Home > academic enterprise, careers > Doing a Ph.D. will break you down and build you back up!

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.

  1. January 27, 2013 at 8:17 am

    I agree, and, I think one has to be really motivated and to desire going down this path. I think Ph.D. has its own good taste 🙂

    • January 30, 2013 at 11:49 pm

      Hey, this path seems to be working for you pretty well. 🙂

  2. January 27, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I fully agree.

    • January 30, 2013 at 11:54 pm

      The responses fall into two categories: either people fully agree with my position or think that I’m denying the reality. In a couple of days, I’ll write a follow-up post to clarify my position that the way Ph.D. training is currently conducted is fine.

  3. Andrew
    January 27, 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Insofar as the Ph.D. is grueling training for an even more grueling career, I think you are right on. However, I do think that the original blog post was partly a commentary by the author on brutality of academia more generally, as many of the issues she cites aren’t limited to the graduate degree portion of a career.

    (To me) your anecdote of having a grant rejected 11 times in a row is partly uplifting (go you for finally nailing it and getting tenure!) and partly depressing: this this really the most effective way of creating science? Should people be required to be “broken” do become scientists?

    Anyhow, I like your take on the post much more than the “grad school was easy” responses that many in my corner of the community put forth.

    • January 30, 2013 at 11:48 pm

      Thank you for your comment! I’ll reply in a separate blog post.

  4. Susan Elliot Sim
    January 30, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Your main point is good: A Ph.D. does break you and build you back up with a net positive result. But I disagree with one of your final comments: “Finally, I do not think that anything needs to change in the way Ph.D. training is conducted.” On the contrary, I think there are many improvements that can be made. To me, the most important change is to provide additional social and emotional support, for which the best sources are fellow students. Learning to participate in a community this way is important for students, not just as researchers, but also as human beings.

    The current system, which too often isolates students while they toil away for years, leads some to drop out or to not even apply to graduate school. These people who don’t survive running the gauntlet are not poorer researchers; they simply have different personal equations from those who succeed in the current Ph.D. regime. In the end, the research community, and in turn the society that supports the research, will benefit from an increased diversity of views and a stronger peer network.

    • January 30, 2013 at 11:48 pm

      Thank you for your comment! I’ll reply in a separate blog post in the next couple of days.

  5. Felix
    January 15, 2014 at 4:59 am

    I don’t really see why breaking is necessary.
    You get young, spirited Individuals with frequently great ideas. Sure it’s hard, it’s science, but what does it have to do with breaking someone?

    And coming to your second paragraph, isn’t it more a sign that there is inherently something wrong with workload allocations in the system? I don’t see that point the crippling a soul is a necessary thing. It’s sad that apparently this is what academia has become. I liked this years comment of Prof. Higgs, that under the current system he wouldn’t have had any chance and time to think about his monumental break through. And that he most probably would have been let go a long time ago if there hadn’t been rumor about him beingup for a Nobel.

    A system that necessitates breaking anyone is inherently wrong.

  1. February 3, 2013 at 10:41 pm

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