Questions you never knew you had about doing a PhD

A few times a month, I receive an email from Quora, a site where people ask questions and people with background on that topic weigh in. My Quora digest has questions they suspect I might be interested in. They’re almost always about doing a PhD. Here are some of the most intriguing ones. The responses are often thorough (long), so I’ve linked to them and included pieces from my favorites here.

Is pursuing a PhD as stressful as a full time job? Or more?

TLDR: It depends.

Ravi Santo noted that a PhD is likely a different kind of stress than a typical 9-to-5 job, and the stress varies based on which phase of the PhD you’re in. He describes a whirlwind phase (coursework), followed by a crunch (qualifying exam, or whatever the program requires to count as having achieved a Master’s degree), the plan (proposing the dissertation), and finally discovery (analyzing and writing the thesis).

Kyle Niemeyer pointed out that unlike many 9-to-5s, PhD students (or academics more generally) don’t usually leave work at work. They don’t stop what they’re doing because it’s 5:00 or Friday, and having your work follow you everywhere can be stressful. But on the flip side, academics often enjoy more flexibility in their schedules. The virtue is also the vice.

Some people weighed in saying a PhD is definitely more stressful, while others said they miss the glorious days of writing a PhD, when they had a single primary objective, as opposed to life in their post-PhD jobs with many responsibilities. We’ll agree to disagree and move on.

What is a depressing fact you’ve realized after/during your PhD?

TLDR: There are a lot. I’ll list some that seem to recur.

It’s been said that writing a dissertation is like giving birth— French feminist Helene Cixous even posited that men write as way of replacing reproduction.

But there’s a big difference between the two. After you have a baby, people want to see the baby and ask about it, and think it’s cute; whereas after you’ve slaved over your dissertation and defended it, no one will ever want to see it or hear about it.
-Ken Eckert

Other responders mentioned competition, starting to hate the subject you once loved, and, maybe most commonly, that it’s incredibly hard to obtain a tenure-track job afterward. In some cases, hard work isn’t enough to achieve success, whether because you need to rely on other people (especially advisors), or because you’re not at a prestigious university, or simply because experiments and lines of research are just sometimes not fruitful.

This segues well into another question:

Why is it so difficult to do a PhD?

TLDR: Research

Leading to grad school, education is based on a model where students are taught information, and are subsequently given questions about that information to answer. Once you start a PhD, however, you have to first find the problem, then figure out the best way to address it, and then actually do it.

  • You may find a problem, but it may not be solvable, so you will need to iterate through multiple attempts to find a problem
  • The problem may be solved by someone else while you work on it! (so, you need to start from scratch)
  • There is a solution, but it is hard to find and you have to make a call: do I keep trying or do I give up?
    -Konstantinos Konstantinides

Others pointed out that successful PhD students need to be patient, courageous, focused, and persistent. Come on, that’s not that much to ask for…

How do top/successful PhD students lead their lives?

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They drink coffee and write blog posts, obviously.

The responses to this question share a common theme — successful PhD students are thoughtful about their research. They don’t rush into a project, but carefully consider a topic first. And when they design studies, they focus on those that measure a lot of things (collect a lot of data), to increase the chances that they’ll have usable results, no matter how the data turn out.

What happens after a PhD?

TLDR: It depends.

“I think also, once you’ve seen the sausage being made, you see how arbitrary the point at which you get a Ph.D. is” -Ben Webster

It’s often anti-climactic. Some people report their minds going blank, or their parents celebrating more than they themselves did, or making sure the first thing they did was pick up a fiction book. Ultimately, Krishna KumariChalla comments that what happens after a PhD is “Simple: What you decide would happen!”

I have some experience with the topics of all of these questions except this last one. I believe there might be such a thing as post-PhD life, but it’s hard to picture right now as I’m deep in my fourth year. For now, I’ll rely on these Quora contributors and will report back later.

What other important PhD questions do you have? Let’s ask the Internet!

What is research? Implicit learning during a PhD

Each spring, UCSD requires all MFA and PhD students to undergo an annual evaluation. The department and university’s graduate division make sure we’re making adequate progress toward our degree. This includes coursework, but also requires each student and advisor to reflect on progress in the last year, plus strengths and weaknesses. It’s a formality and we can get away with writing very little of substance, but for me it’s a great reminder to stop what I’m doing and reflect on the past year. What have I done well? What would I like to improve? How will I do so in the next year? This is a time to reflect on how I’ve developed as a researcher, teacher, thinker, and person.

From my progress report, May 2014, at the end of my first academic year in grad school:

I have engaged in a lot of implicit learning during my first year of graduate school. Undoubtedly, I’ve also learned a lot explicitly – the theoretical foundations for cognitive science, an overview of systems neuroscience, and how to program an experiment in Matlab are a few examples. Though more difficult to quantify and articulate, the knowledge I’ve learned implicitly may be what best characterizes the progress I’ve made this year.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe many successful cognitive scientists, ranging from grad students who are only one year ahead of me to tenured faculty and distinguished speakers. As a result of this exposure, I’ve not only learned more about the field, but have also gained a better understanding of what constitutes a good research question and solid research methods. I’ve also realized that collaboration and community are essential for conducting good research, and that sharing ideas with others, whether informally over lunch or more formally at a CRL [Center for Research on Language] talk, is beneficial to both sharer and listeners. I’ve learned when to ask for help and whom to approach with different types of questions. By doing this, the phrase “it takes a village” has taken on a new importance for me – the idea of doing research in a vat is nearly as unrealistic as expecting cognition to manifest from brain in one.

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Community… by Kamaljith K V. CC BY

My research projects this year may best demonstrate the implicit learning I did. I only ran a few pilot studies, and I certainly have no significant findings to show for my work. However, I learned what working on a relatively nebulous (and intriguing) question entails. It includes defining a question, thinking creatively about how to investigate it, and doing exploratory work.

I wrote more, but I’ll spare my loyal readers from what I aptly referred to in this progress report as “academic soul searching.” I took a lot in that year, and it didn’t feel like I put out nearly as much. In hindsight, I’m comfortable with that investment of time to deepen my understanding of the world I was joining. Grad school is really different from undergrad.

Here’s how I summed up my first year in that same reflection: During my first year, I have recognized the importance of communities and communication for success in graduate school and academia. I still believe that communities and communication are some of the most important pillars in my grad school and professional career, so maybe all that implicit learning wasn’t quite as implicit as I believed it to be.

Only one eye on the prize

From my journal, November 2015, my third year in grad school:

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That gray silhouette is my mom. I call her most days, but sometimes we text instead. We probably spend half our time talking about daily life — yoga, work, what we’re cooking for dinner — and the other half of our time talking about our thoughts. My thoughts are often future-oriented. For example, I talk about trips that are scheduled for 6 months out as if they’re tomorrow because the future just always feels so imminent. I also talk a lot about my professional future, even though I’m not even sure what my professional goals are. I’m constantly asking myself (internally and aloud), what I can do to secure that all-fulfilling (and elusive) job that’ll allow me to positively impact the world, stay challenged, and help pay the bills for a comfortable home in a stimulating city.

My mom listens so much (thanks, Mom!). She validates my ideas, suggests other things to consider, and maybe most importantly, reminds me that the present is pretty great too. Goals are crucial, and we attain them by having our “eye on the prize.” But luckily we have two eyes. Our biological eyes may not be able to focus on two different things, but our metaphorical ones can. We can keep one eye on the prize while focusing the other on the present. When I do that, I remember that this current stage of my life — 4th year of my PhD, exploring different ways that metaphor shapes thought, in a mind-blowing Cognitive Science department in America’s Finest City — is pretty darn amazing.

For a while, this was the prize that I kept my eye on. When I was an undergrad at Vassar, as I started to learn more about language and cognitive science and more about research, I set my eye on graduate school, and soon after set my eye on THIS graduate school. I wanted to be accepted so much that I cried. Then I was accepted. I came to UCSD and started grad school. In typical human fashion, as the former prize became the present, I looked forward again to the next prize. Even though that next prize is still foggy in my mind, I know there must be a prize there, and I know I want to position myself as best as possible to attain it. So one eye will stay there. But as for the other…

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Ocean Beach Pier, San Diego, CA. Photos By Clark. CC BY-NC

Just start

From my journal, halfway through my third year, April, 2016. On beginning my dissertation proposal.

For many people, a dissertation only encompasses a piece of your grad school work. Knowing that, how do I know what the right scope is for a dissertation proposal?

Feelings of paralysis, which I’m not very familiar with.

My advisor says, just start. Write an outline. Write a second one, trying something different. Keep trying things.

Less than a year later, I’ve been starting to talk and think about breaking ground on my actual dissertation. Quickly, I start to feel similar feelings: but where do I start? 

I really enjoy Alain de Botton‘s website The Book of Life. While wondering what projects to write about for my dissertation proposal, I came across a helpful post: How to dare to begin. He points out: “In general, we can only start working when the fear of not doing anything finally exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

He advises people to visit the studio, not the gallery. The gallery houses polished works, while the studio houses those in progress. This is hard to do for academic writing because people keep their unpolished work hidden, but it’s important to remember that when you’re reading the published work, you’re seeing the gallery products. But they all began in a studio.

de Botton also reminds readers that “the imperfect can still be very good, noble and admirable. For something to be loved and valued, it really isn’t necessary for it to be perfect.” This especially resonates with me right now because I often hear that “the best dissertation is a done dissertation.” 

Next, remember that in the grand scheme of things, like all human life on this planet, the thing you’re afraid to start is pretty darn small in scope. Actually, it basically doesn’t matter at all. And finally, scrutinize your fears. If you’ve taken his advice up to here, you’ll probably realize that your fears don’t have a leg to stand on.

Once you start, you just have to make sure you Keep Going.

First year, through the eyes of a baby bird

From my journal, April 2014, 6 months into my first year of grad school.

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Baby bird by Ryan Keene. CC

This is what I feel like. Vulnerable, awkward, feeling tentative about leaving the comfort of my nest, beak wide open hoping to consume as much as possible.

I still feel like that sometimes. I think baby birds usually learn how to fly pretty quickly, but becoming a researcher is not so quick. I spent a while early in my grad career flapping my wings frantically – I was doing the activities that I saw everyone else doing, but I felt like I still wasn’t getting it in the way that they were. They’d flap and fly. I’d flap and stay grounded.

But gradually, my flapping started to lift me off the ground. Initially, I’d be airborne only briefly. Over time, I spent longer in the air. I’m still on the ground flapping some days, but I now spend much more time actually flying. I probably couldn’t yet withstand a full-blown winter migration, but I can get from place to place. The real miraculous thing is that some days I don’t even have to flap my wings so hard to fly. I flap a little, and with way less effort than I used to expend, I can soar.

But we all start as baby birds.

Riding the Grad School Motorcycle

From my journal, October 2013, about one month after I began grad school:

This morning when my alarm went off I was deep in a dream – a rare experience for me. I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and my learning method was just to go for a ride on the highway. As I was picking up speed on the ramp, I yelled to my dad’s friend, on a motorcycle beside me, “How do I shift gears?!” His reply: “With your hands.” That much I knew. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, maybe “with your hands” is an adequate explanation of how you shift gears. Since I’ve never driven one, just knowing I had to use my hands did not seem like useful information.

I was puzzled by where this dream was coming from until I remembered that today was my day to lead a seminar discussion on 120+ pages of material that I barely grasped. A little like learning to ride a motorcycle by just speeding ahead and giving it a try. The advice to shift “with my hands” is also pretty analogous to the advice I’ve gotten since I’ve started grad school. The answer may as well have been: “figure it out.” Luckily, the negative consequence of not figuring it out is much harsher in my dream than in real life.

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On top of Trinity Mt at 300ft by Craig Howell. CC

Maybe this dream was some unconscious way of coping with my stress, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But almost 3 and a half years later, I still really like the analogy. The whole point of academic research is to uncover knowledge that is currently unknown by anyone. With that task, it’s often hard to give concrete advise on how to do things. People can give vague advice like shift with your hands (or find a work-life balance or communicate your science clearly), but those pieces of advice are often followed by the question how? and that answer is more elusive. That can be stressful.

But it can also make research so much fun.

Choose your own framing.

Dear Future Grad Students

These next couple of days are Open House in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD. Prospective PhD students submitted applications in December, and a subset were invited to visit this weekend. A subset of those visitors will be invited to begin their PhDs in our department in the fall. The two days will include one-on-one interviews with faculty; department lunches, dinners and happy hour; lab, campus, and beach tours; and most likely, exhaustion.


Dear Future Grad Students,

I’ve been thinking about you all week. I vividly remember my own visit here 4 years ago, and each year as Open House approaches, I find it useful to reflect back.

I left snowy New York in February and was greeted by a typical San Diego sunny afternoon. It was my first time in California, which is basically a mystical land to lifelong New Englanders like me. Even before going to campus, I walked to La Jolla Cove. I was hangry because I didn’t have enough snacks for my cross-country flight, but as soon as I had a few bites of food, I realized I was in love with San Diego. And as soon as I realized I was in love, I started thinking, oh no. No, no, no. Don’t fall in love. You haven’t been accepted yet.

The next day on campus, we were told that the department was not just interviewing us, the candidates, but we were also interviewing them, deciding if this was the place we wanted to be. They’d be on their best behavior. Ah! Please don’t woo me, I haven’t been accepted yet!

It was a great weekend. I met interesting people, and one in particular ended up in a grad program elsewhere, but became a great friend. I heard about fascinating research that had never crossed my radar. I saw the beach, and I saw so much Cog Sci enthusiasm.

But I was also stressed. I wanted to come to UCSD. I wanted to be part of the community of researchers doing mind-blowing work on language and cognition. It didn’t feel like a want then, though. Definitely a need.

I’d like to think I handled those feelings maturely. I took a red-eye back to New York, and once back in my apartment, I called my mom bawling. What if I don’t get accepted? Can I possibly apply again next year? But could I face rejection twice? (This was the question on my mind before I had even been rejected once).

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After my teary phone call to my mom, I went to a formal at West Point with my then-boyfriend, now-husband Steven. Happy on the outside, frantic inside.

To state the obvious, I was accepted. Of course my reaction seems ludicrous now. And most of you are not going to feel or bawl like I did. But you’ll have your own stress, your own feelings, and your own reactions. And we, the current grad students (and likely the faculty), can relate. Four years ago, I wish I had been better able to acknowledge my stress and put it aside to savor the unique opportunity that just being at Open House provides. I fell a little short there, but you don’t have to.

I encourage you to take a moment to put your CV away, unclench your shoulders, and breathe. You’re here. No matter where you are in life, you have some direction of where you want to go. You have have solid, original ideas about Cognitive Science, and you successfully portrayed those in your application. Members of the UC San Diego Cognitive Science Department want to meet you. Whether you end up joining us here at UCSD or not, I hope you can enjoy these next couple of days. We are happy to have you.

Stay Curious,
Rose

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True. (This image and feature image: cogsci.ucsd.edu)

P.S. There are tons of resources with advice for choosing PhD programs. I take them all with more than a grain of salt — probably more like a McDonald’s super sized meal’s worth of salt. There are a few that really resonate with me though:

Slowing down

I recently had a (teary) conversation with a mentor about my dissertation. I’ve done a lot of research, much of which I’m not even planning to include in my dissertation, but I know (and my dissertation committee said) that my dissertation could use more depth. I was attempting to pitch a new experiment to add in, and I received feedback that I was probably trying to squeeze moisture from a rock that might give me a few drops, but that other projects would probably result in better bang for my buck (more important results for the time I’d have to put in). She suggested I might be sacrificing quality for speed.

My first reaction was to feel defensive. I’m pouring effort in, churning out experiments, grinding the data as quickly as possible, and drafting up the results. There’s not much validation in the PhD process: there are no gold stars and criticism far outweighs praise.

Further, academic work often feels like a race. You get credit for the number of publications you have and the impact factors of those publications. Early on a professor commented, “You are now in the paper business. Every activity you do in grad school should geared toward that end.” I’ve embraced my role in the paper business, assimilating academia’s publish or perish mentality into my work, allowing it to drive the papers I read, the experiments I run, and how I frame those experiments, creating new stories to explain unexpected results. I’m playing the game, and I think I’m playing it pretty well, and now she wants me to slow down?

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Slow Down by Arti Sandhu, CC

As our conversation (is it still a conversation if one person is struggling to make sentences amidst tears?) continued, I started to come around to what she was saying: yes, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself. Yes, I am hyper-focused on forward progress, and no, I haven’t thought too much about whether the work I’m doing is really the most impactful it can be. I’m staying busy and making sure I have things to show for that busy-ness. I cannot rest until I check something off a list, and at that point I’ve probably added a few more items to the list anyway.

But since I already have good research, and I’m not running out of funding, maybe it is time to take a step back. I need to pull away from the quest to find yet another p-value that’s less than .05, and think about bigger ideas: What important answers do we still not have about how metaphors shape cognition? And how can I work on those? As I started truly believing that I should slow down, I stumbled upon this great post on The Slow Grad Student – great affirmation.

One thing that helps me take a step back in evaluating my research is to truly take a step back from work. No one helps me do that quite like my best friend (whom I’m married to, coincidentally!), and I spent the past weekend visiting him (Steven lives in San Antonio and I live in San Diego).

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I hope some of the time we spent jogging, cooking dinner, and working on our jigsaw puzzle has helped me recharge and put publish-or-perish pressures on the back burner to do the best work I can.

WOOPing for my dissertation proposal

I’m going to advance to candidacy this week, which means I will propose my dissertation to my committee of five faculty members. I’ve already submitted a written proposal, but at the end of the week I’ll give a talk about my plans for about 45 minutes or an hour. I know all five of my committee members, and they all have a rough idea of the work I’m proposing. If they agree that my work is sufficient, I will be a PhD candidate, one step away from having a PhD (the size of that step varies though, so don’t be fooled). I’m not expecting intimidating interrogating or yelling or finger pointing, but it’s an event I’ve prepared thoroughly for, and things that require deep preparation are usually also at least a little anxiety-provoking. Normally when I have  events like this one, I picture myself excelling – if I tell myself that I can give a good talk, I will!

On my bus ride home one day recently, I was listening to The Hidden Brain podcast, and heard an episode called WOOP, There It Is. The psychologist being interviewed, Gabriele Oettingen, wrote a book called Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Oettingen’s main point was that positive thinking can backfire. What’s positive thinking? She gave an example (both in the podcast and in this article she wrote for aeon) of an experiment she actually ran. College students came to her lab and imagined that they saw their current crush at a party. The researchers asked the students to fill in the rest of the scenario: what happened at this imaginary party after you saw your crush? Some students gave very positive endings to the story, imagining the start of a wonderful relationship, while others gave less romantic endings, for example that the crush started talking to someone else. Five months later, the people who had given the less positive responses were actually more likely to have attempted to strike up a relationship with their crush than the uber-positive dreamers.

Across a range of studies with diverse participants, Oettingen and her colleagues have found that people who think more positively about achieving their goals are actually less likely to achieve those goals than those who think less positively (more realistically?). These findings hold for professional, health, academic, and relational goals (detailed examples can be found on this site, WOOP my life).

Why is positive thinking so bad? Oettingen claims that it relaxes us and tricks our brain into thinking we’ve achieved our goal. This decreases our likelihood of actually acting on those goals. This relaxation is evident physiologically, she notes:

After having participants in one study positively fantasise about the future for as little as a few minutes, we observed declines in systolic blood pressure, a standard measure of a person’s energy level. These declines were significant: whereas smoking a cigarette will typically raise a person’s blood pressure by five or 10 points, engaging in positive fantasies lowers it by about half as much. (via aeon)

Without digging extensively into her papers, I’m not sure that I buy her claim here about the “mechanism” – that lower blood pressure is a sign that thinking positively calms us too much and makes us think at some level we’ve achieved the thing we wanted to and now are less likely to act on it. I’m skeptical, but I do believe her claim that there’s a way to evade dooming yourself by positive thinking.

Oettingen notes that if people engage in a process that she and her team call WOOP, they’ll actually fare better on a range of health, interpersonal, and academic measures than people who don’t WOOP it up. Here’s an example of how I might engage in WOOP for my upcoming talk:

  • Wish: I hope that I will present my work to my dissertation committee clearly.
  • Outcome: I imagine myself focused but relaxed enough that my words flow, confident with my material but not over-practiced; my committee is clearly engaged in the presentation I’m delivering
  • Obstacle: Someone may ask me a question I don’t know how to respond to.
  • Plan: If someone asks me something that stumps me, I can do any or all of these things: ask them to rephrase it; take a second, a swig of water, a deep breath, and give it my best shot; or simply say, “That’s a really great question that I’ll have to find out.”
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My plan.

The researchers have tested WOOP against similar exercises, like stating your intentions to do something positive (for example, I intend to be calm, focused, and avoid getting flustered when I give the talk), and in contexts as different as low-income mothers’ likelihood of attending a vocational program and stroke patients losing weight, WOOP produces the best outcomes.

 

So throughout this week I’ll be running a mini-experiment on myself, WOOPing about my advancement as often as possible, and hoping at the end of the week I’ll have one more piece of positive evidence in favor of WOOP.

Remembered Lessons from James Watson

Reading a memoir often feels like holding an in-depth conversation with the author, albeit a largely one-sided conversation. When I finish, I feel like I’ve just spent hours with an accomplished person who has something valuable to share. What’s better, I’ve taken in the information at my own speed, on my own watch, and haven’t had to worry about things like exactly how much eye contact I should make while listening and when and what to interject. Humans’ thoughts and experiences are so often fascinating, and this is one of my favorite ways to learn about them.

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I was recently browsing the memoir section of the library and a book called Avoid Boring People caught my eye (how could it not?). It’s a memoir by James Watson, one the discoverers of the structure of DNA. The book chronicles Watson’s life, focusing on his path to scientific success. Each chapter discusses a phase of his life so far, and concludes with a list of Remembered Lessons, which are written as nuggets of advice to scientist readers.

The beginning of the book really captured me. Maybe Watson’s earliest days in science are the most interesting to me because I’m still near the beginning of my own scientific career. As I neared the midway point, though, Watson had already won his Nobel and I had to put the book down because I was getting bored of reading page after page about Watson’s elbow-rubbing with other famous scientists and the details of so many of his experiments. I realize the irony of my capitulation given the book’s title, but the latter half of the book just wasn’t for me. Maybe it was just to hard to identify with an older man who was a Nobel-prize winning scientist and seems to speak biochemistry as a second language.

I did, however, skim the book to read the rest of the Remembered Lessons, which I had been enjoying since the start. I’ve decided to share some that resonate with me. If you’re not up to reading Watson’s 320+ page magnum opus (actually, it’s just one of his three memoirs), here are some of my favorite takeaways:

  • College is for learning how to think.
  • Keep your intellectual curiosity much broader than your thesis objective. Especially timely advice for me, as I’m in the process of drilling deeply into one topic in order to formulate my dissertation proposal.
  • Banal thoughts necessarily also dominate clever minds. He comments that “most high-powered minds… mostly lie idle until the input of one or more new facts stimulates their neurons to resolve the conundrums that stump them.”
  • Exercise exorcises intellectual blahs. I’ve heard it has a few other benefits too…
  •  Read out loud your written words. 
    And of course…
  • Avoid boring people. Watson means this boring both its verb and adjective senses: Do not bore people and do not associate with people who bore you.

Amen to that!