Puzzles & Problems

During my PhD I became obsessed with certain kinds of puzzles. Killer sudoku is a variant on regular sudoku with different conditions on the grid. I would spend hours and hours playing them. I infected my friends with the killer sudoku bug. For a time we would compete to solve them, nothing but our honour and bragging rights at stake.

We discovered kakuro puzzles. We lost weeks of lunch breaks when a Scrabble clone was launched on Facebook. We turned our brains to becoming office champion. While I wouldn’t say I was champ, I still feel proud at earning 390 points in a two-player game once!

Puzzles are awesome. They teach the skills and processes to help solve problems. A PhD is a mix of puzzles and problems. In some cases you do things to practise a method or explore an already understood idea. Then later you apply what you know to something that’s a problem: something that’s believed to be true or which people think there is something interesting but which isn’t known for certain.

All of my play with killer sudoku and kakuro helped me. My mind raced faster looking for connections in my research. I used notation from puzzles to solve research problems. Bizarrely, playing a lot of Scrabble made it easier for me to focus on problems.

Puzzles and problems go hand in hand. When the viva comes around, you can take all you’ve learned in with you. All of the skill you amass from playing and exploring and researching. It doesn’t go away. It’s right there, a rich resource to draw on.

Think about all of the puzzles and problems you’ve encountered. With everything you do during a PhD, is it really that likely your examiners can find something that will be out of your reach?