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!

Hints for Sacks-like Success from On the Move

Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, professor, writer, and role model for many in medicine and other scientific fields. He had a unique ability to view patients in context, a refreshing opposition to the common tendency to treat each symptom in isolation. He wrote prolifically about his patients and what they could teach us about the mind, brain, and body. And his books were widely accessible – no M.D. needed to understand their contents.

When he died recently, many people wrote moving tributes to Dr. Sacks and his life. As I read some of these, I realized that I had read startlingly little of his writing, so I decided to read his memoir, On the Move. Sacks doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda with this book besides to share his life story. We learn about everything that was most important to him – people, places, jobs, and interests. In many ways, this book reminds us that even this revered doctor is still a person like the rest of us. There’s tension in his family, people who criticize his work, and he has his heart broken. At the same time, though, I often found myself thinking, he’s really not just like the rest of us – there’s something special here. I think that many of those unique traits contributed to his success, so I’ve tried to compile a few here.

Oliver Sacks spent a lot of time alone. He writes quite a bit about how much he loved his motorcycles and his time on them. Although this is something he did do with others at times, he refers to himself as a lone rider. Sacks seemed to be at peace with being alone. He writes that “by disposition I am solitary and venture to believe that the best, at least the most creative, part of me is solitary.”

He passionately pursued things that were far from his work. One of these activities was weightlifting. Lifting didn’t seem to be a just hobby for Sacks, but instead became a central part of his life at times. This quote hilariously sums up his commitment: “Rationing myself to five double cheeseburgers and half a dozen milkshakes per evening and training hard, I bulked up swiftly…” He did end up setting a lifting record in the state of California, further proof that this was not a half-hearted diversion for him.

On a related note, he threw himself fully into everything he did – especially his work. When he had a goal, it seems that nothing could stop him from achieving it. “It was the first of September, and I said to myself, ‘If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.’ And under that thread, I started writing.” That’s certainly one approach to getting your writing done on time.

He embraced writing. He explains that “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing.” Although it seems that he was sometimes able to sit down and write prolifically for hours (at one point he refers to an “explosion of writing”), he also shares his lulls. His book A Leg to Stand On gave him prolonged trouble, taking almost 10 years to complete.

These are not necessarily traits that we can force ourselves to have. Oliver Sacks was a truly unique person who produced insightful and inspiring work. But knowing a little more about the person behind this phenomenal physician and writer may help us to embrace our own oddities and see the ways that they contribute to our unique successes as well.

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