Doctorate degree with a graduation cap

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

1. A PhD is not a financial investment (at least not a very good one).

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.

2. A PhD takes a long time.

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.

3. A PhD is uncertain, punishing and frustrating.

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.

4. You will advance your field of study very little.

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.

…So after hearing all that, plus all these things, why would anyone get a PhD ?

5. A PhD is one of the few times you get paid to think (more or less) freely.

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.

6. You can meet smart, interesting people and talk to them (but only if you work at it).

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.

7. You can become a better person (but only if you work at it).

Here are a few things that I would not have learned if I did not do my PhD:

  • How to detect bullshit: I don’t just mean while reviewing scientific papers, though that is certainly a big part. Academics are meant to be objective, to deal in facts and logical reasoning, and after 4–6 years of this, you can become less susceptible to some of the underhanded rhetorical tricks unscrupulous people use out in the world.
  • How to argue effectively: the other, somewhat complementary skill of being a scientist is presenting your case well. You may have to argue with your thesis adviser, people in your department, or members of the public (when you teach or do outreach activities). You can learn which arguments are non-productive, which are worth your time, and how to win them tactfully.
  • How to be self-aware and self-reliant: During your PhD, you have to be your own combination drill-sergeant-plus-cheerleader. I learned to think long-term, identify things that aggravate me (and how to avoid them). I wasn’t always successful, but I made progress. After my PhD I was asked during a job interview if I have ever encountered failure, and I couldn’t help but laugh a little. About 50% of my experiments failed, both the scientific ones in the lab and the social/personal ones outside the lab. But that’s OK, because I’m just collecting data for next time….
  • How to have a sense of humor: any strength become destructive when taken to extremes, so hopefully sooner rather than later, you learn to have a sense of humor. When it’s 9PM on a Friday and you’re alone in the lab pipetting tiny amounts of reagents from one tube to another, a sense of humor helps.
  • How to be more empathetic: the scientist’s keen observational skills can be applied to people through a humane lens. Maybe that flow cytometry technician is snippy because you’re the 9th person that day to demand your samples be processed “as soon as possible”. Could you process the samples yourself ? Could you wait until tomorrow morning ? Could you keep calm and not let an unfortunate situation escalate ? Knowing how to read people and respond appropriately is an absolutely vital skill, especially when you’re under pressure.
  • How to prioritize and achieve balance: CMU has some notoriously hardworking students, particularly our undergrads. Ironically, occasionally unwinding and forgetting about science takes deliberate effort, so knowing when to unwind is important. I went to the ballet, the opera, hosted dinner parties at my apartment, published a few photobooks and finally a children’s book just before defending my thesis. My thesis adviser joked that I could have had written another paper with all the time I spent baking. All these outside activities kept me sane by reminding me that if my experiments fail, it’s not the end of the world. The Nutcracker will still play on, bakeries will still have pies, and life is still good.

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

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Phu T. Van is a scientist who has a training in biology, statistics and engineering. You can follow his writing on Medium or on his research page