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

Five Years After My Ph.D. Thesis Defense

I briefly recap the unexpected turns in my professional life throughout the five years after defending my Ph.D. thesis on April 23, 2012.

It's been exactly five years since I defended my Ph.D. thesis: Software Tools to Facilitate Research Programming.

(Source: xkcd)

Even prior to defending, I felt a bit burned out by my time in grad school and just wanted to get the green light to graduate. Of course, I was super grateful to my advisor and committee (along with five years of fellowship funding) for allowing me to finish a dissertation that was not directly on anyone's critical path. But I simply wanted to be done and out.

At the time, I had already accepted a software engineering job offer from Google to work on online education, which was totally unrelated to my Ph.D. work. Thus, like the vast majority of my grad school peers, I planned to go into industry after graduating and “retire” from the world of academic research.

If someone had told me back then that, five years down the line, I would be an assistant professor with half a dozen grad students of my own, there was no way I would ever believe them. Given my mediocre research record in grad school and nearly-zero time spent making meaningful academic connections, I couldn't see any way to navigate toward this career direction, so I didn't even try. I covered this topic in detail in Year Six of The Grind.

How did I get from there to where I am today? Since I'm still near the beginning of my post-Ph.D. career, I haven't fully processed everything yet, and I'm certainly not ready to make any deep reflections. That's why I'll keep this article short by just describing where I was each year after my Ph.D. defense in April 2012:

  • One Year After (April 2013) – After four months of having an amazing time at a rare Unicorn Job at Google, it became clear to me that the sort of work I wanted to do would be better done at a university. So in late 2012, I decided to apply nationwide for tenure-track faculty positions. When I ended up getting eight interviews around the country, I quit my job at Google and spent a few months on the road interviewing. By the end of April 2013 – one year after my thesis defense and decision to “retire” from academia – I had accepted an offer at the University of Rochester to become an assistant professor of computer science.

  • Two Years (April 2014) – I deferred my start date at Rochester until July 2014 so that I could spend a year back in Boston (where I went to college) as a visiting research scientist at edX and a postdoc at MIT CSAIL. By April 2014, I was finishing up my postdoc year and gaining a ton of experience advising students on research and co-teaching a 300-student course for the first time, both of which prepared me well for starting my upcoming job as an assistant professor.

  • Three Years (April 2015) – As I neared the end of my first year at Rochester, I found a tremendous first group of students for my lab and submitted a batch of research papers with them. I was building up research momentum quickly at Rochester.

  • Four Years (April 2016) – I had the good fortune of getting (some of!) my first round of research paper and grant submissions accepted. This early success opened up the new possibility of me going back on the faculty job market using a fresh batch of research. This time around, I applied mostly to west coast schools closer to where I grew up. I spent most of that spring season interviewing yet again. By the end of April 2016, I had a verbal offer from the UC San Diego cognitive science department and was finalizing details.

  • Five Years (April 2017) – This brings us to today! I'm now finishing up my first year as an assistant professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego. I'm getting ready to ramp up my new research group with several newly-admitted Ph.D. students, along with a few masters students whom I have already been working with throughout the past year here.

It's been a wild half-decade ride as my career has taken a series of unexpected and serendipitous turns that I would've never predicted back when I was defending my Ph.D. thesis five years ago. I still feel like I'm only just starting my post-Ph.D. career, since I've moved around so much and had to re-find my bearings at each new job. I could spend a ton of detail diving into the nuances behind each year and how everything fits together into my professional and personal goals, but I'll leave that for another time. For now, my parting (and unoriginal!) thought is that often there is no single straightforward path for one's career or life – the best we can do is to constantly stumble in the right direction.

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Created: 2017-04-23
Last modified: 2017-04-23
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