PhD in the US: My Learnings

In the summer of 2014, I arrived at the Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) to pursue my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park. The funny thing about the BWI airport is that there is nothing international about it.

PhD in the US: My Learnings

In the summer of 2014, I arrived at the Baltimore Washington International Airport (BWI) to pursue my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park. The funny thing about the BWI airport is that there is nothing international about it. It was a precursor to everything I learned as a graduate student in the US. The journey as a PhD student was challenging for me. It gave me several lessons for life. I share them here hoping some of them might be useful to my readers.  

Caution to the Reader:  I am not sure if my views are balanced. In reality, I don't care if it is balanced or not. In all honesty, this is the way I view the world. I am sure it has its drawbacks. But this is the model through which I view the world; test my hypothesis and change my views if something misfires. If not informative, I hope my eccentric journey is at least fun to read.

Choosing a good research advisor is half the battle

If there is one decision that defines pursuing a PhD more than anything else, choosing a good research advisor would top that list. Early career professors who are on the tenure track are extremely motivated to publish at a rapid rate. If the graduate student isn't as driven as the professor he chooses, things could get pretty complicated, pretty fast. I am aware of extremely diligent and smart colleagues who quit their PhD midway due to such intense differences. Tenured professors who are well past their prime might take things slow. If the student is highly motivated, chances are he might miss out on important opportunities. I am aware of students who changed their advisors midway due to these problems too. Personally speaking, the greatest unfair advantage I had was my research advisor. He has a stellar research record even in his sixties and yet was extremely warm and kind to me. He worked with me through my ups and downs and nudged me to graduate when I was contemplating quitting. My research colleagues were helpful in my progress. Looking back, it was pure luck that I ended up working with my research advisor.

Research is a serious skill & Coursework matters

Research is a fancy word that doesn't convey what the day to day life of a PhD looks like. There are three major skills one needs to develop to be well equipped to pursue a PhD. Reading, Testing & Writing.

Reading: An ability to study articles/journals published in the past in your relevant field. Understanding past work in one's research area helps one plan their future work. It gives you a sense of all the approaches pursued so far in solving a problem. So, hunting for those papers on the search engine, understanding them, replicating them (when needed) is very essential.

Testing: An ability to convert real-world problems that you care about into a testable analytical model is a skill worth having. It helps you test your hypothesis and make corrections based on the results.

Writing: An ability to articulately convey your research's findings in the form of peer-reviewed journal articles, conference papers and talks.

While some universities offer courses in these skills, most students pick them up along their PhD journey. However, most universities offer courses that provide strong fundamentals to these skills (for example, mathematical physics courses teach you tools to pursue electrical engineering courses). It then becomes very important to take the coursework seriously and learn those techniques. Deliberate practice is a must to master these skills.

Independence is amazing if you know how to handle it

Having been micromanaged my entire life, independence at work was foreign to me. Be it at home or work, micromanaging is a pretty common feature in the Indian subcontinent. Consequently, I was trained to work when somebody watched over me. When I moved to the US for my PhD, the university covered my education and also paid a stipend for pursuing research (a little over $200k for 6 years). To put things in perspective, my stipend in the US paid me more than a full professor in India. I was extremely happy from a money point of view. What made it even more amazing was, nobody bothered on a day to day basis for progress. My team checked in once a week to discuss work. Colleagues would make helpful suggestions to get me started. They would appreciate the smallest progress I had made. Everything was perfect, at least in principle. Independence is amazing if you know how to handle it. In my case, it was a disaster waiting to happen. I was never this free. It felt like I was getting paid to do nothing. Being far away from home meant parents had little control over my life. My coursework took a hit, my research productivity took a hit. I had to learn the hard way to motivate myself. Half a decade and several self-help books later, I managed to survive the journey.

Imposter Syndrome is as real as it gets

I am a classic living example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (a hypothetical cognitive bias stating that people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability). As long as I was a resident of India, I was the smartest kid in every room I sat through (I at least believed that was the truth! 🤦🏻‍♂️). Not just academically, but socially too. I was pretty talented when it came to extracurriculars too. However, that bubble burst soon after I moved to the US. Research as a pursuit is filled with failures. I worked on multiple ideas for the first two years which turned out to be a dead-end by the third year. Colleagues critiqued my work thoroughly every week (during our weekly meetings) and I ended up discarding several ideas. Initially, I took all the criticism and worked harder to get better results. But the gas ran out pretty quick because I started feeling useless. Worse, I felt like a fraud in the system who somehow made through cracks in the university system and got admitted to a PhD program. I didn't know there was a name to this feeling until I saw a flyer on the notice board that read "How to cope with Imposter syndrome?". Turns out, I wasn't alone in this journey. Imposter syndrome is as real as it gets. Bad ideas, failures and rejections are an integral part of pursuing research. It's humbling to know how much we don't know.

Perspective is the other half of the battle

When I set out on my journey to pursue a PhD, it was a pretty arbitrary decision. I never bothered to ask why I needed a PhD in the first place. In hindsight, I believe it was a decision based on my need to do something different from the crowd at large. I wanted to distinguish myself from the ocean of engineers (it felt more like a flock of sheep) in India. I wasn't aware of what a PhD does on a day to day basis. I was one of those guys who had this cliched dream of being a scientist in 2nd grade and went on to do it seventeen years later. Being naive cost me heavily as the whole system overwhelmed me.

Very broadly, I find two categories of people pursuing a PhD. The first category is filled with people I call 'preternaturally curious'. They have a deep need to understand why the universe is the way it is. They do not stop until they find an answer. If the answers exist, they verify it. If it doesn't exist, it bothers them until a reasonable solution is found. To such people, PhD is a natural next step in their life. All it takes is to look for a problem that already bothers them and search for people who are interested in similar problems and then collaborate with such people. Such collaborations generally lead to meaningful insights in the general domain. Stephen Hawking & Leslie Lamport are probably good examples of this category.

The second category is filled with people I call 'career academic'. They are ambitious & driven. Their reasons for pursuing a PhD might be arbitrary liking or a decision well thought through. They are well aware of the academic world. To such people, PhD is a step along the way to become a professor or a research scientist. Their journey is defined by the metrics defined to get there. Having a good publication record (h-index), accumulating teaching experience, winning grants, leading research groups, becoming a tenured professor (regarded as an accomplishment in academic circles) in a prestigious university are some examples of such a pursuit. I have seen phenomenal people in this category. Cal Newport is probably a good example of this category.

Imaginary line segment representing all the PhDs in the world in my world view!

In reality, these are broad over-generalizations to drive home a point. Most PhDs live closer to the centre of these extremes with a decent tilt towards either of these extremes. My struggle was, I did not exactly belong on this line in the first place. I realized it several years later. I was a curious kid. That made me a valedictorian at high school & pushed me into a prestigious engineering school in India. However, somewhere along the line, I started arbitrarily running towards the right. I started pursuing fields that had an exotic appeal, great companies to work for, fancy degrees to populate my CV. I studied Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuits (a really hard course at the undergraduate level for electrical engineering students), worked as a Design Engineer at AMD (the processor company that powers PS/Xbox), and finally landed in the US to pursue a PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park. Not knowing what I cared about, drained me mentally over the next few years. I followed my wild ambition without the necessary drive. It fizzled out for long periods along the journey. Now, I have begun the journey to the left (towards my older self). It is a tough transition!

My other unfair advantage is my wife. Having known her for more than a decade, I cannot imagine how things would have turned out if she wasn’t around in the first place. Her constant presence, occasional chiding and general belief in me kept me going. I thank the universe for bringing us together.

Conclusion: There is light at the end of the tunnel

This article intends to educate prospective students, parents and the society at large on problems affecting PhD students. Feeling demotivated after reading this article defeats the very purpose of writing it in the first place. So, the question is what can new PhD students and prospective students do to overcome a majority of these problems.

  1. Work on smaller projects: When my motivation was rock bottom, I bought a do it yourself (DIY) signal generator components and started assembling them. Because it was a small DIY project, I had a sense of accomplishment when I finished it. Picking up extremely simple projects helps us understand the building blocks of a bigger product. It also reduces the level of abstraction one has to deal with. Knowing smaller parts of a problem helps you plan and execute a bigger problem.
  2. Try research: If possible, pursue some sort of research during your undergrad days. If reading technical papers and replicating it sounds fun, this might be something you will enjoy. Pick a small problem and try modelling it. A masters degree (by thesis) might also help you gauge your interest in this kind of work.
  3. Maintain a journal: Try writing a journal entry about everything you do and don’t do. Capture your emotions. It helps you reflect on your journey objectively when in crisis.
  4. Embrace failures: My failures humbled me in a way I never imagined. I had a cynical approach to life and a very judgmental view towards others failures. Now, I realize the story and the circumstance is different for every individual. I am positive, less critical and pretty open-minded on most issues. So, embrace the failures. It teaches you things success doesn’t.
  5. Build a good support system: As I said earlier, luck helped me in finding an amazing research advisor and even more amazing wife. Try and surround yourself with genuinely nice people. Make honest conversations with relatable people. Tough professors & rude people don’t always make you better. Being happy in the present is important if you decide to run the PhD marathon.

Books Suggestions to My Rescue

Thanks to the world of self-help. Reading a few books in this genre helped me cope with my PhD. Three books stand out in my endeavour. I strongly recommend them to anybody who is as clueless as I was and plans to pursue graduate school.

  1. How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less by Cal Newport*
  2. The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin*
  3. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport*

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