June 2012 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
The Ph.D. Grind
Since I majored in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in college, the majority of my classmates started working in engineering jobs immediately after graduating with either a bachelor's or master's degree. I chose to pursue a Ph.D. instead due to a combination of subliminal parental influences and my own negative experiences with engineering internships throughout college.
My parents never pressured me to pursue a Ph.D., but I could tell that the job they respected the most was that of a tenured university professor, and a Ph.D. was required for that job. Why was being a professor regarded as their golden ideal? It wasn't due to some lofty reverence for the purity of scholarly pursuits. Although my parents respected intellectuals, they were highly pragmatic immigrants who were more captivated by the lifetime job security offered by a tenured professorship.
Many of my parents' friends were Chinese immigrants who worked in corporate engineering jobs. Due to their weak English language skills and lack of American cultural literacy, they mostly had negative experiences throughout their engineering careers, especially as they grew older. At holiday parties, I would constantly hear jaded-sounding stories of people suffering under oppressive managers, encountering age discrimination and “glass ceiling” effects, and facing massive rounds of layoffs followed by prolonged unemployment. Although my father was not an engineer, he worked in the high-tech sector and had similar tales of struggling with management and bureaucracy, culminating in his final corporate layoff at the relatively young age of 45.
My mother was the only exception to this dismal trend. She loved her job as a tenured professor of sociology at UCLA. Unlike most of her Chinese immigrant friends, she enjoyed lifetime job security, never needed to report to a boss, could pursue her own intellectual interests with nearly full freedom, and was famous within her academic field. Seeing the stark contrast between my mother's successful career trajectory and the professional downward spirals of my father and many of their friends made a lasting impression on me throughout my high school and college years.
Of course, it would be foolish to pursue a Ph.D. solely out of irrational childhood fears. To get a preview of corporate working life, I did internships at engineering companies every summer during college. Since I happened to work in offices where I was the only intern, I was given the full responsibilities of a junior engineer, which was a rare privilege. Although I learned a lot of technical skills, I found the day-to-day work to be mind-numbingly dull. My coworkers were also unenthusiastic about their jobs, and there were few appealing prospects for career advancement. Of course, I'm not claiming that all engineering jobs are mind-numbingly dull; it just happened that the companies I worked for were not first-rate. Many of my college friends who interned at first-rate companies such as Microsoft and Google loved their experiences and signed on to work at those companies full-time after graduation.
Since I felt bored by my engineering internships and somewhat enjoyed my time as an undergraduate teaching and research assistant back in college, I set my sights on university-level teaching and academic research as future career goals. By the middle of my third year of college at MIT, I had made up my mind to pursue a Ph.D. degree since it was required for those kinds of jobs. I planned to stay at MIT for a five-year combined bachelor's and master's program, since that would give me more research experience before applying to Ph.D. programs and hopefully increase my chances of admissions into top-ranked departments.
I found a master's thesis advisor and, like any ambitious kid, began proposing my own half-baked quasi-research project ideas to him. My advisor patiently humored me but ultimately persuaded me to work on more mainstream kinds of research that fit both his academic interests and, more importantly, the conditions of his grant funding. Since my master's program tuition was partially paid for by a research grant that my advisor had won from the U.S. government, I was obliged to work on projects within the scope of that grant. Thus, I followed his suggestions and spent two and a half years creating new kinds of prototype tools to analyze the run-time behavior of computer programs written in the C and C++ languages.
Although I wasn't passionately in love with my master's thesis project, it turned out that aligning with my advisor's research interests was a wise decision: Under his strong guidance, I was able to publish two papers—one where I was listed as the first (lead) author and the other a latter author—and write a master's thesis that won the annual department Best Thesis Award. These accomplishments, along with my advisor's help in crafting my application essays, won me admissions into several top-ranked computer science Ph.D. programs. Since Stanford was my top choice, I felt ecstatic and could barely sleep during the night when I received my admissions notice.
I was also lucky enough to win the prestigious NSF and NDSEG graduate research fellowships, each of which was awarded to only around five percent of all applicants. These two fellowships fully paid for five out of the six years of my Ph.D. studies and freed me from the obligations of working on specific grant-funded projects. In contrast, most Ph.D. students in my field are funded by a combination of professor-provided grants and by serving as teaching assistants for their department. Funding for Ph.D. students pays for university tuition and also provides a monthly stipend of around $1,800 to cover living expenses. (Almost nobody in my field pays their own money to pursue a Ph.D. degree, since it's not financially worthwhile to do so.)
Since I had a decent amount of research and paper writing experience, I felt well-prepared to handle the rigors of Ph.D.-level research when I came to Stanford in September 2006. However, at the time, I had absolutely no idea that my first year of Ph.D. would be the most demoralizing and emotionally distressing period of my life thus far.
Copyright © 2012 Philip Guo
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