Doing a Ph.D. will break you down and build you back up!
“Things don’t go wrong and break your heart so you can become bitter and give up. They happen to break you down and build you up so you can be all that you were intended to be.”
― Charles Jones Life is Tremendous
There is a blog post making rounds around the Internet, in which a career academic advises students against pursuing Ph.D. studies. The author’s main point is that the process invariably breaks the Ph.D. seeker, and it does so by design. I agree, but it is only part of the picture. Doing a Ph.D. breaks you down and then builds you into a stronger, more mature, and more determined person, prepared to deal with the vagaries of the research trade.
Ph.D. training indeed breaks you, as it makes your realize your own inadequacies when you are forced to develop wanton patience working on hard problems for years, without any certainty that the problems are even solvable. During your Ph.D. training you have to learn how to persevere in the face of intellectual doubts, personal isolation, and financial hardship. However, successfully completing one’s Ph.D. journey does prepare you for the challenges of a research career.
I have recently received tenure, and I found my tenure track experiences to be much more trying and unforgiving than anything I went through during my Ph.D. studies. Do you know what it does to a man’s (or a woman’s) soul to have 11 NSF proposals rejected in a row? Do you know when you are the only person in your department working in your research area, which your department does not fully understand? Do you know what it is like when your very first teaching assignment turns into developing a new undergraduate course from scratch? Do you know what it is like for a life-long urbanite to find yourself in a small college town that does not have anything to offer that you care about?
Nevertheless, no matter how isolated, overworked, and depressed I may have felt at times, it has never occurred to me to quit my job. My Ph.D. training hardened my spirit and enabled me to persevere against all odds. My 12th submission to the NSF got funded, thus cementing my tenure case. In my department, I became a go-to person for collaborations in my research area. The undergraduate course I developed became one of the most popular courses in the curriculum and helped me recruit a student with whom I co-authored some of my best papers. Finally, I have learned to appreciate the safety and absence of traffic of my new living arrangements–nothing beats living half a mile away from your office! To a large degree, I credit my Ph.D. training, which was indeed long and grueling, with giving me the strength and determination to succeed on the tenure track.
Doing a Ph.D. taught me several important lessons. One is that whether you have had a good experience or bad experience, it is the noun (i.e., experience) that is important, not the adjective (i.e., good or bad); use all your experiences as an opportunity to learn and grow. Another lesson was conveyed to me by a member of my Ph.D. committee. He said: “You are being too defensive with your committee. You have done excellent work that was published in top places–stand your ground!” And this is what I have been doing ever since–standing my ground no matter what my research career throws at me.
Finally, I do not think that anything needs to change in the way Ph.D. training is conducted. The process must remain long and hard, as it is the only way to train students for successful research careers. However, whether one should embark on the Ph.D. journey is a highly individual decision that should not be made lightly.