After dabbling in science, photography, cooking and self-publishing, I wanted to become a better writer. Since the best (only?) way to do this is to write, regularly and often, I thought a blog would be a good idea.
Since I’ve been asked “should I do a PhD ?” fairly often, and I have finished my own PhD fairly recently, I thought writing down how I have answered that question would be a good place to start
This point has been discussed ad nauseam. For most people, a PhD does not guarantee you a job after graduation. There are exceptions: if you already have a lower degree in engineering, a PhD would likely mean a salary bump (or so I’m told). Conversely, if you’re a good programmer with a BS in computer science, you will make more money sooner at Microsoft/Google/Facebook/etc… and a PhD may not necessarily be worth your time, financially speaking.
In many fields there are surpluses of PhDs. I know quite a few PhDs in humanities who struggled for jobs after graduation, and likely will have a hard time recouping the lost wages incurred during the PhD itself. Even those in the sciences can have some trouble finding jobs immediately after graduation.
Two undergrads at CMU where I got my PhD wanted to start a biotech company after college. Since no one in Silicon Valley took them seriously without PhDs, they enrolled at Stanford and worked 80-hr weeks. The plan was to get their PhDs as quickly as possible and get back to starting the company. It still took them 4 years to graduate. My own PhD in biology took 5 years.
In college, the academic goals were very clear, and it’s easy to tell how well you’re doing: if you failed the final in Calculus I, you will not advance to Calculus II. If you got an 80% in Biochem and the class mean is 75%, you can go out and celebrate (unless you’re pre-med, in which case, shame on you for not getting 100%, your life is over).
I’m being somewhat facetious in the second example above, but the point is a PhD works differently: since PhD thesis projects are so varied and individualized, with few formal examinations, it’s hard to tell how you are doing. You can also be scooped, where someone else publishes on what you’re working on before you do, and you therefore have to start over. (This is not a pleasant experience). This uncertainty can be very unsettling and stressful.
Sure, you could end up being the next Claude Shannon and publish “the most important [Masters] thesis in history” but more likely your thesis will be a pimple on the face of human knowledge. Modern science is crowded. Moreover, by definition you’re breaking new ground, no one, not even your thesis adviser, knows for sure if you’re going down the right path, scientifically speaking. It can be exhilarating when your research proves to be (moderately) novel, but it can also be very demoralizing when you fail. And you will fail more often than you succeed.
If you don’t enjoy thinking obsessively about a handful of topics for years, a PhD will be very painful. Most of the people who do PhD are geeks: they like to figure things out, often for the sake of figuring things out (they also add references compulsively to things they write).
A former labmate of mine was in medical school until someone pointed out she asked too many questions. “If you want to know why we give 50ug of the drug instead of 100, go get a PhD.”
This was the main draw for me personally. I enjoy thinking and trying things, and you will do a lot of both in the course of a PhD.
My lab was a 20’x15’ room in the basement of a historic (read: dilapidated) building. Some of my classmates never leave their lab, as far as I can tell, and their rooms weren’t much bigger than mine. Five years is a long time to be in such a space. So I tried to meet new people whenever I could.
It is very invigorating being around smart, dedicated people (especially if they are passionate and articulate). On exceptionally good days, it seemed amazing to me that I was being paid to have interesting conversations with smart people.
Here are a few things that I would not have learned if I did not do my PhD:
In the end, I would do my PhD again. Like all serious commitments, it’s personal, luck pays a role, but you get what you put into it. Some parts of my grad school experience were stressful, but ultimately, I had a blast.
This article originally appeared on Medium and has been republished here with the author’s permission