01 Jan 2016
It’s increasingly in vogue to complain about graduate school and the state of higher education. Now that I’ve officially graduated, I want to come out and say, simply: I loved graduate school. Pursuing a Ph.D. was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Here’s why:
Getting a Ph.D. is an extreme growth experience. In four to six (or more) years, you are expected to become a world expert in a topic, produce original results, and communicate them to your field. Becoming an expert in anything is hard. But consider this: by the time you’re done with your dissertation, you’ll have answered questions no one ever answered (or possibly asked) before. Now, the questions may be narrowly scoped, and maybe only you or your dissertation committee care about the answers. But those possibilities don’t diminish the fact that you’ve made a difference, an original contribution.
I don’t know any other opportunity where you, as a person of any age, whether 18 or 85, are given the freedom and the opportunity to so boldly venture into the unknown, for the sake of the unknown. To finish a Ph.D., you have to:
Understand the state of the art in your field (by learning the fundamentals, seminal results, and latest developments, and learning to read research papers).
Perform original research (by learning the methodology of your field, often by building your own instruments and/or learning to use existing ones, formulating new research questions, designing experiments, analyzing the results, and repeating).
Communicate the results to your field (by writing papers, or at least a dissertation, probably by giving several talks along the way, and defending the relevance of your contributions to your field and peers).
This all requires developing a highly diverse skill set in a very short time period. This is hard. It’s one of the hardest things I know to do. Getting a Ph.D. requires creativity, courage, a hefty dose of stubbornness, and a lot of hard work. People will help you, as they helped me, by providing wisdom and guidance and training, but it’s ultimately up to you to do the original research. Again, at the end of the day, you are responsible for answering a question (or several questions) that literally no one else has answered before.
As a result, I personally found the Ph.D. process to be immensely rewarding. My favorite memories of graduate school are of staying up late, jittery and unwilling to sleep because I desperately wanted to know the answer to a question that came up earlier in the day. I wanted to learn, and it was up to me to find the answer. Without exaggeration, I found (and still find) the questioning and answering part of the research process – really, a core aspect of research – to be exhilarating.
Beyond this core process, handling all of the other aspects of graduate school require growth in different dimensions: writing, public speaking, strategy, management, and sometimes politics. I was constantly being stretched. After a big submission or presentation, I’d often look back and be surprised at how far I’d come in the preceding months. Looking back on several years, I’m proud of what I’ve learned and what I’ve worked to accomplish. No dissertation is perfect, but I think many feel similarly about what their dissertations represent in terms of their own personal growth.
As I’ve hinted, along the way towards a Ph.D., you’re surrounded by other bright, courageous, curious individuals, including students, research staff, and faculty. Getting to nerd out all day on deeply technical ideas with other deeply technical people who share your intellectual passions is insanely fun. When I was writing my dissertation acknowledgements, the word that came to mind to describe my time with colleagues in graduate school was “joyful.” I met several of my best friends in graduate school. Maybe because no one else in my program was studying the specific topic that I chose to study, I rarely felt like I was in a competition with the other students. Departments and academic communities have personalities, but they also have people, many of whom are just as excitable as you and are excited about the same topics that you are.
Another amazing aspect of graduate school is that, provided you can find someone (or some department) to support you, you can work on almost anything you want. I think it’s wonderful that people can do dissertations on any number of topics, however practical or theoretical or obscure. The latitude afforded by academic freedom is one of the most beautiful parts of our modern social contract. Funding can be a challenge, but, nevertheless, there are few other institutions that permit such freedom today.
In computer science, we’re especially fortunate to have a huge number of interesting problems at the intersection of cutting-edge research and issues in current practice. There’s good reason why I thank 25 industry practitioners by name in my dissertation acknowledgments: they provided feedback, insight, and inspiration during my dissertation research. It was so much fun to work on research, present it to people who materially cared about the results, then improve the research as a result. At least in computer science, I think this process is much rarer than it needs to be.
Opportunity and Opportunity Cost
Make no mistake: graduate school has a high opportunity cost. In computer science, you’re likely giving up over $100,000 per year to be in school. In expectation, in monetary terms, a Ph.D. in Computer Science is not worth your time.
That said, with a Ph.D. in Computer Science, you can do many things:
The academic job market is extremely challenging. However, computer science is much better than other fields. As I was told early on in my career, you can’t bet on an academic position by any stretch, but you can try.
You can do research in an industrial lab, such as Microsoft Research, VMWare Research, Samsung Research, IBM Research, or HP Research.
You can also start a company, like Andy Konwinski, Patrick Wendell, Reynold Xin, and Matei Zaharia (Databricks), Haoyuan Li (Tachyon Nexus), Ben Hindman (Mesosphere), Sean Kandel (Trifacta), Kuang Chen (Captricity), Joey Gonzalez (Dato), Adam Oliner (Kuro Labs, acquired by Salesforce), and many others did over the past few years (or, a little further back, the students who started Google, VMWare, Tableau, and Nicira). If you work in a practical area, you can use your research as the basic technology behind a commercial venture. Moreover, some of your smart, creative colleagues might want to start something too.
If the entrepreneurial life doesn’t call your name, there will almost certainly be a Google or Facebook that is hiring (along with a number of companies of intermediate sizes), especially if you’re good and you’ve kept up on practical skills. In fact, you might want to work for a larger, established company anyway; there are fun problems to solve there, too.
In fact, a Ph.D. in Computer Science gives you a skill set that can serve you well in industry, wherever you end up. You may not be the best engineer to start, but your critical reasoning skills, communication skills, and discipline can be real assets. In addition, you might end up on a more specialized or technical team than you might have otherwise.
Of course, maybe you’d prefer to start a restaurant or become a artisan shoemaker. There’s no one stopping you, just like there was no one stopping you before; you just happen have a Ph.D. now, and, chances are, you learned a ton along the way.
Maybe not all of the lessons you learned during your Ph.D. are immediately, explicitly marketable. But was that the point? Especially if you read this post before starting a Ph.D., I hope your answer is “no.”
I recognize that I’m fortunate. Extremely fortunate. As a young, white male without debt or dependents in one of the most rapidly growing fields in academia, I’m extraordinarily, unbelievably privileged. In addition, I didn’t come this far alone. I had a fantastic team of mentors and advisors beginning in high school and college who believed in me and taught me to believe in myself. More broadly, academia is not a perfect place. Like many other human institutions, academia has systemic flaws that demand greater attention and improvement.
While acknowledging all of these things, my statement stands: I loved graduate school. N=1 says graduate school can be a challenging, rewarding, and fulfilling experience, and I believe many of my former graduate student friends and colleagues would agree. As a professor, I don’t expect all of my students to love graduate school. Instead, I hope to help cultivate their curiosities, to empower them to ask and answer their own questions. Maybe some of them will love it too.
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