On the Ph.D.

There's been an article going around about why not to get a Ph.D. (h/t John Regehr for the link). I'm using it as an excuse to toss out a bit of unsolicited advice about the Ph.D., and some anecdotes that perhaps some fresh entrants may find comforting. Or not.
For context, I loved my Ph.D. experience (after the first semester of hell when I was convinced I'd get kicked out for being too stupid. I'll return to this in a few days.). But I also have a very smart, competent friend who had an absolutely miserable, manipulative-evil-advisor kind of experience in a different program, and, while completing the Ph.D., ended up leaving the field entirely as a result of it. Both of us were at top programs in our respective areas. I was fortunate enough to have an incredible advisor and be in a program that generally supported its grad students pretty well. It matters. I'm also a ridiculous optimist, which I think helps a lot in research. (It doesn't make your research better, it just gives you an excuse to get through the down parts. :)
These aren't isolated incidents; you'll find plenty examples of people who loved the Ph.D., and plenty of anecdotes about hellish experiences, such as the well-known Corey lab suicide at Harvard Chemistry in '98.
What I'd like to say about this is, briefly: (a) I think that the post's author has some good points that anyone entering the Ph.D. should understand; (b) What I read from this is more a story about high variance and risk, as opposed to a universally negative experience; (c) Even people, like me, who loved their Ph.D. experience and emerged successfully are likely to have some down times, and there are some important things to keep in mind to get through them a better person, instead of becoming, as the OP notes, "broken."
High variance in quality of experience: The quality of your grad school experience is very strongly influenced by your relationship with your advisor and your peers. There's also a decent aspect of luck involved in, e.g., how much and when you publish. There's a lot of pressure, both internal and external. And this is all magnified by the fact that it's an extremely demanding pursuit: liv is correct; grad school is not a 40 hour per week job. It's more like 60, and in grad school, I ended up sleeping in my office more than a few times for major paper deadlines. A good grad school experience is great, in part because of that intensity, and a horrible grad student experience is pretty close to rock bottom for the same reasons.
Some of these factors are under your control: It's important to learn how to "manage up" your advisor. Faculty are, for the most part, insanely over-subscribed. Make it easy for them to help you: Send concise, easy to read emails that are easy to answer in short sentences. Seriously - this is under-appreciated in both academia and the real world. The ten paragraph-before-a-question email is likely to get thrown on the "answer soon" pile... which may or may not be touched that week. Almost every professor I know responds well to students who're self-motivated and organized. I _love_ it when my students walk into my office to discuss some aspect of research they're curious about or stuck on. That's my job - and it's one of the big reasons I picked this job. On the flip side, it's no fun to have a meeting a week later and say "um, didn't we already discuss this exact thing last week, and you didn't change any of it or write down what we discussed?"
Grad school (and academia) does expose you to a large amount of critique. Not all of it is constructive. This may come from your peers at your institution, your advisor, or (commonly) paper reviews. I'm not sure what to say here except that it's important to remember that you are not your research or your paper; you cannot control others' poor behavior, but you can control your reaction to it; and that even a shitty paper review usually contains information that you can use to improve the quality of your research or your writeup, and when someone hands you a pile of lemon-flavored poop, you can still use it to your advantage. And trust me: It's not just you. I've had a pretty successful career thus far, and some of the reviews I've received, both as a student and as a faculty member, would singe your eyebrows. I plan on a followup post where I show some paper reviews...
Others aren't: There are bad advisors, evil advisors, and bad student-advisor matchings. It can be very hard to differentiate these from a student not doing well enough or being up for the task. This is partly where your peers come in, even before you enter grad school: Advisors typically develop reputations. You can and should ask _other students_ what a professor is like to work for before you start working with them. But it's up to you, mostly, to decide if you are a good match with that particular style. My students would probably tell you that I'd be a bad advisor to someone who needed to be very closely managed and given concrete tasks to complete on a day-to-day basis. They'd be right. I'd go nuts and the student would go nuts. And that's _not_ because such a student is a bad student: Everyone starts the Ph.D. at a different point in their capabilities as a computer scientist and researcher. And every advisor has strengths and weaknesses.
Finally, mental health issues and the Ph.D. are an under-appreciated issue. Graduate students are a higher-risk population for mental health issues [Berkeley]. This is a tough one - it's simultaneously an individual, cultural, and institutional issue. I'll talk about this a bit below.
The OP discussed some financial issues that, for the most part, aren't relevant to CS Ph.D. students at good programs, where, for the most part, you're de-facto (or explicitly) guaranteed funding. Thank goodness. The Ph.D. doesn't pay well (in the two thousand+ per month range), but it's enough to live on, and most students also supplement their income with one or two summer internships that pay in the 6-7k/month range.
Not all of the things that need to be improved are under the control of the student. A few institutional ones include:
Spreading the power and responsibility: One thing I love about CMU is the degree to which they try to involve other faculty in the Ph.D. education process. Our "black friday" review of the Ph.D. students, for example, is more than 50% about creating an opportunity for other faculty to say "woah, are you sure you're doing the right thing by that student?". And, while I find it annoying as hell sometimes to have to force my students to jump through the hoops, I feel the same way about our department's recent emphasis on getting a thesis committee together early. It helps spread the responsibility of advising and reduces the risk and variance for the student. Near the time I graduated, MIT began a review process also designed to help students not fall through the cracks. There's probably more that can be done, but I recommend CMU's model as a starting point.
Better training and awareness of mental health issues: As a faculty advisor, I have received absolutely no training in how and when to steer students towards our mental health services folks. As a student, I received very little information about the availability and "ok-ness" of the need for such services. This is poor form and needs to be improved across the board. The Berkeley study I cited earlier has some good suggestions.
More honest support of non-academic post-Ph.D. career paths: As a chronicle.com article discussed several years ago, there's a pretty strong communication of the idea that the only true "success" after completing the Ph.D. is to go on to a top tier academic position. This pressure is real, and it's so bogusly stupid it's hard to know where to start. Particularly these days, the number of highly desirable academic positions is smaller than the number of good Ph.D. graduates. Not everyone wants to teach - Matt Welsh has some nice blog posts discussing some of these issues. It's very possible to have substantially more impact on the world by going off and creating a little startup, or completely re-doing Google's indexing system, and a lot of other things. This isn't a question of absolute value, it's a question of the academic culture rewarding students who make the same decisions as the people who ... decided to go into academia. And it's total shit - we need a culture change in academic computer science that values our students making the best decisions for themselves, not making the decisions that we want them to. I don't know how to solve this; I see a lot of students from CMU's parallel data lab deciding to go into industry, because they're exposed to a lot of positive examples from their interaction with industry. I think Stanford has an equally accepting climate of going off to a startup. But how to go from singleton examples to a field-wide acceptance is a good question.
All that said, I still believe that the problems with the Ph.D. process in CS result in high variance, not uniformly bad experiences. I, and many people I know, count their years in grad school as some of the best of their lives. Best advice is to go read Matt's advice about whether or not to get a Ph.D., and decide for yourself based upon whether or not your long term life goals are helped or hindered by doing so. Once you've made that decision, you can decide whether the specific Ph.D. opportunities available to you are likely to result in a satisfactory experience.


  1. Good article!

    Could I ask one question: How do you find your area of interest? Personally I think it's a difficult task for a "fresh" man to confirm that some area will constantly attract him...

    1. @Anon12:36pm: I think that the best answer I can give is "it varies." The second is: Explore a lot of experiences. I was lucky enough to know that I was passionate about networking & distributed systems for a long time; I was the lead geek at a startup ISP during college. I forgot my path for a while and thought that I wanted to be pre-med (I also have a biology degree), but enough conversations with unhappy physician friends, spending some time as an EMT and volunteering in the emergency room, etc., convinced me that I'd be unhappy there. I worked for a semester or two in a bio lab and loved the intellectual challenge of the research, but didn't have the patience for working with living organisms.

      I took a year off after undergrad to do research with Jay Lepreau's Flux research group at the university of utah, and that was what finally cinched it for me: I really, really enjoyed research and the academic environment; and I loved computer science, particularly systems and networking.

      All of these experiences - bio, med, ISP, research - have been integral to what I've ended up doing thus far in life.

      I worry a bit when I see students taking 100 classes per semester, stressed out of their gourds, and not taking advantage of extracurricular opportunities to explore more deeply in an area. I think it's more important to do some limited deep dives while you've got the flexibility and opportunity.

    2. How do you find your focus? Pursue your passions, and put yourself in situations that will let you find people who can combine them into a research agenda.

      I studied a lot of subjects in undergrad - if I had stayed an extra semester I could have had minors in cognitive psychology and English Literature. I spent a summer teaching cryptography and photography at a summer camp. I got involved with the campus activism scene after seeing the police violence doled out during the G20 (a large chunk after the delegates had left the city.)

      During this dabbling, I found a thread of research - usables security - that allowed me to combine my passions: art, computer security, civil liberties - all in one package.

      So I did a semester as a research assistant for a professor. I learned how to do research, what the state of the art was, and most imporantly, got a glimpse of what life in academia was like.

      So if you want to find a research agenda, I'd say the place to start is as an undergraduate researcher (you can get class credit for this.)

      I would not recommend trying to pick a research agenda upon arrival. Your thesis is not something assigned to you, it needs to be a passion, or else you won't be able to put in the hours needed. (At least, not while retaining your mental health)

  2. Interesting thoughts.

    Can you shed a bit more light about some of CMU's practices (a bit more detailed perhaps, e.g. black friday etc) that you believe are beneficial to students? Very few faculty share experiences and policies at their institutions, making it hard to learn from each other and to improve our own policies.

    1. Hi, @Anon:6:36pm - absolutely. A starting point is Peter Lee's writeup, which includes Jeannette Wing's article: http://www.cmu.edu/corporate/news/2008/features/csdiary.shtml

      The core features: Every semester, every Ph.D. student in the program is discussed by the entire faculty, and is given written feedback about their progress and situation. For the first year students, this is often just a "doing fine, passed two classes, starting up a bit of research." The questions that are asked include: (a) How's the student doing w.r.t. meeting the programmatic requirements of the Ph.D.? (Required classes, speaking and writing skills evaluations, TA'ing); (b) Is the student on track to propose their thesis topic? (c) Is the student on track to graduate? For students about to graduate, there's also often a modest amount of bragging by their advisor. :-)

      Key things to note:
      - No student may be removed from the program except by a majority vote of the faculty at black friday. Individual advisors do _not_ have this power.

      - If a student hasn't met some requirement on time, the advisor is the first person to get yelled at, not the student.

      - I've seen several cases of discussions along the lines of "this student just really isn't working out ..." "Hey, wait, I know that person from my class or writing a paper, and I'd be totally willing to take them on as an advisee."

      - In general, if something's not working well, the other faculty will often jump in and make suggestions. These can have teeth - for example, except in absolutely exceptional cases, we mandate a clear set of warnings ("n-1 letters") that must be given to a student in the preceding semesters before they can be removed from the program.

      It's also a method of information transfer. For example, over the last few years, the department has moved more to standardize requiring ongoing, part-time language tutoring for students who don't get a good grade on the international TA exam (ITA), until they pass it well enough to give recitation sections. This is new - when I showed up, people were a little less clueful about what the resources were for helping students who needed to brush up on their English. If students or advisors are having problems, it's often a chance for other professors to say "when I had a similar situation, X worked..."

      But most often, it's a chance to _listen_ to the other faculty talk about how they work with students, and learn from them. There's almost no training for how to advise students, and BF has become a very important method of "teaching the teachers."

      I'm convinced that Black Friday is the single most valuable thing that other schools could borrow from CMU. It's a pretty hefty time commitment on the part of the faculty, but it's well worth it.

      A few other features: Students are guaranteed funding as long as they are "making progress" towards the Ph.D. If their advisor loses funding, the department covers them. This causes stress among the faculty in general - the "tax" we pay on grants, in the form of tuition expenses, is high, in order to have a reserve to cover unfunded students - but it's very clearly the right thing to do. A student should not be held responsible for their advisor's funding situation (particularly when funding often has so much randomness and boom-or-bust properties). And it's a nice reserve for stressed-out faculty who may have a gap in funding due to luck and timing.

    2. hmm, we do something similar on an annual basis. It seems twice a year is a lot of time commitment. I'm personally fine with it, but there are always more senior faculty who dislike spending the time. I'm surprised you guys can go into detail about students with a fairly large dept. We only have time to cover students with issues in detail; other students get very quick summaries before we move on.

  3. Enjoyed reading this.

    One additional area that I think is important is the student's own attitude toward the PhD. Having the wrong attitude can screw things up, even if all of the other factors you mention (advisors, mental health, a supportive program, etc.) are in good shape.

    Is there attitude that they want to get a PhD and get out as soon as possible? If so, they are likely to burn-out well before they graduate. The most balanced + happy grad students I saw were those who relished the flexibility afforded by the grad school life cycle (choosing your own hours, working from a coffee shop, disappearing for a few weeks to go backpacking after a paper deadline, etc).

  4. This is such a great article! Thanks. I was going through this blog and it has helped me understand so much of experience distilled in this blog. This is really good and Dave Andersen, I might consider talking to you via my CMU email once stuffs are sorted out.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Reflecting on CS Graduate Admissions

Chili Crisp Showdown: Laoganma and Flybyjing

Two examples from the computer science review and publication process