Reflections on a PhD

2023-11-15

Exploring my PhD experience and giving unsolicited advice to potential PhD students.

Tags: phd

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Introduction

I've spent about 13% of my life obtaining a PhD. This article is for anyone who's wondering what that was like or whether they should do one themselves. I'll give a high-level sketch of my PhD experience, try to explain what research is like, discuss some of the challenges, and then draw my conclusions on whether it's a worthwhile thing to do.

Before we begin, here's the obligatory disclaimer: all PhDs are different. They vary by university, country, supervisor, field of study, personality, and a million other things. I did mine at Maynooth University in Ireland. It took 4 years. I studied channel coding, which is a jumble of computer science, maths, and electronic engineering. I had 3 years of work experience beforehand, because of which I didn't have to rely entirely on my PhD stipend. My perspective is coloured by these details and will be different from that of, say, an American history PhD. That said, I'll try to give the broadest perspective I can.

Another disclaimer: I think it's hard to understand what a PhD is REALLY like based on the ramblings of a random person on the internet. In retrospect, I didn't truly understand what I was getting myself into, despite reading articles like this one. Knowledge doesn't make up for experience. So, if you're considering whether to do a PhD, you will ideally want to acquire research experience beforehand in order to make a fully-informed decision.

What was it like?

I decided to do a PhD after working as a software developer for 3 years. I was bored with my job, and while I could've looked for a new one, I had always intended to return to university, and then seemed like the best time to do so. My motivation was that I wanted more freedom to learn new things, and I wanted to expand my career options.

I emailed a few Ireland-based researchers to enquire about postgraduate opportunities, without success. Then I found out about the new structured PhD programs that were being introduced to Ireland. Basically, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) was copying the "cohort" model from other countries, in which groups of students start their PhD at the same time and follow a program that includes taught courses and training. This sounded good to me, so I applied to 3 of these programs. The only one I ended up interviewing for, and the one I joined, was the SFI Center for Research Training in Data Science. Let's just call it the CRT. While my background was in computer science, the term "data science", and the CRT, are broad enough that they encompass people with lots of different backgrounds, from physicists to psychologists. Historians... probably not.

Something that prospective PhD students have to consider is how they're going to pay for it. Unless you're filthy stinking rich, of course, or unless you want to be filthy stinking in debt. One option is for your potential supervisor to help you prepare a funding application. Another option is to enslave yourself to a company that will fund you to do research on their behalf. In general, it's more difficult to get funding in the humanities. Fortunately, my program was fully funded by SFI and their "enterprise alliance", i.e. corporate backers. This freed me from having to find a supervisor or decide on a research project in advance, which I appreciated.

I was part of the first ever cohort of the CRT. There were 30 students, split across 3 Irish universities: Maynooth University, University of Limerick, and University College Dublin. For the first 6 months of the program, I did courses and projects with my fellow students. These times were interesting, sociable, and fun. I was fulfilling my desire to learn new things, and I was highly motivated -- I set up my website during that time! Depending on the department you're studying in, a PhD can be an isolating experience, but being in a cohort reduces the risk of that, and my department in particular had a great social scene. COVID-19 torpedoed said social scene, of course, and we spent significant parts of the next 2 years in lockdown, but it was still nice to have other students to share the experience with, and to have emotional support when things weren't going so well.

After working on assignments and projects for those few months, we had to seek out and select a supervisor. Some students knew in advance what they would be studying and who their supervisor would be. I did not, and I stumbled into my research area - channel coding - by accident, as I had not even been aware of its existence before I spoke with my future supervisor. Channel coding seemed to offer a mixture of computer science and maths, which were my subjects of interest. Also, my supervisor had more concrete project ideas than some of the other researchers I spoke with. So channel coding it was to be. At this point, all the students branched off and we started working on the research that would occupy us for the remainder of the 4 years.

The end goal of a PhD, in material terms, is a thesis. A PhD student must create a body of original, publishable research (more on that in a second), write it in thesis form, and then defend it before a panel of experts at their viva / thesis defence1. The PhD can be thought of as an apprenticeship. In exchange for teaching you Sacred Techniques™ and helping you to put together a thesis, your supervisor gets you to crank out research papers, which in turn helps them advance their career.

Besides working on research with my supervisor and other collaborators, I had the opportunity to take part in activities such as:

I submitted my thesis almost exactly 4 years from the day I started, and am now awaiting my viva. I'll say it again: this experience was unique to me, and all PhDs are different. In the USA, for example, students usually spend their first year just doing coursework. PhDs also tend to take longer over there. My aim here has only been to give a flavour of what my PhD was like, which I hope will be another datapoint in your conception of PhDs in general.

What's research tho?

Besides mandatory coursework, the only thing that directly contributes towards getting a PhD is research. I never fully understood what research was before I did a PhD, so here is an explanation for my past self. Let's start with a definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

research (n): investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws.

This "investigation" can take wildly different forms depending on the field of study. It might involve translating historical records, or running experiments in a lab, or writing computer code, or conducting a survey, or analysing data from that survey, or reading a heckload of books. What's common to all fields, though, is that you have to review the existing literature, and you have to add to that literature by writing up your findings.

What's a literature review? All research is built on the work of those who came before, so to give yourself a starting point, and to avoid being unoriginal, you have to familiarise yourself with existing work - the "literature" - in your field. In my experience, literature review basically comes down to scouring the internet / Google Scholar for papers, skim-reading those papers, reading textbooks, tracking down references from a bibliography, etc. This will be more or less involved depending on how big the field is and how much your supervisor can guide you.

Everyone has to write up their findings and have them quality-checked by other researchers. Without this peer review process, crackpots would be able to publish their Theories of Everything alongside proper research. So, you can't escape the cold, hard reality of having to write words on a page. A lot of words. The exact quantity of words will depend on your field. History PhDs, for example, with whom I seem to have unresolved beef, basically have to write an entire book. My thesis is 100 widely-spaced pages with lots of pictures. Once again, it's field-dependent.

Most science research is conducted through English, which can make life a bit more difficult for non-native speakers. Nobody is expected to write the next great work of literature, though. It's just another thing you learn along the way, like LaTeX or how to do a literature review. Some of my coursemates ended up feeling more comfortable writing in English than in their native languages.

Once you've written up your findings and published them through a conference or journal, you will generally want to (or will be compelled to) spread the word by giving talks, poster presentations and whatnot. I think I gave upwards of 10 presentations during my PhD, between CRT events and conferences I attended. Conferences also provide the opporunity to network with other researchers, see what everyone is working on, and find collaborators.

Things you should know

Let's suppose you were enchanted by my sketch of the PhD life, and you're ready to offer your soul at the altar of academia. Here are some things I think you should know before you begin that journey.

Supervisors are gods

PhD students are highly dependent on their supervisors, moreso than someone in a corporate job is dependent on their manager. Your supervisor not only "manages" you, but also (in theory) must play the role of teacher and guide you in your research. In some universities, they even have the final say on whether you graduate. The power imbalance is, needless to say, large, and a bad supervisor can make your life miserable.

All good supervisors are alike; each bad supervisor is bad in their own way. They might be inattentive and only make themselves available to meet once per month. They might give you a hard time for wanting to take holidays. They might try to squeeze extra work out of you and end up delaying your graduation. They might try to emotionally manipulate you into working harder. They might be clueless about your research area and leave you to figure things out for yourself. They might micromanage you and not let you pick your own research topics. They might be relentlessly critical and undermine your self-confidence.

While, in theory, a university may have mechanisms to change supervisor or lodge a complaint against a supervisor, I haven't heard of anyone actually using such a mechanism. Doing so is likely to cause drama or set you back in your research progress, but ultimately may be worth it if you're truly miserable and don't want to quit the PhD.

All that considered, your choice of supervisor is IMPORTANT. There are many qualities you can try to optimise for in a supervisor, from their level of experience to how much free time they have. In my opinion, the most important thing is that you like and respect them, and that they will treat you with kindness. Most people get bored of their research topic by the time they finish, and most people will publish papers that are read by only a handful of people. But at least if you get on well with your supervisor, you're more likely to be happy in your day-to-day life and to avoid becoming a sad ball of stress. Talk to your potential supervisor's PhD students to get a sense of what it's like to work with them.

The mental health gauntlet

Speaking of sad balls of stress, you should be aware that PhDs are often mentally taxing, as anyone who has browsed r/PhD will know. I have, without a doubt, become a more anxious person over the past few years, which at one point resulted in me attending my university's counselling service. Emotionally, it was much more difficult than the cushy software engineering job I had before. This was during the time of COVID-19, so I don't solely blame the PhD, but I also don't know any PhD students in my department who weren't seriously stressed at some point, and I witnessed several of them crying due to PhD issues. This being in a relatively chill university with (mostly) well-intentioned supervisors!

PhD students generally have to publish papers to graduate, and their supervisors generally need to publish papers for career advancement - "publish or perish", they say. There is therefore a lot of pressure on students to churn out publishable research, which can be a major source of stress - particularly when their projects aren't going well. Several of my fellow students had a terrible work-life balance and ended up working evenings/weekends. Combine this with isolation (you won't necessarily have any collaborators), impostor syndrome (as you are exposed to a lot of things you don't understand), and a trash supervisor (see above)... and it can potentially take a big toll on your mental health.

I'm aware that these problems aren't necessarily unique to PhDs, and that even having the opportunity to do a PhD is a privilege. However, I still think it's important to acknowledge the psychological aspect of a PhD, which was more of an obstacle for me than any of the technical puzzles I faced in my research, and it's something that potential students may want to keep in mind.

For a kinda silly example of how mental health and motivation can fluctuate during a PhD, here are my GitHub contributions over the past ~4 years. The periods of total inactivity tend to align with when I was feeling stressed or burnt-out. I will merely point out that the graph becomes sparser as time goes on.

A bar chart showing my GitHub contributions over the past years. They get more sparse as time goes on.
GitHub contributions. Each contribution can be as trivial as adding a movie to a list, or fixing a typo on my blog.

Idealism and reality

Before starting my PhD, I had a vague idea of academia as a happy place where I could spend my days studying textbooks and working on whatever fun projects I wanted. This was delusional. I will now describe some of the harsh realities of academia that my younger, doe-eyed self was unaware of.

Firstly, the pressure to publish means that you can't spend your whole time studying or working on whatever you want. You might end up working on an idea you think is useless or uninteresting, just because your supervisor tells you to or because you're desperate to get ANYTHING published. Even if you have a good idea, you might spend a couple of days fleshing it out, and then spend months doing the monotonous work of gathering results, reviewing the literature, and writing it up. Some people love this, some don't. However, it's true that you are likely to have total freedom in how you plan your day. If learning is important to you, then you can schedule time every day where you watch video lectures or work through a textbook. I found myself compromising on this when I was stressed and trying to finish papers, though.

You might think that academia is full of noble idealists, dedicated to the sharing of ideas and the advancement of human knowledge, and driven by their love of ✨learning✨. While such people undoubtedly exist, you are also likely to come across cynical, ruthlessly ambitious careerists. These people will churn out trash papers and cite their own work (see: The Wire, and what happens when you give the police arrest quotas). They will shoot down your paper in peer review because it treads on "their turf" (happened to me and others). They will drive their students to maximise research output. As in all areas of life, there are assholes.

The publishing system is also imperfect, to say the least. Many of the largest journals and conferences have their research paywalled, making them inaccessible to people outside of universities. Even to get your research published usually requires a large cash payout. This has resulted in the development of work-arounds like arxiv.org (free online publishing) and Sci-Hub (WARNING: free access to paywalled research). Even still, like many aspects of life in a capitalist society, it's not a level playing field for everyone.

While negative results ("this is NOT a cure for cancer") are just as valid a contribution to human knowledge as positive results ("we found the cure for cancer!"), there's a heavy bias towards positive results. This necessitates the use of massive amounts of Spin™, also known as "bullshitting", to make your results sound as groundbreaking as possible. Being honest about the flaws in your work can provide reviewers with a larger surface area to attack you, because in their mind, "negative results" are the same as "bad research". For someone who prefers to be self-deprecating and honest, this is a hard reality to accept. Veteran researchers often embrace the cynicism and become expert bullshitters.

Coming from the world of programming, and having a vague understanding of the scientific method and this idea called "reproducibility", I expected that the philosophy of open source software would be readily embraced by the research community. In 4 years, however, I didn't find a single research paper in my field that came with source code. This stems from a combination of Jurassic-era intellectual property rules in universities, along with what a cynical person might suggest is an attempt by researchers to minimise the surface area that I mentioned before. Other viable explanations: laziness, ignorance, lack of incentives, etc. I wanted to publish source code with my papers but ran into walls, and so the cycle continues.

Certain journals, conferences and universities have accumulated stores of a mysterious quality called Prestige. It's the appeal to authority falacy writ large, and yet people still fall for it. Harvard, Cambridge, Nature, Science - having these Big Names on your CV gives you more clout, no matter how much of a dumbass you are. You will undoubtedly come across people who namedrop these places because they think it makes them look smarter. When I become dictator of the world, such people will be the first to be sent on a one-way trip to the bottom of the ocean.

Oh, and do I even need to mention that your research isn't going to change the world and that probably only a handful of people will ever read it? Everyone says that, so I probably don't need to. And I haven't touched on cultural problems like sexual harassment within male-dominated fields.

Despite all of the above, I feel neutral towards academia. These problems might ultimately pale in comparison with those of working as a cog in a corporate machine. There are researchers I look up to. I learned a lot of stuff that I wouldn't have otherwise. I haven't even completely discounted a career in academia. The point of this section is merely to burst the idealistic bubbles that were held by my past self so that I don't go into my PhD with unrealistic expectations - woops, too late.

To do or not to do

We have come to the big question: Should you do a PhD or not?

My answer: Yes, if you want to.

More seriously, I would suggest making sure that you have a good reason to do one. Getting to call yourself Doctor? Bad reason. Don't have anything better to do? Bad reason. Want to become a researcher or a lecturer at a university? Good reason. Think you'd enjoy doing it? Probably a good reason. A question you can ask yourself to help with the decision, and which ultimately drove me to apply: "Will I regret it in the future if I don't try it?"

Inform yourself as best you can as to what is in store for a PhD student and what the opportunity costs are. The path to a permanent position in academia might require you to be paid below your market value for a long time and to uproot your life every couple of years; for a more detailed discussion of this, I will once again link to the always-entertaining Angela Collier. I don't have any regrets about the industry money I didn't make, but it might be a different story if I had accumulated a lifetime of debt with little prospect of paying it off, as might be the case for American history PhDs (sorry). Then again, if someone is only passionate about history research, they might not have other options.

Financially speaking, it also helped that my day-to-day expenses were affordable and that I had savings to draw on for luxuries like holidays, a car, etc. Your PhD stipend, if you have one, won't leave you with much breathing room, and I know of people who ended up surviving on tins of beans at the end of the month. The PhD stipend in Ireland is generally below minimum wage, which is somehow legal because we're not classed as employees! (It's increasing in the latest government budget, but still below minimum wage). Do some research into what your quality of life will be like, if that's important to you.

Even if a PhD feels like a big commitment, there's usually the possibility to drop out with a Masters degree if you end up being unhappy. It requires bravery and rational thinking, however, to follow through on that. Pride, stubbornness, inertia and the sunk-cost fallacy -- any of these can lead to the needless suffering of a poor soul as they force themselves to complete their PhD.

Conclusions

I don't have any regrets about doing a PhD. I definitely would've regretted not trying it. I met my goal of learning new things, even if it wasn't to the extent that I had hoped. I've opened new career options for myself. I met lovely people. I developed a diverse set of skills: researching, writing, presenting. I learned what research actually is. Regarding the CRT in particular, I enjoyed being part of a cohort of students, and I appreciated the freedom it gave me to explore my options, although the restrictions of the structured program were frustrating for people who already knew what they wanted to do.

Something I wish I did differently was postponing all my life decisions until after the PhD. It was easy to say "I'm busy for the next 4 years, I don't have to worry about what comes next". Now my viva is approaching and I haven't decided what the hell I'll do after that. I've been handed back the steering wheel of my life and I don't know where I'm driving to. This is very much a first-world problem, though, and I'm conscious of being in a position of privilege that hopefully I will not put to waste.

That's all I have to say about PhDs. I'd be happy to receive feedback or answer any questions you may have, if you still think the self-important opinions of a not-even-graduated PhD student are worth seeking.


  1. In some countries, you also have to engage in mortal combat with a deadly snake


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I'd be happy to hear from you at galligankevinp@gmail.com.