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Reflecting on Graduate School

Dispelling some misconceptions about pursuing a PhD
26th April, 2020

While staying at home amid this COVID-19 pandemic, keeping track of days or months has been rather difficult. But just this morning, I realized that it's been slightly longer than a year since I defended my dissertation.

During my tenure in graduate school, I was almost entirely surrounded by others like me — either pursuing, or having already pursued, a PhD. However, the last year or so has been somewhat eye-opening, since a majority of my interactions, whether at work or outside, are with folks who don't have a graduate school background.

The reason for feeling like these interactions are enlightening is that there appear to be some stark differences between the perception of graduate school from within as opposed to the outside, and I try to clear them below.

Sure enough, there are several great resources (like Ronald Azuma's “So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.!”), and if you're unfamiliar with graduate school, you should probably start with the other resources. The following notes are also based solely on my own experience, so they're not as broad as the more popular resources.

Grad School is Not About Smartness

It seems brilliance or smartness is the primary attribute associated with holding a PhD, but the truth is, diligence and persistence count far more than sheer brilliance. To expand on that further, being successful in graduate school requires a combination of persistence, inquisitiveness, collaboration, communication, and, perhaps obviously, critical thinking.

A number of folks who go through graduate school affirm that pursuing a PhD is very different from pursuing an undergraduate degree, which is true, although unfortunate. If undergraduate students get a better idea of what graduate school entails, then perhaps PhD programs will attract the right students and thus possibly have a lower drop out rate (which is roughly 50% in Computer Science).

Perhaps it is suprising that success in graduate school requires collaboration and communication. Unlike how scientists are portrayed in popular culture, real-world science involves discussing, exchanging, and selling ideas, and to do so with not just peer scientists and non-scientists (both within and outside your domain), but also funding agencies, and sometimes, media organizations. It is crucial that you are able to explain your ideas / plans / supposed improvements in a simple manner.

Grad School Pays You to Become a Better Person

It is true that you earn peanuts when you are in graduate school, compared to the industry jobs that your peers may pursue, but graduate school is perhaps the only time when you get paid to become better. I learnt this when a fellow student Joshua Eversmann, my advisor Calvin Lin, and I were talking about graduate school. A lot of the machinery in graduate school (although far from perfect) is aimed at building better teachers, better researchers, and better individuals in general.

Your coaches in graduate school include your advisor, your department's faculty and staff, and support from different centers in the university. Unlike the professional job that you'll later be hired in, graduate school doesn't (always) hire you based on your previous accomplishments.

Indeed, the screening processes for accepting graduate students into the PhD program are not always transparent, and professors may have selfish motives behind accepting or rejecting graduate school applications, but the culture of benevolence seems more integrated in graduate school compared to the industry.

Luck is a Huge Factor

I have largely good things to say about graduate school because of my mostly positive experience, but I was lucky. Dan Stanzione, who was my advisor at Arizona State is a hugely important figure in supporting me. Both Calvin Lin and Mohit Tiwari, my advisors at UT Austin did great things to further my cause. But I also know fellow graduate students whose advisors abandoned them, or whose advisors became terminally ill, or whose familial situations changed abruptly.

A number of things have to go right for you to be able to earn your PhD, and the sheer duration of the PhD increases the chances that you will run into them, so almost every PhD student runs into some hardships, but the severity differs substantially.

My point is, if someone dropped out of the PhD program, it's less likely that it happened just because of their personal traits. Conversely, if somene did obtain a PhD degree, it isn't simply because they were an outstanding researcher. This year's graduating class is hit especially hard because of COVID-19. Some advisors will let their students stay a year longer, but others will become a statistic.

Sometimes, You Miss Out on Life

I know this one sounds harsh, but it is true, and you learn to be okay with it.

A number of folks who don't have PhDs admire PhD students' singular focus on research during graduate school. But, perhaps obviously, this comes at a price. There are a number of things that I wished I could do when I was in graduate school, and so did fellow PhD students. Sometimes the wish list includes developing your own personality by say, learning a new musical instrument or practicing speaking a new language. Sometimes it includes setting time aside for life events or something simple like having spare money so that you can live more comfortably. You learn to adapt.

On the positive side, however, the free time and money earned after completing the PhD makes up for some of the resentment suffered during graduate school. So hang in there.

Likely, You Emerge As a Changed Person

Graduate school is long, and it is hard. But it teaches you not just how to do research, but how to persist in the face of adversity, how to make the best of the situation, and how to let go. It teaches you humility and patience, and the attitude and skills required to face hard problems, even when you cannot (always) solve them. These are all valuable life skills that come handy even outside of research environments.

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