freedom to self-direct my attention and time whilst exploring things that I care deeply about. Which identity and identification in an information society is certainly one, as I have come to view it as critical to the future of humanity and the forms and structures it might take. Whatever I end up doing in the future, I want to make sure I have time to spend as I choose because I am confident in my ability to spend it well and know this helps me thrive. At the moment that looks like pursuing a research and development agenda focused on memory and meaning as previously discussed on this blog. Indeed the questions I posed on my home page two years ago appear rather prescient and increasingly relevant in the context of LLMs such as ChatGPT. The speculative fiction story I produced as part of the BKC research sprint further explores these ideas through a different creative lens. I have some other interesting ideas and experiments around this concept that I hope to share over the coming months.

Professionally, I see my future intertwined with Legendary Requirements. Through Legendary I have been exposed to a diverse and interesting set of clients, projects and technologies with challenging problems that are fun to work through. It is clear that we add value to our clients, that I add value to Legendary and that Legendary values my contributions. My work is flexible, engaging and self-directed. The people I work with are intelligent, kind and thoughtful. I feel fortunate to have had such a smooth transition from my PhD into a job that respects my time, supports my growth and encourages my independence.

The decentralized identity space is still young and emerging. Legendary Requirements is well positioned to continue to work at the forefront of this space, helping clients discover, document and maintain human requirements for real world systems and use cases.

I am excited to see what the future holds.

Thanks for reading

If you have any questions, feel free to drop me an email.