The Ph.D. Grind
Within its first month of release (July 2012), tens of thousands of people have already read The Ph.D. Grind, and hundreds have sent me personal emails about it. The most fascinating thing about reader reactions is how differently people interpreted my book depending on their own life experiences. As the cliche goes, people see what they want to see. For instance:
I also received some frequently-asked questions from readers, so I will address them in this section.
Question: Why did you obsess so much over publishing? I did my Ph.D. in major X at university Y during time period Z, and I graduated just fine without ever publishing any papers.
I focused on this topic because the struggle to publish dominated the Ph.D. experiences of myself and fellow students in my department. In the Stanford Computer Science Department circa 2012, students are expected to publish two to four papers before graduating. Even my advisor told me several times that I needed at least two respectable papers before he would let me graduate. Readers have told me that publishing is not nearly as important for Ph.D. students in some other fields; in the past, even computer science Ph.D. students didn't face as much pressure to publish. However, for my fellow students and me, it definitely felt like “publish or perish.” I don't necessarily endorse this fiercely paper-driven style of research (it has both positive and negative consequences), but that was simply the game I had to play to earn my Ph.D. degree.
Question: I'm a computer science professor who wants to point out that your views about what it takes to earn a faculty job and get grant funding are somewhat misguided. Why didn't you provide more accurate information?
I fully acknowledge that my perceptions are myopic and incomplete, since I have never served on a faculty hiring committee or grant review board. However, I presented the most honest account of how I thought those processes worked based on what I saw during my six years as a Ph.D. student.
Question: I'm a student in need of advice. Should I pursue a Ph.D.? Should I drop out of my Ph.D. program? Should I switch advisors? Should I try to become a professor?
The Ph.D. Grind is a memoir describing my own experiences, not a general advice guide for students. Since your circumstances probably differ greatly from mine, I don't feel qualified to provide advice to you. Feel free to interpret my words in whatever way makes sense, and use your own best judgment. Good luck!
Question: Is your book meant as a critique of academia or a call for reform?
Absolutely not. I don't have any agenda besides telling my own story as honestly as possible.
Question: Why are you leaving academia? Your research vision and publication record seem respectable, so you might be able to get a decent faculty job and then tenure if you just tried hard enough.
The purpose of my memoir is to tell my Ph.D. story, not to explain my decision to leave academia. My full reasons for not pursuing academic jobs are beyond the scope of this book. However, if I had to give a one-line answer, it would be: I just don't want it badly enough.
Question: So do you dislike academia? Do you think that academic research is a useless game?
No, on the contrary, I have a great deal of respect for academia and deeply understand its role in advancing innovation. And although peer-reviewed publishing is an imperfect game, I don't claim to have a better solution for quality control. As I summarized in an email to a professor during my final year of grad school, “I discovered over the past 5 years that I love being a spectator of research, but the burden of being a continual producer of new research is just too great for me.”
Question: I thought Ph.D. students took classes, taught classes, went through grueling qualifying exams, and did a bunch of other stuff besides research. Why didn't you describe any of that?
Because those activities are all irrelevant to earning a Ph.D. degree. I chose to focus my memoir exclusively on the process of doing research, since that is at the core of the Ph.D. experience.
Question: Did you make any friends or do social activities during your six years of grad school?
Yes, but you're probably not interested in the details of my personal life. Again, I focused my memoir exclusively on the research process.
Question: The other characters in this book are all one-dimensional. Why didn't you develop their backstories in more detail?
Because I was not comfortable speaking on behalf of others. I can speak with confidence only about my own feelings. My colleagues can write their own articles in response to The Ph.D. Grind, and I will be happy to link to their writings.
Question: How do you know that you've grinded for over ten thousand hours throughout your Ph.D. years?
Using a very conservative estimate, 5 hours of grinding per day times 335 days per year (30 “vacation” days) times 6 years is approximately 10,000 hours. Most Ph.D. graduates likely worked for longer than this amount of time, though.
Thanks for reading, and feel free to email me with more feedback and questions!
Copyright © 2012 Philip Guo