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

Pep talk for new Ph.D. students

Here's a hypothetical pep talk to scare/motivate new Ph.D. students, especially those in computer science.

Welcome! The next five to seven years will likely be the hardest phase of your professional life so far. But if done right, it can also be the most rewarding. I'll now explain.

Let me frame the Ph.D. experience in terms that you will intimately understand: getting good grades in school. Since you're here, you probably scored at or near the top of your class throughout elementary, middle, and high school, and even throughout college. It's safe to assume that you scored at least in the top 20% of your class. Some of you were probably in the top 10%, 5% or even 1% of your class. You were likely encouraged to do a Ph.D. because of your intellectual aptitudes. Well, to get a Ph.D., all you need to do is to score in the top 20% of your “class” in around three classes. That's all! Sounds easy, right?

What do I mean by scoring in the top 20% of each “class” for three classes? I mean that to get a Ph.D., you need to publish roughly three papers as the lead author. To publish a paper at a respectable peer-reviewed venue, your paper needs to be amongst the top 20% of all submissions. Publish three times, and you've got a Ph.D. dissertation and a clear path to graduation. It takes roughly one to two years to produce each paper, so you're all set in five to seven years (with some time to spare). What's so hard about that? After all, you're used to being at least in the top 20% of your class all throughout your life. Well, let's dissect how hard it was to be at the top 20% in each phase for you:

  • Being in the top 20% of your elementary, middle, and high school class was probably trivial for you, since only 20% of your class even made an earnest effort in school! The other 80% were just kids who happened to live in your neighborhood but didn't particularly care to be in school.

  • If you're near the top of your class in high school, chances are that you will get into a good college. Now you're competing against classmates who all scored near the top of their respective classes in high school, so the population is much more selective. The majority of your college classmates are at least trying to make an effort to do well in their classes. So if you score in the top 20% of your college class, it means you got mostly A's and a few B's in your classes. That's a respectable achievement, though still not globally impressive.

Now you're starting your Ph.D. Who is in your class? Who are you competing against? The other Ph.D. students in your department? Actually you're not, since they're likely working on research in other subfields. You're competing against all researchers in your subfield in the entire world. When you submit a research paper, it's judged against papers submitted by all relevant researchers in the world, not just at your school. Let me elaborate on exactly who is in this population:

  • First, you're competing against all other Ph.D. students in your subfield at all research-active schools around the world. Yes, this means you're competing against all of the top students at all of the top schools.

  • Moreover, you're competing against postdocs, full-time research staff, professors of all levels of seniority, industrial researchers, and all sorts of people with decades more experience than you. Remember, when you submit a paper, you're not submitting it to be considered only against papers written by other students. Reviewers are judging your paper on its own merits, and will not go easier on you just because you're a student. This is an open competition.

  • Also, you are competing against not only individuals, but entire teams of researchers from all over the world. If you submit a paper as a single author or with your advisor as a co-author, your paper not only competes against all other papers with 2 authors ... it competes against all papers! Some of your competitors might have 4 authors, 6 authors, or even 10 authors. Imagine how daunting it is to directly compete with labs containing far more people and resources than your own.

  • And here's the kicker: Everyone is trying really, really, really hard working their butts off on their own projects over many years. Why? Because, just like you, their careers also depend on successfully publishing papers. Unlike when you were in K-12 or college, nobody is half-assing it. (Those who half-ass end up leaving academia fairly quickly.)

Once again, all you need to do is to score in the top 20% of the above “class” of all researchers in your subfield in the entire world, regardless of seniority or team size. That gives you one published peer-reviewed paper. Now repeat that a few more times and you've got three papers, which you can package up into your dissertation and graduate with your Ph.D. degree!

If you make it, then you know that you've made contributions that at least rival the top 20% of the entire world in your chosen subfield. That's something very few people can claim to have accomplished in their lives. Sure, you're probably not making a world-changing discovery or invention during your Ph.D.; almost nobody does. But still, this accomplishment is a whole lot more meaningful than just telling people that you scored well in your college classes where you were competing only with a few dozen other classmates sitting in your lecture hall, some of whom are half-assing their way through school.

And how does getting a Ph.D. compare to working in a normal job outside of academia? In most jobs, you are being compared only against peers in your team, division, or at most, throughout your company. You're not being compared against all of your peers at all similar companies around the world! It's entirely possible to do a half-assed job for years without even being at the top 20% of your team, division, or company and still keep your job, so that's not impressive at all. And even if you're the best within your company, you still don't know how you stack up against everyone else in your field around the world. Employees routinely get up in arms over the controversial policy of managers stack ranking them against their coworkers. But when you're getting your Ph.D., you're being stack-ranked against everyone in the world. The Ph.D. is a brutal process that you can't half-ass. If you succeed, though, it means that you're at least in the top 20% of your research subfield amongst all people around the world who have also given it their all. That truly means something.

Of course, you're not doing this alone. That would be nearly impossible. Your advisor, senior labmates, and other collaborators are instrumental in helping you grow as a researcher so that you can have the best possible shot at reaching the top 20%. Good luck, and enjoy the ride! It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Created: 2014-09-06
Last modified: 2014-09-06
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