Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Dear brilliant students: Please consider not doing a PhD. (liv.dreamwidth.org)
224 points by Cass on Jan 22, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 129 comments

Boy, all the articles about Ph.D.'s on HN are so negative. I had a great time getting mine. I got a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon. I guess it must depend a lot on the subject you're studying. We mostly did classes for the first two years. We got an adviser in the second year, and gradually ramped up the research. I finished in 4 years and 3 months. Pretty much everyone in the program would finish in 4-4.5 years. Everyone worked very closely with their adviser, and didn't have the "drift" I read about a lot, where students seem to feel alone. It was do 3 papers, write your thesis, and get out. I really enjoyed the chance to do research, and do a really deep dive on a subject. They funded everyone, enough to live to a "grad student" standard. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Note that there is a huge difference between the UK PhD and the US PhD process.

In the UK you are left to your own devices for 3 years, and only find out if the external examiner even approves of your research questions in the one and only final verbal exam. It is up to you alone to ensure the research is valid and makes a contribution.

US PhD candidates have a lot more guidance and handholding that includes 4 years of structured training, followed by the presentation of a research plan that is signed off by examiners before any research is begun so there are no surprises in the final examination.

Thanks for pointing this out.

Just a few paragraphs into the article, I was thinking the author had done a spectacularly bad job of picking an adviser (or supervisor). In my experience, "meaningful intermediate goals" and feedback are the reason for having an adviser.

Not to say that all advisers are very good at providing goals and feedback, though.

At good uk universities you get excellent guidance, with multiple intermittent milestones and ongoing scrutinisation of your progress. Unless you pick a rubbish supervisor who simply doesn't care. Though I only can speak of Oxford..

It's also important to note that the supervising culture varies a lot between subjects. Computer scientists are usually spoiled by good supervision, but in the humanities you might see your supervisor only twice a year.. (and I do know people in Oxford in that situation).

I think it's also worth saying that phrasing it as "picking a rubbish superviser" puts an unfair blame on the student. By the time you realize your advisor is neglectful, or incompetent as a teacher, or actually neglectful, you might be a year or more down a research path. There might not be another professor at your school qualified and willing to supervise your research. The choice at that point, whether to tough it out or to throw away all your progress up to that point, is an incredibly difficult one.

(FWIW, my advisor in theoretical physics was merely neglectful. Almost all of my friend in an experimental field had advisors who bordered on abusive.)

I did my PhD in Comp.Sci. at the University of Liverpool. It lasted 3.8 months (as I took more time to write my thesis in English). At the end of each year my progress was reviewed in several way (a 1 on 1 interview with a thesis advisor, a departmental presentation, etc).

I had the best supervisors I could ask for (yeah I got two of them). Every week (first year) or every two weeks (second year) I met with them to discuss about my progress. Shit, they even helped me on the "culture shock" of a Mexican living in the UK (and coping with the heavy NW accent).

Moreover, one of my supervisors invited me to join a EPSRC project which led me to work (in my own chosen subject) with great scholars from different parts of the UK ( and form people from the industry.

Although I have a great experience during my PhD and in the 3 years postdoc I did in Germany, I decided academia was not for me. I got tired of the "publish or perish" part , and I decided to pursue my real passion: programming software.

I believe what you're referring to is this, taken from the University of York Computer Science PhD pages:

"Please note also that all Research students embarking on a PhD programme are initially enrolled provisionally for that qualification. It is the responsibility of the student’s Thesis Advisory Panel to recommend whether or not the student’s enrolment for the PhD should be confirmed (consideration & confirmation takes place within 2 years for full time students and four years for part time students). Confirmations are approved by the University's Standing Committee on Assessment. For more information please contact"

Which, standing on it's own, sounds a bit frightening, but when read in context, you see that students are not left to their own devices or 2-4 years:


4 years of structured training, followed by the presentation of a research plan that is signed off by examiners before any research is begun so there are no surprises in the final examination.

And ideally, this plan has been discussed at length with the advisor before the formal proposal happens.

This is a failing of your supervisor and university if you have this experience in a UK university. I'm currently supervising PhD students at De Montfort University and we are required by the university to have AT LEAST monthly meetings with our students (usually 2-3 supervisors per student too). We support our students with seminar and theoretical workshop series, and encourage and support our particularly promising students to produce papers and submit them to conferences and journals.

There is a LOT of hand holding that goes on in our PhD programme. But your mileage may vary. I've heard that Russell Group universities can be a particularly mixed bag in this regard, but academics at other universities without such big names have more to gain by supporting our students.

I think it is highly dependent on field. My field, biology, is basically like flipping a coin. Do you graduate in five years or nine? Will you come out with a golden road to tenure or a life destined to work sad, lonely, post-docs? Flip that coin!

No matter how smart you are, the Gods of Biology are fickle. You may end up with a shitty protein, an assay that only works when the moon is aligned with Venus or cells that only grow when you swirl counter-clockwise.

As much as people like to pretend Biology is science...the sad truth is that a lot is practically voodoo incantations to the protocol devised 15 years ago by a post-doc.

It's one of the main reasons I left. You have to be Smart, Persistent AND Lucky. I'm fine with the first two, but when my career is hinged on luck...well, I started exploring fields that didn't quite as much require blind faith in the universe.


I wish there was some way to fix the situation with protocols in biology. Maybe we could attempt to identify the reasons that they suck, and then fix those reasons. There was a stackexchange site for protocols called methodmint, but nobody used that. Biologists either hate the internet or they hate computers because all of the attempts to get informal web communication happening have failed (even by email). It complicates things even more.

I don't think it's either of those things - biologists and biochemists just seem to be ridiculously busy, in part because of spending to long in the lab trying to get your crap to work. Every lab I've been in has an inefficient process by which people share, modify and troubleshoot their protocols amongst themselves - but that's convenient because you can ask the guy on the bench next to you. How to get researchers to invest more time and effort, communicating with people they don't explicitly have to, is the problem.

Dont forget that each machine you use is slightly different, so there are protocols that exist for those labs and those particular pieces of gear set up that way.

I did my PhD in ECE specifically computer vision and had a decent time, but pretty much everyone I encountered during their PhD in biology had some horror story to tell.

It was do 3 papers, write your thesis, and get out.

I'm a CS grad student at Technion, and that's basically how my advisor has described our grad-school process.

Paper 1: your MSc thesis.

Papers 2 and 3: If related to paper 1, combine into your PhD thesis.

3 related papers on one broad topic => thesis, you're done.


There's one important issue with this picture

You don't have the bigger picture. In fact sometimes you don't even know that a person in another country (or why not, maybe in another university in the same city) did what you were trying to do, or already knows something you don't.

Not to mention the Feuds, aah the feuds. Like something showing up in IEEE but in ACM it's gone and forgotten (or the other way round)

Well yeah, this is why we have a couple of things:

* Literature reviews. Check the published literature before thinking you've got an original research proposal.

* Conference/journal reviewers. If something's unoriginal in your paper, they will reject you in an instant.

Of course. But even with this sometimes it's hard

And reviewers sometimes skip things.

This is a very good reason for open-access, searchable publications.

Completely agreed.

Haha, funny there's another chemical engineer on HN. Maybe our major is just a good one for grad school experiences.

I think you make a great point--the thing is that is really depends on the program, and students should meet students currently in the program, chat with them, and see how things are for them.

As others are saying in this thread, I find myself disagreeing with almost every point the author makes about doing a PhD. I'm just about to hand in my thesis after 3 and half years of doing a PhD in theoretical physics in the UK. I've published 2 papers and have a third in preparation so I feel like my PhD has been 'good'. In contrast to the author, I've worked on my PhD no more than 40 hours a week, often less since I've also spent a lot of time building up a website and a business that I hope to pursue full-time afterwards. I also haven't been 'broken' in anyway - sure it was tough at times, but I'm leaving my PhD feeling more intelligent and more energised that I ever did. The experience of pushing myself into the unknown and having to learn a lot in a short time has been very beneficial, and I now feel like there is little knowledge that I couldn't master given the time. So all in all, a very positive experience. Sure my research isn't particularly groundbreaking, but the personal development that has come with my PhD has been huge.

The UK system is reputed to be far less abusive than the US system. The US system put me through the frigging wringer.

Take this with an enormous grain of salt, but some vague memories from conversations with UK grad students (I worked in a UK university for a few years a while back):

(1) UK undergrad programs are a lot more focused, so students tend to be a lot further along before they start a PhD program.

(2) UK PhD students are funded for a fixed time 3(?) years, and then you're supposed to be done. That doesn't always happen, of course—I knew students who went on the dole to continue once their funding ended—but the system is focused on getting them out in that period. In the U.S., on the other hand, there seems to be a lot more variability; we've all heard the stories about CS grad students that take 10 years to get their degree...

> UK undergrad programs are a lot more focused, so students tend to be a lot further along before they start a PhD program.

It depends. Definitely doing a theory-based PhD can benefit from a European (not just UK) undergrad education, but in systems or implementation, American undergrads actually have an edge (everything else being equal, which is never true).

> PhD students are funded for a fixed time 3(?) years, and then you're supposed to be done.

Truth. I didn't know anyone to get out in 5 or 6 years, let alone three (in the American system).

That is because American PhD and English PhD are fundamentally different. English PhD programmes usually have no curriculum (or only coursed to bring everyone up to the same level coming from their previous degrees during 4-year courses that are highly interdisciplinary).

In the sciences, people either do 4 year undergrad degrees followed by 4 year (usually funded) PhDs, or they do 3/2/3 years (undergrad/Masters/PhD). In the social sciences and humanities, 3/2/3 or 3/1/3 or 4/1/3 are normal, going from undergrad directly into PhD is higly unusual in these.

The US 5/6 years usually include a Masters degree, as far as I know, which is usually not the case in the UK.

We had a couple of years of light course work in my phd school, followed by research. We didn't have a masters in our path either (I don't have one). But a master degree is not very relevant to a CS phd.

We (US vs. UK PhDs) aren't that different, we compete at about the same level on completion (with typical personal variations, of course). Even the length of the PhD program doesn't seem to be as important as total length in field.

> Even the length of the PhD program doesn't seem to be as important as total length in field.

Oh, I by no means meant to disagree with this!

My point was that the programs themselves are differently structured, so comparing the actual time a PhD takes does not really work, since there are a number of possible combinations of undergrad/grad(/grad)-degrees that make up the length of an individual project. In the end, people will probably be at about the same stage, but that does not mean that going from undergrad straight into a PhD in the US and the UK work he same way. As a further example, in Germany, you were able to do just a PhD, as your only degree ever, until relatively recently. In the end, it probably wouldn't matter, since PhD is PhD (in a way), but your way there is hardly comparable!

My other observation with the same corollaries is that UK students tend to be better at getting on with things as GENERALLY they have been given more independence and have been treated more as adults during their undergrads. US university can feel a bit like high school++ at times (e.g. compulsory gen ed, I've even seen classes take attendance, constant exams with an average grade instead of a few big end of degree exams, homework, etc.).

I went to UW, one of the toughest public universities in the states. Depending on the class, our grades were almost exclusively determined by finals, but some classes (like physics) had mandatory labs and homework, which you did but they didn't help you very much (they could definitely hurt you) since the classes were heavily curved anyways (i.e. dog eat dog). Physics was also a big weed out class for engineering like Chemistry was for pre-med; 30+% of the class was expected to fail, and many more probably actually failed!

I actually found in-major comp sci courses to be EASIER than the pelim courses I took before I got into the department.

To be honest, I've heard that UK universities were easy, even Cambridge/Oxford, compared to some of the tougher US universities. But I really have no clue!

I don't have any experience with the US system, but I've heard similar things. In fact, when I started reading this article I assume the author was talking about the US system, so I was quite surprised to see it was in the UK system that she was referring too!

I've had several friends get Ph.D.s, and here's what I see: it takes very strong, maybe borderline obsessive self-motivation, to feel ok throughout the process and to succeed. In that respect it is probably like doing a high-stakes startup. It's not for everyone.

But I think a lot of this post is about the pain of transition for brilliant students. They go from a position of constant praise and success, to a position of being constantly frustrated and subject to the whims of more powerful people.

In my experience this transition happens to ALL brilliant students. It is structural, in that up to the completion of a bachelor's degree, the vast majority of the typical academic experience consists of professors creating structured, completable assignments, and the student completing them and being graded. In short, exercises.

But once you leave undergrad, that structure disappears pretty quickly. Whether it's your boss, your investors, or your advisor, the "adults" above you aren't just guiding you to pre-determined success points. They're just other people with their own goals and agendas. And the problems you're tackling with them are not necessarily structured, easy, or even achievable.

I'd like to read some warnings and recommendations targeted at an older, more mature individual who's continued researching her interest after undergraduate but has yet to begin, though plans on, applying for a doctorate.

I remember dating one and meeting many young graduate students in humanities who when asked "What are you working on?" didn't have anything terribly specific in mind. I'd made the decision not to apply after undergraduate because I specifically didn't have a good idea of what I wanted to work on (disclosure: I'm in philosophy!). Now, a few years later, my independent research has come to grips with a real subject and problem and feel much more confident about applying, but now I'm told that I shouldn't disclose how decided I am in the work that I want to do, that I should present my intentions as a little ambiguous and up in the air still. Huh!?

There's a few people in the comment section talking about how doing their PhD as a mature student worked far better for them and left them with their soul only lightly crushed, so you might be able to ask for some advice over there.

It is certainly smart to spend some time outside of school after your undergraduate education before attending graduate school.

However, I would still encourage potential applicants to be very cautious when deciding to attend graduate school, especially in the humanities (and philosophy specifically), due to hardships of the post-graduate job market. The hard science and social science (my field) markets are far less dire than the humanities. As outlined in the original linked article, the process of getting your PhD is pretty brutal and you lose a lot of potential income on the years you are receiving a low graduate stipend. However, I would disagree with the author in the linked article--many graduate programs (especially in the US) do a very good job of providing graduate students with skills to complete a thesis. Schools are investing a lot of time and money into each graduate student and want them to succeed.

Once you make it through to the other side, the job market for recent PhDs is another thing all together. The recent recession has hit universities hard, especially public research institutions, and especially in the humanities. Therefore, only a very few graduates are able to secure tenure-track jobs (networking while you are a grad student helps—and hope for a lot of luck). This is often because so many applicants who have less appealing jobs (such as community college or non-tenure track jobs) are applying to the same tenure-track jobs as a recent graduate and have far more teaching and research experience. If you get one of the less appealing jobs, you are generally given a very high teaching load and low pay, which harms your potential of producing more research to secure a better job. I would recommend reading through this page: http://100rsns.blogspot.com/2011/04/55-there-are-too-many-ph... (and all of the reasons posted there).

All of that said, I was fortunate enough to receive a wonderful tenure-track job as a professor at a public research institution straight out of grad school. The job hunt was rough--I sent out an incredible number of applications over 6 months before I got a single interview. Persistence paid off, fortunately.

The PhD and academia are great if you can make it through the system. The system is rough. You really must be dedicated to your research and teaching to make it through. Also, FYI, the hours I work and stress levels as an academic dwarf those compared to when I was a higher-ed IT professional. Fortunately, I find this work far more rewarding. Try your best to get a seat at a relatively prestigious school in your field and be as productive as possible during those years. That will go a long way towards getting you out in a successful place at the other end.

One of the interesting thing I find about PhDs (as in people who have one) is that a non-trivial number of them seem to equate not having a PhD with not being able to get one. I've always wondered if that was a cognitive dissonance issue (unable to relate to having a capability and not using it) or a self evaluation issue (unable to accept that having a PhD doesn't increase the specialness of your snowflake status). Generally only a problem when it got in the way of productive discussions.

I realize this is true for any class of certificate, whether it be a College Degree or a Certified Microsoft Programmer but my experience is that its a bigger issue with PhDs.

I would agree that passing on getting a PhD can be argued to be a good investment in your time (unless you really really want to teach). But if you are passionate about a subject enough to pursue it through the PhD level then by all means go for it.

I don't see that as much in computer science, though I could be oblivious. Conferences often have a mix of people with and without PhDs, and a lot of good work comes from people in the 2nd category (especially if your sub-area has many participants from industry), so I don't think many people are under the impression that those people are less intelligent.

I do find it jarring that in some fields they put the degree right at the top of papers, which segregates the two groups much more publicly: the author line will be "John Smith, PhD". I've never seen that on a CS paper (people put affiliations at the top, but not credentials), and I think it would be considered a bit gauche and uncollegial.

It is entirely possible that this impression comes from survivor bias as its jarring when you run into it, and you don't notice when you don't.

What did she do her PhD in? Maybe I missed it, but I don't recall seeing it in her article/rant.

I'm on the second semester of getting a PhD in chemical engineering and so far I love it. My undergraduate school was much more of a time-sink (then again, it was rated one of the least happy schools in the US). Right now, I can do my research anywhere and anytime I feel like it. I get to use the world's best equipment at the best national labs and I get to guide the direction of my projects with the help of my advisor -- who is also amazing by the way.

So maybe that's kind of a humble-brag, but it should be. The author shared her n=1 miserable experience and I'm sharing my n=1 great experience so perhaps you should learn about getting a PhD yourself and decide if that's what you want to do instead of listening to people moan about what martyrs grad students are.

For what it's worth, I'd say that most of the warnings in this article don't really apply until after your first year or two (though it certainly varies a lot between different schools and different fields). If you're in your second semester of a PhD program, you've gotten a taste of grad school, but almost by definition you haven't had time to hit the "my last year's worth of work went nowhere" point discussed here, for example. Heck, if you're in the USA you're probably still taking classes at this point.

Maybe your experience will continue to be mostly positive, but I don't think you'll be in a position to really judge this article for at least a couple more years.

That's funny that we both posted about how great it is to get a ChE PhD. Glad you're enjoying it.

Perhaps share your thoughts with us after you have completed your PhD as well?

Sure, just give me a couple more years ;) But cschmidt shared his, and his sentiments are positive.

The author makes some good points, but what they don't realize is:

For an intellectually and professionally ambitious person, the the options carry many of the same challenges, although the details might vary.

I'm in a PhD program right now, but I did startups in my 20s. I worked crazy hours. I broke myself physically and mentally. Many relationships got destroyed along the way. The money was bad (ramen) and uncertain -- when do you give up when the salary stops but the idea still seems good? The ideas were ambitious and open-ended. The goals were vague. We made mistakes, wasted weeks and months, pivoted, failed. We were doing research.

The PhD has had its challenges (learning the literature has been hard for me), but when I started research I thought, "Oh, right, I recognize this. This I know how to do." The PhD isn't the problem.

What's the alternative?

From a CS/software standpoint, I don't see a great deal of personal difference between an aggressive industry position and PhD research. Both involve heavy overtime, intense focus, and uncertain futures.

Financially, of course, there is a difference, which will bleed out into other areas... but this is less important after your needs & small wants are covered.

Put another way, working 6-7 days/wk for 16 hour days in industry was not meaningfully different from doing research; actually, research was more pleasant IMO. In both scenarios you come home and zonk, but in one you have the freedom to go wander around, stare at the clouds, and think, without getting in trouble.

As the husband of a PhD (in the U.S.), I agree with many of the OP's points. It was an arduous process with little in the way of internal controls or milestones and subject to the whims of her adviser. I was struck at how academia lacks the people and project management concepts that I've taken for granted; it really is a fiefdom ("deeply dysfunctional training system").

She made the choice to move into industry and not academia a year before graduation (because the concept of a post-doc, nontenured professorship, and continued toiling at below-market rates [and other reasons] was... unappetizing), and at that point was sort of sidelined.

She made it out in 4.5 years, where many of her peers are still in the program. Which brings me to my main point of contention with the article: "it's because you're brilliant that you're contemplating doing a PhD in the first place". Not all PhDs are brilliant any more so than every brilliant person considers doing one. As the OP points out, the key to PhD success is self-motivation and a dedication to the field ("appetite for pain") rather than any particular cognitive blessing.

As in all things, whether it's a PhD or the decision to go work in finance (for a great salary but no personal life for several years) or doing a start-up, you need to weigh your personal goals and limitations with the expectations of your environment.

While doing a PhD:

1. You are very dependent on your supervisor. Not in terms of doing your work, but in terms that s/he can make it impossible for you to get your degree

-This opens the door for abuse. If your supervisor asks you do to something, even if unrelated to your phd subject, you'll probably do it. If you supervisor is a decent person this won't happen, however if you decide to do a phd you will be in a position where this can happen.

2. It's a huge vague task and even if you are extremely successful you will have publications about it with many citations. You'll get some pats on the back, and that's it. There's no real reward. The only reward is relief when you finish.

3. If an academic career is your goal, you have to be aware that it is not very rewarding financially.

4. Apart from the personal skills that you will most definitely acquire (being able to learn more quickly and in-depth any new subject), the actual knowledge that you acquire from doing a PhD will probably not be useful outside the inevitably narrow subject your phd targets. And unless that subject has demand in the industry, you will only be able to use it in academia.

5. Writing scientific papers is not fun, the review process is not fun. I don't think I've met anyone that gets genuinely excited when they have to review or write a paper.

I could go on, but let me tell you about the positives. If you can publish, you can travel to conferences, get to know new places and meet interesting people. And that's about it.

My personal opinion now (after leaving academics) is that if you really like a subject you should pursue it on your own. The effort that you have to put in a PhD is so big that if you used it for something else, you will probably end up with something that you are really proud of. I say this because when you do research, at least in my personal opinion, you don't always feel you are doing it for yourself, you are doing it because you have to publish, because that's the nature of the game in academics, you have to publish. And, again, writing and reviewing papers is not fun.

Anyway, a couple of years ago there was an article in the economist named the "The disposable academic" that neatly describes how the system is broken: http://www.economist.com/node/17723223

My experience was quite different from that of OP, and I suspect most people who walk that path. I'm 56 in a few days, and got my PhD in computer science in 1983. I was lucky enough to go to a high school that had a real computer, a PDP-8M, and I was hooked five minutes after I sat down at the DecWriter.

At college, I was theoretically pre-med. A month into my freshman year (1974), I went to a party at the house of a revered EE professor, who happened to be a friend of the family. I was talking with someone, another professor, about my interest in computers, and he told me in no uncertain terms that there was no future in that. I was crushed. I was seriously bummed out for weeks. But it was what I loved to do, so I kept doing it, taking whatever courses were available, and hacking on my own projects.

I cleverly sabotaged all my medical school interviews. My interviewers were able to detect my lack of interest in medicine and my great enthusiasm about computers, and wisely rejected me.

I graduated, and wanting to do nothing but play with computers, I got a job in NYC, writing software, and because that wasn't enough, I also went to grad school at night. I decided to do a PhD because that seemed like the best way to keep playing with computers. My thought process was really that shallow. I wasn't thinking about industry vs. academe, future earning potential, or any other practical matters. I saw that I wouldn't finish my PhD while working, so I decided to do grad school full time.

I was lucky enough to choose McGill for grad school, after leaving New York. I sort of just fell into it, because I had gone there undergrad, I liked it, and my girlfriend was going there for medical school. I was lucky in the sense that it was perfectly suited to my personality. It wasn't a funding powerhouse, but between teaching and research funds, a student could support himself easily. My PhD adviser was a wonderful man, low-key, with some fun things he was investigating, but he wasn't building an empire, built on the backs of enslaved grad students. We were just looking at interesting problems together.

I graduated, and taught at UMass/Amherst for two years. And then it hit me. What a grad student was supposed to do, and what a faculty member was supposed to do. A faculty member starts building his empire, with insane focus on getting tenure. He or she gets tenure and builds a bigger empire, and spends an inordinate amount of time chasing funding. Grad students do the fun work, working very hard, for a very long time. I had no idea how to play this game, and no interest.

I left, and a few years later found myself at my first startup. It was similar to UMass. Instead of professors, there are entrepreneurs, insanely focused, and whose main job it is to get money to fund the work. Instead of grad students are the early employees, who make the vision real. I was much happier as an early employee, being a low-key introvert, who loves technical problems more than business problems. My PhD caused some large degree of distrust -- if I have that background, I'm obviously interested in writing academic papers more than writing software. But I still loved playing with computers, and startups are a great place to do that. I wrote a lot of software.

Epilogue: At my current startup, a number of our customers have a problem that happened to be exactly in the area of my PhD research. I spent a very enjoyable few weeks implementing my PhD thesis for these customers. 30 years later, my PhD ideas finally shipped.

tl;dr: I did a PhD to keep doing what I was drawn to. My career has been incredibly rewarding, and even charmed, and it is so atypical (I think) that I can't advise anyone to pursue a PhD based on my experience.

Another data point: My wife is a relatively recent PhD (6 years out). Her experience has been nothing but amazing.

When it comes to academia your field of study matters. Alot. My wife is a behavioral accounting researcher, which is a high-demand field with incredibly low supply. Her experience, compared to other disciplines, just couldn't be any more different. She's highly paid and does exactly what she loves.

It helps that she's really good at it I suppose. She received early tenure and will likely be promoted to full professor early as well. She publishes routinely and is active in service even though, given her discipline, she really doesn't need to be.

tldr; If your passion is accounting I'd highly recommend pursuing that PhD.

Umm, so what is behavioral accounting? I did google it, and it suggests that Steve Jobs (when he was alive) was a major asset of Apple and should be priced into the company's stock value.

It's like behavioral economics (Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational, etc..) but focused purely on how people are influenced by information, specifically accounting information.

> My PhD adviser was a wonderful man, low-key, with some fun things he was investigating, but he wasn't building an empire, built on the backs of enslaved grad students. We were just looking at interesting problems together.

That sounds like so much fun.

Hey, what was your PhD on? Can you talk about the product you shipped?

My research was on spatial query processing -- z-order-based techniques. The idea is to map spatial objects to one dimension by noting how a space-filling curve (z-order) passes in and out of the object. Overlapping objects can then be found by simple operations on 1-d data structures supporting random and sequential access, (e.g. sorted array, btree). I believe that the same transformation is used in geohashes.

The product is Akiban Server, a database system. I implemented nearest neighbor and point containment queries, and integrated it with our query optimizer. (You can download it from akiban.com and try it out.)

It probably won't actually matter but it could for some who do something similar to you, but are you sure you actually own your research and that the IP doesn't belong to the university? That's another reason not to do a PhD that was relevant for me: the ability to have more control over the value I was creating rather than giving it to the university to dispose of.

I don't think anyone "owns" it. The research was published, and anyone can read the papers and then perhaps build something with it. That is true of the vast majority of academic research. There is no IP in the form of something that could be patented, because a published idea would count as prior art.

Commercial efforts started by people employed by the university are a completely different matter, and universities have rules about how much time can be spent on such efforts (including consulting), and about ownership of companies established by faculty.

I've read your statement about five times now. I still only have the loosest idea of what your dissertation would be about. Which makes me kind of curious!

If you have a link to the dissertation or would like to chat about it, my email is in my profile, and I'm interested in learning more.

You're 18 years older than me, but our paths are certainly similar. I also did a PhD because I liked the university lifestyle, didn't want a job, and wanted to keep messing around with my honours project for a few more years. I think did a 20 month post-doc before working out that to get promotion I had to game the system in the same cynical way as everyone else was trying to do, so I quit and quickly failed at running my own startup.

Now I'm writing software for someone else's startup. It's not what I'll do forever, but it's helping replace the academic programmer in me with a real software engineer, and keeping me interested as I learn new techniques.

I don’t think saying PhD is good or bad in general makes sense. It depends on what alternatives you have on your hands. If you are from a third world country and PhD is the only chance to take you a batter place, it makes sense. For the ones who already live in a decent country, it only makes sense if you are very very passionate about being an academician and you should carefully question the arguments making you passionate about that. I think doing PhD is much tougher now than 1983. There is a huge literature you gotta scan and there will be so many other people from both academia and industry working on similar topics so it is very difficult to make an original contribution that is satisfactory enough for the most. Especially in engineering, hot topics having an application area are already studied by the high tech firms. One can work in one of those companies and still can do research, which can be more satisfactory since you can see it applied to the real life. Plus, you will have strict deadlines, much better salary and the time you spend there will be considered as a work experience when you make a new job application. So, in the end of the PhD, there is a risk of finding yourself where you started and asking yourself where you did wrong, especially if you didn’t consider the after-PhD phase during the PhD (wrong topic and wrong supervisor choice, not building connections, not doing an intern in a related company etc.) However, having a supportive supervisor with good connections can hack the game and put you some levels up.

I have the sense that a PhD in computer science is harder to obtain now because the field is more mature, there are many more people working in it, and it just takes more time and effort to get to the point that you're doing original work.

Also, my impression is that, in the USA at least, the economy is fundamentally much more fragile, with the disappearance of the middle class. Someone starting out now does not really have the luxury of doing something purely out of passion. The penalty for needing to change course is much higher now. I think.

I disagree with you on the role of industry in computer science research. In the 80s, there were many companies in which research was happening: Xerox PARC, IBM, Digital, and to a lesser extent at other computer companies. I worked at Computer Corporation of America, a mid-sized software company, in the mid 80s (after UMass, before startups), and they did some amazing, DARPA-funded research in databases. Now it's Microsoft and IBM. Oracle, Apple and others are obviously doing leading-edge work, but I think those efforts are more closely aligned with products. I think there was far more pure research done by software/compute companies 30 years ago.

Great story. You didn't stay in Canada? :)

Sometimes, mostly between 2000 and 2008, I wished I had.

A Ph.D. is not something to be entered into lightly (and many do). I don't regret doing mine at all, but you shouldn't do it with the expectation that you'll get a professorship at the end, and for God's sake, don't go into debt to get one. Only do it if you want to spend a few years researching a subject in depth. And realize that there's a big, big world outside the walls of Academe :-).

Note that there is a huge difference between the UK PhD and the US PhD process. In the UK you are left to your own devices for 3 years, and only find out if the external examiner even approves of your research questions in the one and only final verbal exam. It is up to you alone to ensure the research is valid and makes a contribution. US PhD candidates have a lot more guidance and handholding that includes 4 years of structured training, followed by the presentation of a research plan that is signed off by examiners before any research is begun so there are no surprises in the final examination.

If you are going to do a PhD you should have a research project decided on before you start and you should have your own funding from a grant that you wrote yourself. If you are not ready to write a successful grant application you should take some time to read and talk with people in your prospective field, while having some other job.

To start with, I recommend text: The Ph.D. Grind, A Ph.D. Student Memoir http://pgbovine.net/PhD-memoir.htm. The good thing about it is that it contains rather report, than merely a conclusion. Plus, it is written in a neutral way, leaving judgement to the reader. When it comes to anecdotical evidence (both the linked article + most of stories in this thread are one data point) also http://www.phdcomics.com/ (in short, equating PhD with stress, procrastination and frustration) is popular for a reason.

Among my friends, ones doing their PhD are lot more depressive than programers.

The "funny" thing is that (according to my observation) burnout and crisis hits the most the most creative and ambitious ones (and often - talented). If one starts with a world changer approach but then discovers that "you are free as long as it contains keywords from the grant + will result in a popular publication on a fashionable topic" is devastating. My friends who had approach "OK, I don't have ambition to do anything beyond what my advisor says" do much better, at least - psychologically.

One thing is that "the world is changed" - and no longer academia is the place for the smartest and the most creative. There are other possibilities. And I wish I had known that before.

Caveat: I'm in the middle of my PhD. Then going to data science or software engineering, after finishing PhD... or instead of it.

I just finished up a Master's in Computer Science. It took 5 years; my initial advisor died and I had to find another one to step in. I went deep into debt (no funding) and finally switched over to a part-time study while I worked full time. Unfortunately, it was just that point when the real research was ramping up. I remember nights where I would be falling asleep as I crammed my code in to see it work. Then more nights as I wrote and wrote and wrote. Generally my entire work took place after 5pm and continued until sometime after 10 or 11. I spent hours reading papers in my field.

It was wonderful.

I am not saying that I loved staying up late; I am not sure that I did great in my day job. The experience of learning and studying for the sake of the learning was one of the most fulfilling in my entire academic career.

Now, I want a PhD. Because I know of no other way forward to where I am tasked with advancing our field, publishing the result, and building a paying career on that. I want to take the knowledge of a field into the next place. From what I can tell, generally you have to be "someone special" to do serious (by which I mean paid) research without a PhD, particularly publishable research (by which I mean serious work advancing the field), and I'm not particularly special; just tenacious. I'm pretty sure I'm stupid enough to launch onto the 4-7 year journey to get the drek piled higher and deeper. Maybe I'm not smart enough to get in. That's OK. I'll still take my best shot, and if I fail, so be it. I won't live with the regret of not having tried.

I think there's something amazing about the idea of creating an original work, and then telling everyone who cares (a very small audience) about it. Part of my task will be to open up the details of what I did and tell people about it; to publish this and move the world forward in knowledge, by a very small amount. There is so much terrible crap involved in the academic world, but it pales in comparison to industry. Some of the commentators lament being broken and bitter due to the everlasting stress without any control over their circumstance. I see this every day in industry. I might be naive, but I don't think it can be worse in the PhD. My MS was pretty much lousy, but it was better than seeing people get inculcated into industry and grow bitter and tired.

I want a PhD.

Now, I want a PhD. Because I know of no other way forward to where I am tasked with advancing our field, publishing the result, and building a paying career on that.

This is the basic problem we have to solve. Yes, doing a PhD can suck, and the job market for academics sucks, but there's basically no other way to do original research and make original research-grade scientific advancements for a living.

This is something I totally agree with. I wish the borders between academia and the professional world were a bit more permeable. Academia (often) suffers from a severe disconnect from practice, and the professional world could really benefit if there were more space for research. What if you could occasionally take a year or two teaching and researching on a subject important to you, and then go back?

> I'm not particularly special; just tenacious.

It's a myth that you require to be "smart" to do a Ph.D. You just require few basic skills, a good supervisor and persistence. You are good to go! Here's a quote which is another version of what you said and you will realize it's exactly the same. If this person could do it(with wide spread fame) why not you?

    It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with 
    problems longer. - Albert Einstein

You can't be serious when Dr.Einstein said he was not smart. He is pure genius. Absolutely no doubt. He was saying that just to make ordinary people feel good.

I'm not smart, I'm just really hungry.

What a refreshing article when I'm about to defend my PhD this Friday :)

My experience of the PhD was that it didn't break me but I come out of my studies having completely lost all respect for academia.

I finished my dissertation in about two and a half years (the main contribution and content of it) and then I waited for about three years to be able to defend it. No matter how often I pressed things and asked whether something was missing or lacking nothing happened (I actually blame my advisor). It wasn't until after I talked to the department head and said that I would not university registration fees (we have to pay them every year) unless something happened. Some other professor was put in charge and that made my advisor angry and everything got delayed again and now I'm finally finishing.

What bothers me is that I'm defending based on knowledge I had three years ago and I'm not allowed to add to it since that's not a part of my dissertation (and I've been really afraid of some other individual having published similar or same finding in those three years - I haven't really been following all research since I lost all interest in academia).

</rant> :)

Hey, tryggvib. There are a lot of comments I can make in this thread (I'm 50 years old, Ph.D. in physics, despised classes but loved research), but I'm only going to make this one, to you: Good luck Friday!! Remember, YOU are the world's expert in this specialty. Remain calm, and don't let them rattle you.

Thank you dhimes!

On the bright side there is one thing my lack of respect for academia results in (I hope I'm not offending anybody and I'm mostly directing this at my university): I'm not at all stressed for the defense.

Thanks for the kind words.


I'm defending my PhD on friday too! Good luck to us.

The article strikes a chord with me and what I see around me. There are serious structural issues and being a PhD student is a surprisingly weak position. I am glad you are finally managing to finish.

Good luck to us (and to everybody else defending on Friday or any other given day)!

If you go into a PhD not wanting to investigate a really specialist area for 3-4 years and then write 100,000 words about it that only 3 other people will ever read, you've not understood the exercise.

Concentration and motivation come and go, but if you're curious enough about the universe then investigating one tiny facet of it in minute detail will always be something you come back to, especially if you'll get the credit for "solving" it (even if only within a tiny crowd).

Plus, realising how little you've achieved (but how much you've learned) as you enter your 3rd year is a real kicker.

Sincerely, a PhD student 1 month into my 3rd year.

Footnote: I'm at Imperial College London, which has a kick-ass transferable skills programme which included (for me) a 4-day residential team skills training course, a "Mini-MBA" (5 lectures, 2 seminars), competency analysis, leadership training, MBTI self-analysis, and a couple of other courses I've forgotten about. You had to attend like 4 credits' worth in the first year, but the rest of that stuff I chose to learn. It was all awesome.

The most telling thing about PhD programs is the attrition rate compared to elite professional programs. Attrition reates "for academic reasons" appear to be under 2% in elite JD and MD programs.


The spread for law schools is much higher than for med schools, but for elite schools, it is also exceptionally low, well under 2%.


(note - just realized these are only 1L attrition rates. It isn't going to change much here).

Ph.D programs, even at elite schools and in science or engineering, are by comparison a horror show of failure and attrition.

It looks like completion rates for engineering - best of the bunch, are around 65%. For mathematics and physical sciences, it's about 55%.


I know this is a trick, dividing by such a low number, but I suspect that the PhD completion rate for the 3rd rated Engineering school (Berkeley) compared to the 3rd ranked law schools (Columbia) is about .3/.003. About 100 times higher. This is silly, because the attrition rate at Yale is zero, which means it's actually impossible to compute how much higher the top rated Engineering (MIT) PhD programs's attrition rate actually is. Or, as we said in grade school but not grad school, "infinity higher".

There are a couple reasons for this. Speaking as a PhD dropout myself, half of a PhD in engineering isn't as much of a loss as half of med school. I don't need the PhD to be licensed, so nobody's going to put me in jail for writing code. Completing 2 years of med school and dropping out is far worse than Mastering out of engineering. I just got to earning more quickly. At the same time, I think that many elite schools are able to suppress their true attrition rates by counting MS students as having achieved their degree goal (in short, I suspect the true attrition rate is higher than the already grim numbers).

But our wise elders in government (almost always lawyers) who wring their hands about the shortage of US students in PhD programs never seem to ask... why is Berkeley's Engineering PhD attrition rate 100 times higher than an elite law school. Are the magna cum laude applied math majors with 800/800 on the GRE and specialized subject tests just dumber than lawyers?

In reality, Americans have pretty much given up on PhDs in engineering and science. Sadly, this is rational for people who have the choice to go into the professions. However, if you'd like to come to the US, and you're looking for a way to sidestep our byzantine immigration system, a grad degree in a STEM field from a good US based university can be a wise move, especially since the professional schools are far less likely to admit large numbers of international students.

The article is a pretty good account of the reasons why talented and capable people drop out of Ph.D. programs (often for the best), but the reality is that your mileage may vary - a lot depends on the fit between student and advisor and department. It's definitely a major test of your time management and self-motivation skills.

The battle to find a topic and convince people that your topic is relevant is painful: contrary to popular belief, working in academia is in its own way far more competitive than in the private sector: you're constantly evaluated and critiqued.

in my 3rd year as a PhD and couldn't have made a better decision - during my last 2 years in undergrad i interned for an organization and even worked for them after graduating for a year before transitioning to the PhD. Oddly i felt the opposite affect - when working full time i was drained every day, weekends were the only refresh, while on the PhD i work more (in terms of hours), but feel more refreshed as i build my own schedule and get to focus more on what i'm interested in as opposed to balancing paperwork, meetings, and politics.

Wow, the pessimism.

I did my PhD and now have a tenure-track position. I can relate to all the obstacles described in the post (except for discrimination - at least in my country, if you want to find racist/sexist/homophobic employers, you'd better go to the private sector, not academia). And it's good for people considering a PhD to know that it's not a bed of roses. It does require working long hours for little or no pay, with unclear goals and little feedback. It is a lonely pursuit, requiring you to make an effort to keep your social life.

But what about the thrill of discovering new things? Of treading new territory that no one has seen before? What about the moment where, after thinking about a problem for hours or days or weeks, the pieces click together and you say "I got it"? What about the pride of getting accepted at a top-tier international conference/journal (depends on your field) and getting feedback directly from the most prestigious researchers in your field? What about the satisfaction of seeing your papers cited by other people that are using your research and finding it helpful? What about the pleasure of going to bed every night knowing that you are working to further human knowledge, rather than to further the profit of some corporation that often may do more harm than good?

For me, those rewards of working in research are much more important than the disadvantages pointed out in the post. Sorry if this sounds a bit condescending, but I suspect that the author of the post just didn't have enough vocation for research, or she wouldn't have such a negative opinion.

This is a good warning, especially to bright pupils coming straight out of undergraduate programs who are continuing upon the academic trajectory because "it is what smart kids do". I know I was definitely in that boat once upon a time, and it was rough sailing.

The problem in a lot of programs is that the outcome is so radically different for nearly identical students, owing entirely to what advisor they end up with. Often the most prestigious advisor is not the most nurturing or even competent, and many successful PhD candidates look upon their flagging comrades as somehow weak or defective for not replicating their own success in superficially similar but immensely challenging situations across the hall.

I think that if I had done better research before entering a PhD program I wouldn't have chosen one where 2 out of 3 students do not get their doctorates after 10 years. There is a huge societal cost to not simply wasting the youth of >50% of your brightest and most motivated students, but crushing their spirits to the point that they not only fail to contribute but may also become a burden on others. I've seen it too many times, and I don't really advise people to undertake PhD studies unless they are older, accomplished in some way, and absolutely need the doctorate to advance in their field.

The reality is that alot of doing a PhD comes down to the choice of your PhD advisor. You'll be intimately apprenticed to this person and his/her whims for several years of your life, and your life for those several years could be great or miserable (or somewhere in between, as mine was) as a result. Choose wisely and listen to your gut. It's generally the best judge of character you have.

Interview former students too (not current ones - you want the ones totally free to speak their mind).

Here's a related but off-topic question: How does one earn a PhD in the US while working a full-time job to support a family, including a wife, children, and a home?

You don't. A PhD is a full-time job, a 40-60 hour/week one.

I did the part-time Master's. That was a huge mistake. You will not get the education, the time to research, the networking, the collaboration, or the presence to do the job right.

A PhD done wrong is a waste of your time and the university's time.

Often, you don't. When I applied to graduate school I intended to keep my full time "real pay" job. My PhD program only accepted students who would take a graduate student stipend and commit full time to the "program." After going through it, I understand why they want that commitment and I would not recommend anyone try to get a PhD in the spare time.

That's a shame.

So, basically, choosing to start a family first keeps you out of academia forever by design.

I think hardhead might have just been referring to keeping a "full time job" which is impossible in many of the STEM PhD programs in the US. A lab-mate of mine has a child, and I know a few others in my program that have children as well. Almost all STEM PhD programs offer stipends for TAs and/or RAs, so you might get on the order of 20K/year to be a student. That being said, there are no shortage of people claiming the grad student -> postdoc -> nontenured prof. -> tenured prof. route is hostile to those wanting a family.

Quanics is correct. I would never recommend paying your own way at a graduate program--go where you are funded. A graduate stipend will net to about $20k/year (there are some amazing fellowships that will fund $50k+ but they are very, very competitive). In a "real job" you'll often be making much more than $20k, as I was when I was a higher ed IT professional (and could have qualified for free tuition as an institutional employee). PhD programs are rated by several factors including graduation rate and time to completion. It is obvious to me now that the people who are choosing the students to fill the very limited number of graduate student seats in any given year will choose those who are committing to work full time on graduating.

Many people do complain about academia being hostile to family life (see http://100rsns.blogspot.com/2010/09/15-marriage-and-family-u... for a particularly negative view). However, many of my colleagues had children during graduate school. They took time off classes but then used their "down time" (e.g. child napping) to focus on writing and came out ahead. I got married immediately before entering grad school and had my first child as I was writing my dissertation. The timing worked really well for me. I was lucky that my wife could support me through graduate school (on top of my stipend).

Nah. You can have a family and do a PhD. Lots of people do. You just can't have a fulltime job and do a decent PhD.

You should be able to wangle some kind of funding and get by OK if your spouse can work (& a few other conditions such as no financial catastrophe).

my father worked full time while receiving his phd in the professional field he was employed in. he has had a very successful academic career. his dissertation was no joke and he has advanced much further than others from more prestigious universities.

i don't understand this mindset and the fact it exists is why i would never go back for a phd (pure math phd drop out). this is why so much research ends up being inapplicable garbage that doesn't advance a profession so much as hit the current vogue in academics. half the shit i saw pushed the current boundaries of human knowledge further away from anything applicable, interesting, or worth spending 6 years of your life on.

> i don't understand this mindset

maybe I can explain better?

Good research takes time and intense focus. I.e., you want to be able to have a total focus when your mind is fresh. That is not going to be doable after you've already worked your 8-9 day (maybe if you're in the 1% of humans who can do that, but I'm talking about the common case). This is going to get worse in the case of having a family.

I'm not going to comment on your father, since I don't know him, don't know his research, and don't know his field. :-) But I know that I've been... less impressed... with part-time PhD research than with full-time PhD research. There are ways to manipulate your situation into a less conflicting one, that is true, but that depends on the employer and the university.

> pushed the current boundaries of human knowledge further away from anything applicable, interesting, or worth spending 6 years of your life on.

That's just your opinion, ne? Why should academics do anything that is applicable? Isn't it industry's role to take this research and channel it into something practical (or ignore it if its not)? A surprising amount of effort has been expended over the years in software that have been avoided by some basic attention to the research literature.

But that leads us down an entirely different discussion, one I don't think is really resolvable here and now.

In a lot of cases, yes. Specially for women

With great difficulty !

Do you really need the extra stress? Doing a PhD is really a full-time undertaking, as in 40+ hours / week diligent work. Doing it part-time still requires 20+ hours of quality time to be successful.

Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt is an excellent book on this topic: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0742516857

There's a review of it here: http://disciplinedminds.tripod.com/higher-education-review.h...

There are a lot of contradicting opinions about whether to do a PhD out there. The article together with most comments I read, just makes the issue more paradox.

I can only speak for myself, I studied swiftly Physics (diploma) in the number of semesters I was supposed to. While doing so there were some twists and turns in my private life, making my private life suck a lot when I finished my degree. So after all I also did not get a top grade, making myself think, screw the PhD thing. Anyway, I cannot tell how freed (and tiiiired) I felt when I handed in my f*g thesis.

Eventhough I did not go for the PhD for different reasons, I can understand that a person with a private life and non-optimal environment can have a "unpleasant" experience. On the other hand, I get the impression that top employers are increasingly looking for PhDs. In particular on challenging positions companies seem to love PhDs -- and not really like non-PhDs.

I recently finished my PhD at a Dutch university. If I had to make the choice again, I would accept it immediately. It was great to have the time to do in-depth research and to be able to try practically any crazy idea I had. I had a great and very bright supervisor, who I learnt a great deal from (and hopefully work helped him). The colleagues were great and doing inspiring things. I could practically arrive and leave at any time, as long as work was done. And I got a good salary, holiday money, a bonus (1 month extra salary) and more holiday hours than I could spend.

The only thing that was unfulfilling was writing the actual thesis. I'd rather have spent my last year publishing two or three more articles than rehashing what I had published already.

If you go for a PhD, be sure to accept a position with a proper pay, enough holidays, and a good supervisor. Having the opportunity to teach a few weeks per year is a nice bonus.

Too late (I wouldn't call myself brilliant though) :P

If anything the fact that so many people don't get there motivates me.

I've never belived in actually caring about the job market and such (or career planning). If you're sufficiently motivated that usually takes care of itself.

I mean I'm mostly in it because I need to change the world a bit. Kind of the whole "you just see the world in a different way" that gets brought up by entrepreneurs all the time. Some research isn't the slow and incremental type everyone keeps talking about in their "lol PhD/academics" rants :D

[Also getting a PhD here is vastly different. I get payed, teach classes and tutor students and work on my PhD on the side. Basically all self management/motivation and we don't take any classes and the like. Just thesis+defend]

I could not disagree more with the author - in fact at the moment I feel sorry for her.

TLDR: PhD is not for whimps

Yes it has the potential to break you, yes you will have very or little feedback loop and almost no money, and yes more people look forward being in academia for the freedom to pursue whatever research they fancy.

But this whole interpretation is very very wrong.

A PhD is a life changing experience - you learn how to learn and discover new knowledge - a process that can be extended to other disciplines and topics (it's not unusual to find someone with a PhD in something doing research in something very different).

It's the single best investment in yourself you can make - if you do value your capacity to work and create value, not just being paid to do stuff other people tell you to do, or what everybody has done in a given way for ages, and so you keep it doing that way for tradition/lack of creativity/no reason whatsoever.

Also, the biggest difference between the work you do during your PhD and the other work is that you work effectively without any precise objective. You learn to find inward motivation - which is the best replacement there is to outward reward. The work you do is its own reward. With that, and the kind of commitment you showed in the research-work you did alone for years, you can take any challenge you want.

Certainly, you work will be dissected by the best experts in the domain, and they will criticize it in any way they can - basically, you can't cheat. You have to actually do something outstanding, for which you will be judged.

It seems to me that's what most people on HN love and value : being judged on the merit of your work. At least that's why I love and value.

The only problem with all this is IMHO that many (most?) who do a PhD want to work in academia afterwards, to have the freedom to work on the topics they enjoy. I had the same failings - guilty as charged. I wanted to do something great and then to keep improving it in ways I saw fit. But I changed my ways (and got out of a tenure track in late 2012 - it's not for me)

I believe this is wrong, because anyone who wants to do that believes that its own interests are for some reason better than what the market values. It's good and all, do whatever you fancy, but not on my dime - not on public money. Get a real job.

I learnt a lot during my PhD - but more importantly I bootstrapped unknown capabilities to create knowledge - something that's bringing value in many things I do.

EDIT: for anyone interested, my last post on the topic and how my PhD in CS is currently coming into the real world 5 years later : http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4871888

> I believe this is wrong, because anyone who wants to do that believes that its own interests are for some reason better than what the market values. It's good and all, do whatever you fancy, but not on my dime - not on public money. Get a real job.

If that's your chosen frame of reference, then that's not your dime. Or the public's dime. At that point it's the market's dime.

And the market doesn't particularly care if you believe it's wrong or not, or whether its goals are in fact better than this particular individual's interests.

True, the market doesn't care. However, I do.

I just believe any given individual is less likely to be right that the market, as an emanation of the will of many many people (at least on a statistical basis)

Traditionally, academia wants to work on the problems it deems worth its time. I don't like that - it's working on a fancy, on the public dime. My dime.

Working on the market dime on something the market fancies is totally different.

Sure, sometimes it may not be the most ambitious for the long term worth of the human race (so many social networks and ads placements out there), and sometimes the plans of specific individuals are better.

But if such individuals can be rewarded by the market for their previous efforts, they can then use their own money to work on their projects and ideas. They will even be rewarded again if they did something the market needed but didn't know it wanted.

Basically, I see that as doing real work (not in academia), and if this is successful, using the surplus you made to work on your fancies - because then, the kind of ideas you have and the kind of work you do have been validated by the market.

In any case, you are not spending the public money, and you are redeemable (you can be fired or run out of your own money) which discourages waste.

Yeah. I can probably see that point of view, but I do disagree with quite a lot of the details--I believe a market works great in certain specific and relatively small scale circumstances, especially since it's a relatively effort-free system to set up, outside of those domains, the modus of "the market" seems to starts diverging more and more wildly from what I consider "good", or "to the benefit of those whose lives it affects"--but that becomes a philosophical discussion that might be a bit OT here.

We can totally agree that academia's approach is similarly imperfect.

> They will even be rewarded again if they did something the market needed but didn't know it wanted.

Here you are conflating again "what the market needs/wants" with "good"

> In any case, you are not spending the public money, and you are redeemable (you can be fired or run out of your own money) which discourages waste.

That's not entirely fair reasoning. Just because what you describe here is the way a market discourages waste, doesn't mean that a different system like academia doesn't have its own ways in place to discourage waste. Which it does. And both systems have their fair share of examples where these methods fail spectacularly.

I just believe any given individual is less likely to be right that the market, as an emanation of the will of many many people (at least on a statistical basis)

Markets only know what everyone knows. They are vulnerable to imperfect information, yes, and also mass delusions and hysterias of every sort.

Sums it up beautifully! Though one should not underestimate the downfalls most encounter on the way, or the very real possibility of failure. I have never encountered higher highs and lower lows than during my phd. Though it has made me a better person.

You learn how to think (something no undergrad could ever do so rigorously). You learn how to motivate yourself.

Invaluable lessons..

Yeah, as a contrary piece of information, Fred Brooks considered his single most significant act, ever, to be sending E. F. Codd to further education. Codd devised "Codd's 12 Rules," and invented the relational database.

> I believe this is wrong, because anyone who wants to do that believes that its own interests are for some reason better than what the market values. It's good and all, do whatever you fancy, but not on my dime - not on public money. Get a real job.

How would the market gauge the value of research with no obviously profitable applications? While markets are excellent automatic control systems for efficient resource allocation, I am unconvinced that they are ideal for long-term outcomes in which it is difficult to put hard values on all the variables. Our current system, though inefficient, covers an enormously broad range of research, often with little regard to applications other than the pursuit of truth...and I think this probably leads to much more creative work and more groundbreaking discoveries in the long-term. But I don't have any data on this either way. Perhaps you do?

I am approaching my final semester as a CS undergraduate and, to be totally honest, I am more than a little nervous about my decision to go down the PhD route. I've got a decent application, so I am less worried about getting into a program and more worried about life in it. I appreciate the experiences others have shared here, and I'd like to relate some of my thoughts and concerns because am curious to know if (how) I'm being naive. So, while my post here is mostly aimed at veterans who might dispel any illusions I hold, I would value any input.

I've applied to CS PhD programs and intend to do research in AI/Machine Learning. I am fascinated with the field, and though I have only a little undergrad experience with it, I've loved it all so far.

One of my main goals in getting a PhD is to improve my future career prospects, whether in academia or industry. I am ambivalent about going into academia for a post-doc career, as I think a startup or even industry would make better fits for me personally. I've noticed most industry jobs I'm interested in require graduate education, and I expect the PhD will likely over-qualify me for most startups. But more than all that, I want to make use of my mind (I know, I know: its that tired cliche about changing the world...) Though I enjoy coding, and I excel in my classwork and projects, I'm not a programming genius (which, perhaps regrettably, is what some people seem to expect from a top CS undergrad). I have had a taste of what it is like being a professional software developer, which is what my friends are prepping to do straight out of college, and I know it is not for me.

One qualm I have is that, as an undergraduate, I've had only one internship relevant to AI/ML and only a taste of research (no publications, some lab work), so the whole funding->research->publish sequence is still a little unclear to me (although reading blogs like Philip Guo's helped demystify the whole graduate experience). Another worry is that I do not want to put my life on hold. I can tolerate living on little funds, but I can't accept being a slave to my research: I want to have relationships and interests outside of the lab. To this end, I plan to keep my act together, work smart and effectively, and finish my PhD on time.

Does this seem like an unreasonable plan? Will I be facing jobless doldrums by having a PhD? What more can I do to be prepared for graduate school? Is there anything major I'm overlooking?

Also, thanks to HN in general for contributing - this has been a great thread.

EDIT: I neglected to mention I'm in the US.

After 15 years in industry (Compaq, Microsoft, a couple smaller shops) I'm now back working on my PhD and enjoying the hell out of it. Totally different experience than if I had gone straight out of undergrad, though.

Wow, I disagree with almost everything in the article. I finished up my Ph.D. Math at age 20 in slightly more than 3 years. It was a challenge and it did take focus to finish it, but by no means was it soul-destroying. And with the fellowship (on top of the tuition coverage) I received, I felt rich... Yes, you can end up with (choose) an advisor that is not a good match for you (or for getting finished in a reasonable time), but still... It's so much easier than doing a startup, for instance...

I did a PhD in Computer Science in the UK and whilst it is definitely an emotional challenge, I mostly enjoyed the PhD and found it very rewarding. I never found it overwhelmingly difficult, and I never considered giving up.

My advice for any new PhD starts is to treat it like a job, work 9-5 steadily throughout your PhD, read as much as you can during your first year, and do things outside of your degree to stay sane.


> if you're expecting to work 40-hour weeks, you'd better be registered as a part-time student

Not all schools let you be registered part-time :'(

I am so happy to see the positive comments here about PhD program. I will start mine for quantitative psychology this Sept. I will be getting a master and then a PhD. At least, that is the plan! WISH ME LUCK!!!!!

The OP didn't really go into the "malice" part of it. FYI if you do good enough work your supervisor might be tempted to appropriate it. The process for doing so might involve painting you as incompetent.

It's not pleasant.

Dear brilliant students, if you are truly brilliant, do what you wish to do with your life. If you wish to study, by all means do so. Just don't equate PhD with income earning ability.

who has time for self-help books?

- second-year CS PhD

TL;DR: PhDs are not for everyone, therefore PhDs are not for anyone.

this is the twitter account of the original author https://twitter.com/individeweal

The "supervision" in a PhD can be a problem.

Some Professors just keep shooting down their students' ideas, rather than actually teaching or guiding them.

Some don't provide any feedback at all, like the student is supposed to pick things up by telepathic osmosis.

I guess the victims are the students who take 7 years to finish.

I wouldn't recommend a PhD.

My CS PhD took 6 years. I liked it OK, despite the hardships and uncertainty. My main response to the article is that those people who are right for a PhD program will know it: they don't need to be told or warned or advised for or against. Even though academics are a rational pursuit, the decision to dedicate yourself so much to anything has got to be from the heart, otherwise just don't, and you probably wouldn't even be wondering in the first place.

My other reaction to the article is that it is just describing all the aspects almost any really difficult accomplishment: it takes too long, no one is there to help you on the hardest parts, you have to give up significant other things in life (including a real part of your time, relationships, and health), people may try to block you, you run the risk of it all being for nothing, and in the end no one is going to care about it as much as you had to care about it. Replace "PhD" with climbing a mountain, building a successful business, raising a child, writing a novel, etc. and it all still applies.

Earning a PhD is not supposed to be your last, biggest accomplishment in life any more than getting through high school is the biggest accomplishment for most people. Earning a PhD is your first official dent in the universe. It is practice for a life of taking on more hard and uncertain challenges. A lot of people do that, with or without the PhD as practice.

> Some Professors just keep shooting down their students' ideas, rather than actually teaching or guiding them.

This is what they are supposed to do. You can't be taught or guided on how to PhD-level research; like writing, it is more about trying and being critiqued on your outputs for N years straight. If you don't like being critiqued, don't do a PhD. If you think your ideas are good, persist with them even though your adviser is saying "no," and be ready to accept when the idea really sucks and you need to switch.

I took 8 years to finish, no regrets at all.

I hope you never have any students, because it sounds like the abused will become the abuser.


Critique is a common learning method in many other fields, like art, music, design, journalism, and politics. Hand feeding and teaching is fine a dandy at the beginner undergrad level, but you reach a point quickly where you have to rely more on yourself to become better. Criticism starts out from your teachers and peers, and eventually you learn how to be self critical on your own.

But you are right, this isn't for most people; PhDs aren't for everyone.

A PhD isn't about critique. It's about:

A) finding a grant-buzzword-friendly research direction (Green ICT social networking for wireless sensor motes anyone?)

B) politicking to get as many publications squeezed out from one's meagre results as possible (Buddy, submit to the special edition of this journal because I'M the guest editor)

If the advisor doesn't TEACH the student how to navigate the bullshit, the student is hosed.

PhDs aren't for everyone ...I bet including many of the people who actually do them.

This is an extremely cynical point of view. Even if there is some truth to it (especially in Chinese universities), it's not what most of us do with our PhDs. Definitely not most of the google PhDs I know, nor my MSR colleagues. Academic politics isn't the only place to go with a phd.

As an individual with an IT Startup, I have to agree with this article. I certainly don't have the money to pay for PhD-level talent, but I'm in dire need of skilled individuals to implement the technical side of my business plans and maintain them. I think it's critical that we stem the tide of over-educated people entering the workforce in America and the best way to do it is FUD-y articles like this that exaggerate every negative aspect of the academic environment to the extreme. Just because you have the opportunity and resources necessary to get a PhD, doesn't mean you should take advantage of that and improve your possibility in life dramatically. Chances are you'll end up moving to a European country where all the successful startups seem to be based anymore.

21.3: the type of person she's writing for. I might not call myself "brilliant", but I was a good undergraduate student and a PhD seemed like the next and most respectable step. Anything else was selling out.

21.4-22.0: usual pre-PhD stuff like GREs and those ungodly applications where they make you list textbooks going back to freshman year calculus. Then there were the rejections, the acceptances, and the prospective student meetings. Those were fun.

22.1-23.2: in graduate program (math PhD) until internship on Wall Street turned into full-time offer. Did not return for 2nd year.

23.2-29.6 (now): variety of experiences in industry, some good, some not-so-good. Sometimes wish I could go back for a PhD in CS, but I realize that the opportunity cost of 5 years' income is, at this point, a house everywhere except Manhattan (where it's still a few decihouses).

Here are some observations:

If you're funded, a PhD program isn't that bad. It can be stressful, or it can be a lot of fun. You will probably fall behind with the opposite sex. Your lifestyle will be lower-middle-class. Your social life will be weird. You can't hang out with undergrads anymore, because the first thing you learn (late September, usually) is that college was a different planet to which you can never go back. I had an undergrad girlfriend for a little while, and the contrast between her concerns and mine was stark. Grad school is part of the Real World, and not a financially flush one. Hence, you don't really have much in common with young professionals (who are enjoying having money until the kids arrive and they're strapped again) either. Other grad students are your social pool, and inter-departmental interaction is rare.

It's hard. Self-study in addition to courses is no longer optional. Procrastination will ruin your life. College encourages specialization and creativity: write for a sketch comedy group, go to poetry slams, play cards till 5:00 in the morning, get sloppy drunk once a month (actually, you're not missing out if you skip that). Grad school doesn't. You might have time for one extracurricular activity. Don't start it until you've had a successful first year. You need to become an adult, and quickly. People who manage their time and money like a 28-year-old seem to do OK. They aren't always happy, and there's still a lot of opportunity cost in pursuing a graduate degree, but these people manage to get through it and enjoy the process. People who try to relive college do not.

I don't think graduate school is this horrible wringer for most people. Some are unhappy, but many of them would be unhappy anywhere. Some love it. It comes down to personal and technical maturity, as well as desires. To complete a PhD, you really have to have to want a research career.

What is horrible is the job market people face after their PhDs. That is an outright disaster. But that's another topic.

> To complete a PhD, you really have to have to want a research career.

(disclosure: loved my Ph.D., was a professor, now doing a startup)

This is almost true, and I don't mean to quibble, but the slight inaccuracy is an important one: to complete a PhD you have to want to complete a body of research-quality work that is recognized by experts in your field as a meaningful advance over the current state of the art.

Everyone I know who did the Ph.D. wanting to have completed something (improve file systems, discover a new alloy hardening process, etc.) had a great time and reports it as among the best years of their life. But there are lots of people who just see it as the next credential to get, and for them the lack of intrinsic motivation to complete specific independent work can make the process quite depressing and disorienting.

It's an interesting environment because you have a lot of the initiative/innovation challenges faced as an entrepreneur, but that part isn't evident to everyone. It is absolutely not like a job where you will be given responsibilities and expected to fulfill them.

Applications are open for YC Summer 2018

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact