The Ph.D. Grind

I recently read Philip Guo’s memoir, The PhD Grind, detailing his experience working toward a PhD in Computer Science at Stanford. Even though elements of his experience were  unique and wouldn’t apply to many people doing PhDs in other fields, or even in computer science (and he acknowledges this fact), it was still incredibly interesting.

One real strength of this book is that Guo wrote it immediately after finishing his Ph.D., and argues that this was the best time to do so because current Ph.D. students aren’t able to reflect on the entirety of their experience, while people who completed their degrees years ago might have “selective hindsight.” Guo also details the good and the bad, unlike bitter PhD dropouts who dwell on the futility of working on a doctoral degree or successful researchers who extoll the wonderful journey that earning a Ph.D. entails.

An example of a less-than-triumphant time:

At the time, I had absolutely no idea that my first year of Ph.D. would be the most demoralizing and emotionally distressing period of my life thus far.

Another quote that really hit home for me:

I found it almost impossible to shut off my brain and relax in the evenings, which I later discovered was a common ailment afflicting Ph.D. students.

And, during a 10-week period of stagnation in which he hardly spoke to anyone:

There was no point in complaining, since nobody could understand what I was going through at the time. My friends who were not in Ph.D. programs thought that I was merely “in school” and taking classes like a regular student. And the few friends I had made in my department were equally depressed with their own first-year Ph.D. struggles – most notably, the shock of being thrown head-first into challenging, open-ended research problems without the power to affect the high-level direction of their assigned projects.

Related, and a difficulty I’ve already begun encountering:

Unlike our peers with regular nine-to-five jobs, there was no immediate pressure for grad students to produce anything tangible – no short-term deadlines to meet or middle managers to please.

I like this one too:

Contrary to romanticized notions of a lone scholar sitting outside sipping a latte and doodling on blank sheets of notebook paper, real research is never done in a vacuum.

A blunt but honest comment from the epilogue:

There simply aren’t enough available faculty positions, so most Ph.D. students are directly training for a job that they will never get.

But luckily, that thought is followed shortly after by this one:

So why would anyone spend six or more years doing a Ph.D. when they aren’t going to become professors? Everyone has different motivations, but one possible answer is that a PhD program provides a safe environment for certain types of people to push themselves far beyong their mental limits and then emerge stronger as a result… Here is an imperfect analogy: Why would anyone spend years training to excel in a sport such as the Ironman Triathalon – a grueling race consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run – when they aren’t going to become professional athletes? In short, this experience pushes people far beyond their physical limits and enables them to emerge stronger as a result. In some ways, doing a Ph.D. is the intellectual equivalent of intense athletic training.

Overall, Guo’s memoir recounts many more struggles that triumphs, but in the end, he still accomplished what he set out to do and claims to have made tremendous gains in the process. Maybe I’m in denial (thinking, “oh, but he was in Computer Science, so that won’t happen to me”), but I didn’t finish the book discouraged. Instead, I think I finished with some realistic expectations and even more determination that while an Ironman Triathalon may never be in the cards for me, I’m up for the challenge of the “Ph.D. grind.”

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4 comments

  1. What is Guo doing now? Seems to me like he still might be biased even though he claims he is not. But still sounds like a great read!

    1. I agree- you probably can’t write a memoir without some bias… At the end of the book, he wrote that he was “retiring” from academia, in part because his publication record wasn’t good enough. According to his site, he’s right now working as a postdoc at MIT and a research scientist for edX, and will be starting as an asst. prof. next year at University of Rochester. Plans change, I guess!

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