Think You Know About PhD Life? Think Again.

Sourya Dey, with Los Angeles and the Griffith Observatory in the background.

By Sourya Dey

One bright and uncomfortably hot summer day two years ago, I sat in my office and hammered away at my keyboard trying to make sense of all that I had experienced during the 1st year of my PhD journey. This was the result. Today, on another hot and uncomfortable summer day, I am writing this article to go deeper into what a PhD journey is like. Some of my perceptions have changed and new things have come to light. So here goes.

First, the notion that PhD students are very busy and overworked, with little time to live life is a myth. Let me dispel that myth! PhD students have a lot of time, freedom and resources. Consider the amount we get paid. While it’s not lavish, it’s enough to satisfy one’s cravings. I should clarify that I’m not talking about PhD students who have to support a family, which requires quite a bit of belt-tightening (not just idiomatically but also literally since families mostly resort to home-cooked food and don’t fall into the grips of obesity). However, from what I have observed, the majority of PhD students use their stipends to support themselves. This means that we may not live like kings, but we’re comfortable and can follow our interests, be it driving around town, binge-watching on Netflix, or going to basketball games.

Sourya (right) and his advisor Peter Beerel work together on neural networks.

In my research group, we have considerable freedom in terms of when we work, flexibility in how we work, and excitement for what we work on. Let’s look at the “when” first. We don’t have shifts. We don’t have times when we are required to be in office. Heck, we don’t even have to clock a certain number of hours each week. Officially yes, we do have to, but unofficially, every PhD student knows that work is done in spurts of high intensity instead of a regular and sustained effort. If I want, I can disappear from my office for a week and nobody would ask questions. And I can just as easily stay in the lab the whole night working on an interesting problem. And when your research does work well, it captures your attention to such an extent that you upset your diurnal cycle and blend night and day as you sit red-eyed in front of your computer and notice that the data is quadratic and not linear as expected.

If you shy away from such an unpredictable life, I totally understand. I sometimes find myself wishing that I could lead a more structured life too. But, I would never accept that over the excitement of fixing a bug at midnight on a Friday, then working on it over the whole weekend, getting the final results on Monday morning, then celebrating by not going to the office on Tuesday and Wednesday. Can you, who has a regular job, afford to do that?


There are no precedents or playbooks or standard protocol when it comes to a PhD. There’s no existing method of doing something. There’s no training new recruits in the way things are “generally” done. You do things your way.


Now let’s turn to how we work. There are no precedents or playbooks or standard protocol when it comes to a PhD. There’s no existing method of doing something. There’s no training new recruits in the way things are “generally” done. You do things your way. If things don’t work out, well hey, that’s research. Things are not supposed to work out most of the time. If they are, then what you’re doing is dull and you should move on.

Sourya speaking at an event organized by the Association of International Graduate Students at USC

Most engineering jobs are about following procedure and getting things done. But not a PhD. The entirety of a PhD is filled with complications, which is why there’s no “this is how you do it”, instead it’s always “how are you going to do this?” While that makes life difficult a lot of the time, it also keeps it fresh and entertaining. There is no penalty for failing, but there’s the prestige of publications upon succeeding.

As for the what we work on, it’s always exciting. In my previous article, I argued that what you do during your PhD is more of exploration than actually discovering something new. That is true. But guess what, that doesn’t suck! Initially I didn’t think much of exploration, but I have begun to love it. It’s like going on a hike and following a different trail. It might lead to a dead end, but you were the one who discovered the dead end. You are a trailblazer who discovered something useless and eliminated it from the consideration of future generations. That’s actually extremely useful.

Imagine that you’re trying to find a good movie on Netflix. Suddenly an angel appears and clears away all the advertisements and recommendations and points you to the one movie which you will absolutely love. In general, such angels don’t exist. That’s because most professional people work on furthering their company’s interests. Google wants to sell its Pixel and markets it as being great. So does Apple, Samsung and HTC. But PhD students don’t do that. We clear the path for you. We explore all the models and tell you which one is best. What do we get from doing this exploration? We get to be pioneers who recognize when something isn’t going to work and eliminate it from consideration. Why do we love doing it? Because we discovered something. We were the first.


Teaching is fun. I’m the boss. And yet I’m not bossing anyone. I’m not paying people to do as I tell them to and follow company protocol. People are paying me to teach them what I know. That feels good.


Finally, I would like to share something which the above paragraphs help explain the reasons behind. I want to stay in academia. This is contrary to what I stated in my previous article. I did this about turn because I realized that I’m not a people pleaser. I would not enjoy fitting in and acquiescing to a “that’s your job Sourya” from my boss. I would like to walk on untrod paths by doing my own research – even if that means following a lot of dead ends. Recognizing dead ends, separating them from live ones, and eventually imparting that knowledge to the people of tomorrow is something that satisfies me. In common terms, this act is known as teaching. Teaching is fun. I’m the boss. And yet I’m not bossing anyone. I’m not paying people to do as I tell them to and follow company protocol. People are paying me to teach them what I know. That feels good.


 

Sourya Dey is a Viterbi Graduate School Fellow pursuing his PhD in Electrical Engineering. He is advised by Professor Peter Beerel and works on neural networks. When not watching soccer, he sometimes indulges in writing about ‘utterly random musings’. You can find his blog here.

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