Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reasons to Pursue a Ph.D.

Several months ago, I spoke with a former schoolmate who is considering whether to leave Google to pursue a Ph.D. Since I like to believe I make good decisions, I immediately gave a rundown of the pros. As a responsible advice-giver, I initiated the same conversation between the schoolmate and a Ph.D. graduate whom I know to be actively against recommending graduate school. Surprised I could agree with so many of the cons, I reevaluated my stance and again convinced myself that graduate school is worthwhile. I discuss the reasons in this post.

There are many reasons not to go to graduate school. If you are in computer science, your income will be about a quarter of your market value. (There will also be no onsite massages or free dry cleaning.) You will probably be working on problems that are difficult to explain to your friends and family. You may not see positive results for months, even years. Even if you get results, your work may not have impact on the greater society for years—maybe never. Nobody will understand you or your work, including your fellow graduate students, who will often be unhappy. After you graduate, you will find that you did not need a Ph.D. for what you end up doing. And then you will cry.

Less hedonistic people will tell you to endure this suffering for longer-term goals: that faculty position, that job in science policy. As someone who believes in short-term pleasure, I have other reasons for recommending a Ph.D. While I would not mind becoming a rock-star professor, I am in graduate school for the freedom and for the opportunities. Graduate school is an all-you-can eat buffet for ideas and self-development. Rather than serving as a mercenary in implementing someone else's vision, I am paying (with opportunity cost and time) for the chance to solve open-ended problems of my choosing. In realizing the solutions, I can choose which skills to focus on developing: for instance, delivering a talk. In exploring questions, I have access to the experts in their fields. I can even call random companies to ask questions about their operations. (I have done this.) I also have access to almost every course at my university, as well as the library collection and academic journal subscriptions. As long as I can demonstrate progress on a potentially interesting problem, nobody complains. Even if I do not use my Ph.D. in my future career, it will have been a fun (and productive) few years.

The freedom and opportunities of graduate school also extend to lifestyle. Graduate school is conducive to a fabulous lifestyle—and I mean this seriously. Since entering graduate school I have become an avid yogi, explored aerial acrobatics, and co-founded Graduate Women at MIT, which now has over 800 mailing list members, two annual conferences, and a mentoring program. Since entering graduate school, I have traveled—for work and for pleasure—to Ireland, Canada, Germany, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, China, Belgium, Peru, and various US locations. I have a fantastic social network of fellow graduate students, many of whom have similarly rich life interests. (My officemate does bike racing; several friends do outdoors activities almost every weekend; another friend has had his own company for several years.) I am also in a book club called Whiskey and Words: we discuss literature over scotch. The flexibility and community of grad school have facilitated the exploration of my personal interests.

Before you get too envious, I should admit that graduate school is not always a party. With the freedom to choose what you work on comes with the possibility that what you work on may not be interesting valuable to anyone else. My first paper with my advisor was rejected five times over the course of two years before it was accepted to a major conference. I have spent months working on ideas and implementations that I will not ultimately show to the world. For the majority of my time in grad school, I have worked alone with my advisor or internship mentors. Fear not that I am some sort of happy freak: I have done my time in states of questioning, despair, and isolation. The struggle, however, has been part of the learning process: of developing my taste in research problems and of learning how to realize a high-level vision. It helps that I have a high risk tolerance and do not take myself that seriously—and that I have a sun lamp to augment the short days of Cambridge winter (made shorter by occasional deadline-driven visits to Samoan time*).

A caveat is that various logistical advantages have contributed to my positive experience. For my first three years, I was supported by a fellowship that gave me some flexibility and bargaining power. I have an advisor who works closely with me, believes in the work, and gives me a fair amount of freedom. (It also helps that he is an assistant professor who is, arguably, on a more demanding clock than I am.) I have also done a couple of internships at Microsoft Research that have helped me both establish additional credibility in my field and finance a more luxurious lifestyle. Not everyone has the advisor and/or funding situation that yields such freedom: it is important to ask the right questions to know what to expect.

If you like the freedom to work on open-ended questions, then graduate school may be a good fit. Pursuing a Ph.D. provides amazing opportunities not just to make an impact in your field, but also to develop life skills and to indulge in personal exploration. While there are tradeoffs (financial, time, and other), pursuing a Ph.D. is an experience I recommend**.

* Computer science conferences seem to have decided midnight Samoan time is the most fair time for paper submission cut-off.
** This is only based on the first 3.5 years of my Ph.D. We will see how I feel in a couple of years.

20 comments:

Vishnu N S said...

Though I am neither a CS student nor currently thinking of doing my PhD, I can feel the same thought currents in the article, that I had faced about an year ago (MBA vs job) !!
A great read, I'll be sure to give the link to my fellow "confused" brethren :).

- Vishnu N S

ZOE BRO said...

I think there's absolutely nothing else in the world that I could do that would be as fun or make comparable use of my skills to advance our knowledge. That's why I'm doing a phd. If I weren't 100% convinced of that, I would quit.

If you think you want to do a phd but aren't sure, I would try doing some research and hanging out with phd students. If you are still not sure, don't do it -- let someone who is have your spot.

Jean said...

An article in the Economist ("The disposable academic") arguing the counterpoint was brought to my attention:
http://www.economist.com/node/17723223?fsrc=scn/tw/te/mp/thedisposableacademic

Anonymous said...

Jean, I read that Economist article and it seemed very true to me... I even gave it to my PhD advisor. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'd like to caution others that the grad school lifestyle depends a lot on the field you choose... So prospective students should be sure to meet (honest, forthcoming) students within their desired field. I'm glad you're happy with your choices and I hope the remaining years go as well as the previous ones! - Julia Robinson-Surry

pg said...

Jean touched on this a bit in her post, but I'd like to reiterate that the amount of flexibility and freedom you have in your Ph.D. lifestyle is STRONGLY linked to your funding situation. If you're well-funded by fellowships, then it can be the best time of your life. However, the majority of Ph.D. students (and their poor advisors!) struggle with winning funding; the money and strings attached to that money can often be more debilitating than working in the "real world". In most jobs, it's clearly understood that you're working for a salary, but in academia, you're supposed to have freedom to pursue your research interests ... however, the harsh reality is that you are still somewhat bounded by the strings attached to your funding. Good luck, everyone!

Anonymous said...

1) Google is so yesterday. Having been there for a few years and left, I have to say, it's overrated. If you want to really make a difference, go to a startup.
2) If lifelong learning makes you happy, stay in academia. The moment you step into industry, the amount of learning is cut drastically, even at Google.
3) If your grad school is first tier, FINISH WHAT YOU STARTED. Otherwise, just go to Google. Faculty position=rat race and A PhD from a second rate university is better utilized in industry than academia.

That's all I got to say about Google. Stay in academia. Trust me on this.

Anonymous said...

Having just finished up a PhD, this article was quite interesting. It excellently expresses why grad school can be great and why it might not be --- but I wonder how much of it I would have really understood before I went to grad school.

For example, I'm not sure at age 21 --- my junior year of undergrad --- if I would have really understood what this means:
" Graduate school is an all-you-can eat buffet for ideas and self-development. Rather than serving as a mercenary in implementing someone else's vision, I am paying (with opportunity cost and time) for the chance to solve open-ended problems of my choosing"
Ditto for
"For my first three years, I was supported by a fellowship that gave me some flexibility and bargaining power. I have an advisor who works closely with me, believes in the work, and gives me a fair amount of freedom"
These both resonate well with me now, but I don’t think they would have when I was 21.

Maybe I was less mature than other top-tier-phd-bound folks when I was a wee lad of 21, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn't have lept at the idea of an "all-you-can-eat buffet for self-development." ... I don't think I was self-aware enough to know what that was when I was 21. It's like a 19 year old telling a 12 year old about how about how college is so cool because you get to stay up till 3am discussing philosophy with friends while going on a midnight burrito run. The 12 year old would just think "I guess that's cool but I see my friends every day in Mrs. Smith's class, and we talk during lunch, and I play video games with them after school sometimes, so why is it so fun to discuss philosophy and get late-night burritos?" The 12 year old wouldn't get pumped about undergrad from that description, even though that is a description that would resonate well with those who've already enjoyed the college dorm life.

I say this not to be caustic, but because I think it's a common theme in a lot of the "to go to grad school or not" type essays, and they might not be as helpful as expected to the target audience of young undergrads.

Jean said...

Thank you for this comment, Anonymous. You make a good point that the best audience for this article is probably graduate students (like me) who are trying to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing. Do you have thoughts about what aspects of graduate school would appeal more to a younger reader?

Neelesh Singhal said...

Very Candid expressions of your own experiences Jean. I become your fan after reading this particular article.

Linda Trussell said...

Different people do have different reason why they enrolled on a PhD program. And I think one common reason is to further their knowledge and study about a particular thesis topic ideas. Anyway, whatever that reason would be, I think people with great determination can really overcome things with grad school.

Ben said...

Well said.

I have to admit, of all the "why PhD" things I've read, this is the first I've seen to claim a short term "hedonist" argument for life in grad school. Clear and yet entertaining.

I also think it's great for younger students (grad or not) to hear a little about the trials and tribulations before the success. The short blurbs about the dark moments provide a balanced view for those who simply look and are awed by CVs, with a naive understanding of the process that it took to get there.

Mike Xie said...

"And then you will cry."

This is amazing.

Anonymous said...

A great read.
Having one of those 'off' days, just what I needed, thanks for the encouragement.

Fellow CS PhD. candidate

Anonymous said...

Also where you go to school is a huge factor to how successful you will be post-PhD. A PhD at MIT means a lot more than one from a state school.

Michelle Strout said...

Saw this on twitter this morning, and even though it is a 4 year old post I feel compelled to chime in. First Jean your post is great. Nice description of tradeoffs about getting a PhD. You gotta want it, and the financial tradeoff means wanting it for the money won't be enough.

For Anonymous who mentioned "state school"s, I think that when picking a CS department there are heuristics like avoid state schools or pick the highest rank school that will accept you. These are fine, but they are heuristics. Having been on faculty hiring committees, the aspects of your application that make the most impact are papers in good conferences, strong forward-looking research ideas in your research statement, and great reference letters. Other things like where you went to school are discussed but not nearly as important. Therefore I recommend that people treat deciding where to apply and go for a CS PhD based on researching potential research areas and advisors. You want at least two potential advisors before applying to a graduate school. Consider it a research project. It will really impress potential advisors when you talk about them in a substantive way in your statement of purpose.

For some context, I was accepted to MIT for undergrad and Stanford for grad (only non-state schools I applied to). See my CV to see that instead I chose state schools. Anyone interested in doing high performance computing, compilers, or parallel programming model research, I am always happy to hear from promising potential PhD students. My current state school is the University of Arizona, and there is a lot of exciting research going on in this department.

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You've got to write a book. Lovin your language. Oh and I'm in the process of applying to PhD in ocean engg after a couple years in industry.

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HSJ said...

How you feel now?