from Guide to the PhD on Jan 29, 2023

What I learned in my PhD.

Reflecting on my several years in graduate school, I realized I've come a long way — in how I tackle problems, find problems, and more. Here are the top reasons why I'm glad I did the PhD, and why you don't need a PhD to learn the same.

I started the PhD more or less because I got accepted — not for any deep-seated, inspirational reason. In fact, I didn't know what the program really entailed, and I certainly wasn't sure why I was choosing to stay in school, when I in fact struggled in school.

Now that I've finished though, I'm really happy I did undertake the program. This post is primarily written for three different audiences:

  1. Anyone that has just started a PhD and is looking to see how to grow. In which case, this post serves as a rough guideline for how to maximize value from the program. Remember that the value of the program is inter-personal, which you can only reap by interacting with other researchers regularly.
  2. Anyone that doesn't want to pursue a PhD but is looking for the non-material benefits that such a program provides. Follow the tips in this post to understand what skills graduate school teaches and how you can pick up those same skills, even without undertaking the PhD program.
  3. Anyone on the fence about starting a PhD, unsure of whether the perceived downsides are worth the upsides. If this is you, make sure to check out Why pursue a PhD? Is it for me? and use this as a guide for the pros of a PhD program. The skills themselves are not the benefits, but an environment streamlined for building those skills is.

In this post, I'll talk about what I learned, then cover a different angle on these learnings — how you can learn the same exact skills and reap the same benefits, but without going through a PhD.

Advantages to a PhD: Brand guidance, like-minded community.

The PhD program is primarily for three main purposes, and as you may notice from the title, all of these purposes are geared towards other people you meet in the PhD.

First, the program provides "brand" guidance. In particular, you learn how to contribute to the sum total of human knowledge and how to build a brand around your contributions. For the only time in your life, you have a myriad of unique advantages that allow you to focus entirely on building this:

  1. Committee: Several, already-famous researchers — a.k.a., your advisors — have dedicated time and resources to discussing your contributions with you. In particular, the qualification exam at Berkeley is designed for your committee to assess your thesis plan:

    1. Impact: Is your vision worth pursuing? If accomplished, would the impact be significant enough to warrant attention? Are the objectives too narrow?
    2. Time: Is this vision possible to pursue in your program's timeframe? Are the objectives too broad to pursue?
    3. You: Are you the right person to pursue this agenda? Would you need assistance or mentorship, and are there mentors available?
  2. Peers: All your peers are actively undergoing the same internal struggle, and these peers are more than struggle buddies — many of them succeed in making significant research impact. This is not only exciting to watch and learn from their rise but also mind-boggling to think that such famous researchers are your friends.

  3. You: Your success or failure in the program is reliant almost entirely on your ability to find and define this brand, then use it as a vehicle to contribute to human expertise in some area. This pressure and simultaneous focus is unique to a graduate program. There are no distractions that matter, such as grades or promotions.

Second, you ingratiate yourself in a research community, and this community is particularly special in two ways:

There are three types of communities that you may encounter in your time in a PhD program:

  1. Within-university: Your first and foremost community of like-minded individuals will be your lab, naturally. Other related labs in your university, possibly labs in a shared consortium, are also great sources of collaborators, peers, and mentors.
  2. Across universities: You will over time get to meet faculty and students across universities, possibly by giving talks, collaborating, or just by chatting at academic events. It's a pleasant and memorable surprise when you already know their work, and the same is true vice versa.
  3. Industry: Through internships, corporate events, and workshops, many industry labs will engage academics as well. This is particularly true of the AI field but may extend to select other fields as well.

The combination of the above unique facets of a PhD make it an idyllic program for developing certain skills, which we'll now go over.

What a PhD program teaches you: Vision, execution, communication.

No matter the PhD program, your success is judged by your quality of research. In the AI field, this is in turn assessed by the quality and impact of your conference publications. As a result of this singular focus on your research impact, whether implicitly or explicitly, you learn two important sets of skills.

You learn how to form a vision and break down this vision into 4-6 month long projects — ie, a paper. In many cases, you also learn to do this in the reverse order: Start with a series of projects and later string a vision through. This skill allows enables you to generally do the following:

You learn how to execute a vision, breaking down grand goals into more palatable objectives. In many cases, progress on a research agenda is dependent entirely on you, so it's a sink-or-swim situation. Figure out how to execute, or the project is never completed. There are two facets to execution.

You learn how to communicate a vision, especially complex ideas and even half-baked ideas. This is one of the most important lessons: You don't flesh out a story before communicating it. Instead, you communicate to flesh out a story. This is what lab meetings, informal talks, and in-person interactions with your peers are for. There are two particular skills for communication:

All in all, you learn all the skills need to scope, execute, then pitch your work.

How to develop these same skills without a PhD

One of the most common questions I get is: "Did you need a PhD to learn that?" Honestly, you technically don't. These skills can be learned in any setting really. The unique part of the program was the pressure: Your success depended on nothing other than your research contributions. However, with the right discipline, you could pick up the same skills in industry.

Try these simple actions to slowly build up the relevant skills over a years-long period. In or outside of the PhD program, these skills take time to learn in either scenario.

Why I'm glad I did a PhD

These are aspects of a PhD program that aren't universally true, but the following were highlights for me.

First, I learned what makes me excited. This alone made my entire academic career worthwhile.

Second, I found an inner ring of welcoming teaching faculty. The vast majority of cliques in academia are exclusive, but I'm extremely fortunate to have worked with and known very welcoming faculty as well.

For the most part, I can summarize this entire post in a few words: The benefit of the PhD is inter-personal, both in terms of the people you meet and the skills you develop. To both your advantage and disadvantage, the communication you learn is a rather specific one: You learn how to communicate with other experts in your field. However, this is a starting point. If your cutting edge research isn't easily understood by experts, it definitely won't be understood by anyone outside of your field.

Got a question? Ask me on Twitter, at @lvinwan. Want more tips? Drop your email below, and I'll keep you in the loop.

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