Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)


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:

  • Undergraduate students learned about what a Ph.D. might involve, which helped calibrate their expectations. One student wrote to me via email: “I must tell you even though I am still an undergrad thinking of applying for PhD next year, you have made me to [sic] see what all can happen with me in my next few years. I stayed back in the lab to work on my internship project (and all i did was to read your piece ;) & getting lost in random thoughts about my PhD) it was still time well spent.” Another reader mentioned that The Ph.D. Grind is “a great great resource for folks like me contemplating entering a PhD program. [...] You don't often get a perspective on the sort of 'political' games that come into play [with respect to] advisor selection, funding, etc etc.”

  • People who got jobs instead of pursuing a Ph.D. thanked me for confirming that their decision not to go to grad school was the right one for them. A recent college graduate and soon-to-be engineer wrote, “When deciding what to do with my life I had to chose between two options: becoming a professor or becoming a professional. I ended up deciding on the latter due to a mixture of various factors, but the main one is that I don't think I could sacrifice the social and non-academic part of my life to put the effort and dedication that research requires. I've been wondering if I made the right choice. Your book has shown me what my life could have been and I think I have.”

  • Early-stage Ph.D. students related to the tedious and often-mindless grinding that I had to endure in the early years of grad school. Some were inspired that the future might look brighter if they grind harder and smarter in the upcoming years. A first-year student told me, “You really have some strong will power. I am just one year into my PhD grind and it feels like forever. Your work really inspired me, I felt really energetic and determined (at least the day I read the book!)” A second-year student told me, “I found your book today at a very crucial stage in my PhD. My Qualifying exams are coming up and I felt that my work is lacking in substance and I was ready to throw it in, when I started reading your book. I don't know what it is about it, but I am loving it. It's just the kick I needed, mate.”

  • Mid-stage Ph.D. students empathized with the mental state of “limbo” from the middle chapters. One told me, “There are several things I've see[n] so far that are common to other fields. I got a laugh out of the 3rd year apathy ... that lasted longer for me. I'm funded, but my advisor doesn't press me, so I often end up in periods like you did, looking for inspiration because fractional improvement just doesn't cut it.”

  • Successful Ph.D. dropouts lived vicariously through my grad school experiences and received validation that they had made the right choice by leaving prematurely. For example, a fellow Stanford computer science Ph.D. student who left during her first year wrote, “Thanks for confirming for me that getting out when I did was one of the best decisions I've ever made.”

  • Late-stage Ph.D. students deeply related to my frustrations with the academic publishing game because they had also faced repeated paper rejections for reasons seemingly beyond their control. One told me, “The constant return to the theme of publishing - and more specifically publishing to the tastes of a small set of experts in a subfield - really hits home.” Other late-stage students wanted to figure out how to make the process less painful for future generations: “At times, I felt myself getting mad/frustrated at the things you went through, since many were likely unnecessary, and yet I also went through them. It would be fun to chat about how we could turn the experience of the first few years into a less frustrating one for future grad students.”

  • Professors appreciated the struggles and eventual feelings of triumph in my story since they all succeeded in grad school. A senior Stanford professor posted on Twitter: “Most of my class (me too) wanted a leave in 2nd year of PhD! Tough but worthwhile!” And a junior professor wrote, “At the end, it was a rewarding journey for me, as it helped me emerge a lot more hard working, persistent, stronger and confident. This transformation is the real output of [a] PhD program and not the publications.” Predictably, many praised the benefits of academia and encouraged me not to “give up” on becoming a professor; one junior professor told me, “I'm enduring this world for just a couple of good reasons: it's a great challenge and the personal growth is amazing.” Finally, in the most blatant instance of selective reading, one professor raved about how she loved my entire book and was so incredibly happy that I had decided to become a professor in the end after all! Her interpretations of the final few chapters were exceptionally creative, to say the least.

  • Civilians, last but not least, enjoyed a glimpse into the possible experiences of their friends and family members who went through Ph.D. programs. A mother wrote, “I am not a Ph.D. but I could relate to a lot of things in the book as my daughter also got her Ph.D. and she is on tenure track now. I wish you had written your book a little earlier!” And a fellow student told me, “I sent it to my grandmother, and she is really enjoying it. I am the first person in my family to get a PhD, so she had a lot of questions about the process, many of which your memoir was able to answer so that I did not have to. :)”


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!

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Copyright © 2012 Philip Guo