June 2012 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
The Ph.D. Grind
If you are not going to become a professor, then why even bother pursuing a Ph.D.? This frequently-asked question is important because most Ph.D. graduates aren't able to get the same jobs as their university mentors and role models—tenure-track professors. There simply aren't enough available faculty positions, so most Ph.D. students are directly training for a job that they will never get. (Imagine how disconcerting it would be if medical or law school graduates couldn't get jobs as doctors or lawyers, respectively.)
So why would anyone spend six or more years doing a Ph.D. when they aren't going to become professors? Everyone has different motivations, but one possible answer is that a Ph.D. program provides a safe environment for certain types of people to push themselves far beyond their mental limits and then emerge stronger as a result. For example, my six years of Ph.D. training have made me wiser, savvier, grittier, and more steely, focused, creative, eloquent, perceptive, and professionally effective than I was as a fresh college graduate. (Two obvious caveats: Not every Ph.D. student received these benefits—many grew jaded and burned-out from their struggles. Also, lots of people cultivate these positive traits without going through a Ph.D. program.)
Here is an imperfect analogy: Why would anyone spend years training to excel in a sport such as the Ironman Triathlon—a grueling race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run—when they aren't going to become professional athletes? In short, this experience pushes people far beyond their physical limits and enables them to emerge stronger as a result. In some ways, doing a Ph.D. is the intellectual equivalent of intense athletic training.
Here are twenty of the most memorable lessons that I've learned throughout my Ph.D. years. My purpose in sharing is not to provide unsolicited advice to students, since everyone's Ph.D. experience differs greatly; nor is it to encourage people to pursue a Ph.D., since these lessons can come from many sources. Rather, this section merely serves as a summary of what I gained from working towards my Ph.D.
I'll end by answering a question involving the F-word: Was it fun?
Some aspects of the Ph.D. experience were very fun: Coming up with new ideas was fun; sketching out software designs on the whiteboard was fun; having coffee with colleagues to chat about ideas was fun; hanging out with interesting people at conferences was fun; giving talks and inciting animated discussions was fun; receiving enthusiastic emails from CDE users around the world was fun. But I probably spent only a few hundred hours on those activities throughout the past six years, which was less than five percent of my total work time.
In contrast, I spent about ten thousand hours grinding alone in front of my computer—programming, debugging, running experiments, wrestling with software tools, finding relevant information, and writing, editing, and rewriting research papers. Anyone who has done creative work knows that the day-to-day grind is rarely fun: It requires intense focus, rigorous discipline, keen attention to detail, high pain tolerance, and an obsessive desire to produce great work.
So, Was it fun?
I'll answer using another F-word: It was fun at times, but more importantly, it was fulfilling. Fun is often frivolous, ephemeral, and easy to obtain, but true fulfillment comes only after overcoming significant and meaningful challenges. Pursuing a Ph.D. has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, and I feel extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to be creative during this time.
Copyright © 2012 Philip Guo
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