Why Get a Ph.D.?

Occasionally professors wear suits on the job.

Someone once told me that he got his Ph.D. so that his job would never involve having to wear a suit or being at work by 9 a.m.  The statement is interesting for a couple of reasons.  On the one hand, the statement captures the career autonomy that having a Ph.D. can afford.  On the other, in my experience, the statement appears to be false.  Since finishing my Ph.D., I have sometimes needed to arrive at work well before 9 a.m., and below is a photo of me in a suit as proof that I didn’t manage to avoid that fate, either (in fairness, I don’t have to wear a suit very often, but the need sometimes arises).

What is a Ph.D.?

As new students arrive on campus this week, it’s a good time to discuss the nature of the journey that many Ph.D. students are about to begin.  It is not really possible to describe exactly what the Ph.D. experience will be like, since every Ph.D. program is different and, more importantly, everyone’s Ph.D. experience is quite personal.  Nevertheless, I wanted to write a little bit about what the Ph.D. is, some good reasons to get a Ph.D., and some good reasons not to get a Ph.D.

  • A degree signifying expertise (and experience). The Ph.D. acts as a signal to others that you have been through the particular process of writing a dissertation.  The process of creating knowledge and codifying it so that others can learn from your discoveries is something that every Ph.D. graduate goes through.  It signifies that you have acquired a particular skill set, hopefully involving the ability to identify important problems that are worth solving, a particular set problem solving skills, creativity, and the ability to clearly communicate your ideas.  It signifies that you have been through a unique process of creating new knowledge (see below).  If you wonder why certain employers favor Ph.D. graduates even when the job description does not involve research, this is one particular reason why.
  • An opportunity for a certain lifestyle. When I was a graduate student, I always thought that I had the best job in the world (the pay notwithstanding).  Perhaps being a postdoc is the best job in the world, because it has all of the perks of being a Ph.D. student, with considerably better pay.  As a graduate student (or postdoc), you have a unique opportunity to work on whatever problems you find interesting.  And, unlike your advisor, you can work on only one or two things at once and dive deep into those problems, hopefully unearthing new discoveries.  The autonomy that a life in research brings and the ability to work at the limits of your own creativity and ambition are rare privileges that many people do not enjoy in life.  Throughout life, you will meet many people who are unhappy in their jobs.  I can honestly say that I have never dreaded a day of work, and even though professors work very hard, you will be hard-pressed to find a professor who does not like his or her job.  I’m not sure I’ve met one.  I believe the reason for this is that we have jobs that never get boring, and if we are bored, we really have only ourselves to blame, since we can work on whatever we choose.  Being a professor carries certain perks over being a postdoc (e.g., more cachet, more autonomy, more pay), but it also brings with it more responsibility, more committees, and more work that can distract from research.  Despite the fact that professors often have three or more jobs (e.g., teaching, research, committees, and other service work), we are generally a very happy bunch.
  • A process.  As I mentioned above, the Ph.D. is a process of creating knowledge.  For the first time in your life, you have a chance to work on a problem that nobody has ever worked on before.  The answers are certainly not in a textbook, and the problem itself may not even be written down anywhere.  You are working at the frontier of human knowledge and understanding and trying to bump that frontier just a little bit further out.  The process of creating knowledge can be lonely and frightening, but many people (myself included) find it very exciting.  When you embark on a new project, you often have no idea what you will find, or whether what you are doing will even work.  The only thing you can be reasonably sure of is that you will learn something.  If that sounds exciting to you, you will probably enjoy the Ph.D.  If working outside the lines without someone telling you what to do and without a clear path to a known end goal makes you uncomfortable, you may find that the Ph.D. is not for you.

What can you do with a Ph.D.?

Academia. Although many people might assume that the main career path after gaining a Ph.D. is to become a professor, the truth of the matter is that most Ph.D. graduates do not become professors.  Yet, having a Ph.D. opens a wealth of opportunities.  Having been through the process I described above gives you an important set of skills that not many other people have acquired through such a long process.  Thus, a tenure-track faculty position is really only one possibility for post-graduate employment.  Many other employers are looking for the skill set that a Ph.D. graduate has acquired.  As a Ph.D. graduate, you have the unique opportunity to become research faculty, or faculty at a teaching university or college.  In fact, the main reason I decided to get my Ph.D. was because I deeply admired my undergraduate university professors and I wanted to emulate them—I thought I would like teaching, and I wanted to teach at the university level.  As I went down the path of getting my Ph.D., I discovered that I loved research as much, if not more, than teaching.  (In fact, I believe that research and teaching are extremely closely related to one another.  More on that in a later post.)

Industrial research labs. In addition to ensconcing yourself in the ivory tower, you can get a job at an industrial research lab (e.g., Microsoft Research).  A job at an industrial research lab often affords much of the autonomy of being a researcher in academia, although there are a few important differences.  One of the main differences is that you are not teaching courses on a regular basis.  Some consider this to be a bonus, as teaching is a significant time commitment; some believe that it disrupts their ability to do research.  On the other hand, I love teaching and I believe that the process of teaching (transferring knowledge) has an important feedback loop with research (creating knowledge), and I think I would really miss teaching if I were in a research lab.  Another important difference is that you are mainly working with your peers (other Ph.D. graduates, often within your own discipline), as opposed to working with a group of apprentices (i.e., your own students) and peers from other areas of computer science and even other disciplines.  Finally, another difference is that you typically do not have to apply for funding when you are working in an industrial research lab.  Many people do not like writing proposals and consider this a bonus.  I personally like writing proposals and consider it part of the research process—writing a proposal is the “planning” stage of research, where you outline a multi-year story and try to convince others that what you want to work on is a frontier of knowledge worth pursuing.  I view proposal writing as a useful tool to make sure that I’m not gaining tunnel vision and merely working “paper to paper”.  Others may find this process burdensome and find a job in an industrial lab more appealing.  Still, it is worth remembering that autonomy does not come for free: someone is paying for it.  If you are not writing the proposals to bring in the funding to determine what you are working on, someone else is bringing in that funding and ultimately may have some sway over what you can work on.  Many times, I have seen industrial research labs having to align their research projects with business units; sometimes the research labs are ultimately swallowed by the business units entirely (or worse, eliminated).  This is less of a danger at well-established research labs, but it can happen even there.

Government research labs. In addition to research jobs, another track you can pursue is a job at national government labs, which are like industrial research labs in some sense but receive their funding from the government, rather than the private sector.  Sometimes, government research work ends up being classified and difficult to publish, but sometimes it is not.  And, many people can find it exciting to work on classified projects.  I wouldn’t know much about this, as I don’t have a security clearance, although we have collaborated on one classified project before (which was an interesting process, since we were contributing to a classified project without being privy to the classified information).

A company of your own. In addition, you can start a company. Google began from Stanford’s Digital Library research project, for example.  Of course, Sergey Brin and Larry Page never finished their Ph.D.  You may find that this path turns out to be right for you.  Sometimes people say that you should work on your second-best idea for your Ph.D. and save the best one for your startup.  I think you should always be working on your best idea, for better ones are probably yet to come.  Needless to say, many startup ideas have come out of the Ph.D. process, and many of the skills acquired during the Ph.D. (creativity, working with uncertainty, communicating ideas, etc.) do transfer well to entrepreneurship.

What a Ph.D. is Not

A chance to take more classes. Some people enter the Ph.D. program as a chance to take more classes.  I have heard of cases of students getting bachelor’s degrees in other areas while completing their Ph.D. in computer science.  This is ridiculous; it is not what you come for, and if your advisor finds out you are doing this, he or she will likely not be pleased.  If you want to take more classes and get another degree, you should just go do that.  The research will be a distraction from your main goal.  I tend to encourage my students to complete their coursework as quickly as possible so that they can focus on research.

A “meanwhile” activity. If you enter a Ph.D. program simply because you do not like the “real world” or the thought of having a “real job”, or because you liked school but can’t figure out what you’d like to do with your life, you will almost certainly strongly dislike your Ph.D. experience, and you will probably not succeed.  A Ph.D. is not well defined.  There are no assignments and checklists.  There is no “homework” in the traditional sense.  Although you have an advisor whose job it is to guide you along your path, the path you take in your Ph.D. is ultimately deeply personal, and it is driven by your passions and interests (or lack thereof).  If you do not have a strong passion or the initiative to carry through your Ph.D. to completion, you will find the process to be very painful.  Your success (or failure) ultimately rests on your shoulders.

It is worth mentioning that obtaining the Ph.D. presents a serious financial opportunity cost.  For five (or more) years, you will be making about 20% of what your peers are making in industry out of college.  Furthermore, you will miss out of five years of raises and promotions on top of that higher salary that you could have been already making.  Ultimately, fifteen or twenty years later, you might close this gap, when you become a tenured professor and consulting and startup opportunities present themselves in abundance (should you decide that you want to spend your time on that).  Until then, unless you happen to be one of the fortunate few whose Ph.D. leads to the next breakthrough startup, you should plan on being financially set back from your friends and acquaintances who are in industry.  That is not to say that you will experience those setbacks, but if your goal is to become wealthy quickly, a Ph.D. is probably not the right career path for you.

A Personal Choice

Obtaining a Ph.D. is a deeply personal experience.  Your advisor will make sure that you are making progress (if he or she is doing the job well), but ultimately it is up to you to shape your experience.  To do well in the Ph.D. program, you need the passion for creating new knowledge and the tenacity to push your visions through to conclusions when the going gets tough.  Many people love the Ph.D. process.  For me, it was one of the best experiences in my life, and it has certainly shaped everything I’ve done going forward.  I would recommend it to anyone who shares many of the same attributes and goals that I have.  But, it’s also important to realize that the Ph.D. is not for everyone.  It might even take you some time and experience going through the process to realize that the Ph.D. is not for you; that is also perfectly alright.  There is absolutely no stigma in avoiding further sunk costs; at any time, you should be setting yourself on a path that gives you the best opportunities for success and happiness.  I hope these thoughts have helped you determine whether the Ph.D. is that path for you, but ultimately, it is difficult to know for sure until you have been through (or at least tried) the process yourself.


Managing Your Advisor

With the new academic term almost upon us, several of my students started to put together a list of practical advice for incoming students—including various niceties such as how to gain access to the lab, how to get accounts, how to submit reimbursements, and so forth.  I wanted to contribute to the list of advice, and I figured I could offer some value by giving advice to new students about how to gain traction on their research as quickly as possible.  This post is the first in a series of a few posts on that topic; in this post, I will cover the topic of managing your advisor.

The notion of an advisor is an interesting concept for many new Ph.D. students.  Incoming graduate students typically have one of two backgrounds: some come straight from undergraduate studies (and, hence, may have never had a manager or a boss overseeing their career); others have spent some time in the workforce and have decided to return to the university and begin a career in research (and, hence, have some notion of what it is like to have a manager).  An advisor-student relationship is unique, though, and will be a new experience for both types of incoming students.  The relationship is similar to a manager relationship, but has several differentiating features.  First, your advisor is often a collaborator on equal footing.  Although an incoming Ph.D. student is not (yet) a peer of his or her advisor, the goal is that by the end of the Ph.D. process, the student and advisor will be peers.  In this sense, the Ph.D. is a true apprenticeship.  My students don’t work for me; they work with me.  Second, your advisor is not a manager in the strict sense, but is literally an advisor: You are in control of shaping your own graduate career, from what you choose to work on to who you work with.  Your advisor should be a catalyst and facilitator for your success and should not be treating you as an employee or “hired labor”.  Although some research contracts have deliverables, you should be suspicious of any advisor who wants to constantly hold you to tight deliverables, as it will constrain your autonomy and creativity; that type of advisor will ultimately be more like a manager, and you can find plenty of managers in industry who will pay you a much higher salary.  If you find that your advisor is bossing you around or restricting your autonomy or creativity, change advisors as soon as possible.

In any advisor or managerial context, it is important to recognize the importance of “managing up”.  While there may be strategic reasons to do this in any context, the most important reason to learn how to manage your advisor is to make the most of your graduate career.  Many things compete for your advisor’s attention—papers, grants, proposals, teaching, committees, other students, outside opportunities, etc.  At the same time, everyone’s Ph.D. experience is unique, and it is incumbent on you to work with your advisor to help you define your own trajectory and also to create a working relationship that works for both of you.

In my seven years as an advisor, I have learned a few things about my working style.  Here is some of the advice I have offered my students about how to manage me.  Many of these tips may be useful in general for other Ph.D. students who want to help build a better relationship with their advisor and help get the most out of their graduate careers:

  • Ask your advisor for what you need.  Want to attend a conference, get an introduction to a senior colleague in the field, buy a book or other equipment, find an internship, get a travel grant, or something else?  Be proactive.  The answer will be “yes” more often than you think .
  • Scheduling meetings. I have a Google calendar that I share with all of my students.  If a meeting or event is not on my calendar, the student should assume that the meeting is not happening, even if the meeting has been discussed (and agreed on!) in the hallway.  There is no way to keep track of hallway discussions for scheduling and they are quickly forgotten.  Though it’s not strictly necessary, I advise my students to consider sending a reminder/minutes/confirmation before the meeting; this relates to the point below on making meetings count.  Scheduling meetings sometimes can generate an explosion of email—this is a recipe for disaster and ensuring that you never get to meet your advisor (see below on email); if scheduling is proceeding slowly, limit the email thread to 1-2 emails before suggesting a meeting invitation by Google calendar.  If all else fails, send a meeting invitation during an open slot; in the worst case, your advisor will react by moving it to a time that works (it is on the calendar and thus can no longer be deferred indefinitely).

  • Try to meet your advisor once a week, even if you think you have nothing to talk about.  Make an effort to schedule a meeting once a week, even if the meeting is short; in my experience, I have found that sometimes even a ten-minute meeting with a student can make a huge difference for working around a mental block or changing an approach to a problem.  Do not assume that a meeting cannot happen simply because your advisor is not in town.  Short meetings by Google hangout are often very handy.  In fact, throughout the summer of 2013, I was rarely at Georgia Tech; many of my students actually found it easier to meet me when I was traveling because I wasn’t being constantly bombarded by things related to the daily drumbeat at the university (e.g., committee meetings, interruptions from admins, teaching, etc.).  Consider having a meeting even if you think there’s nothing to report.  You may find you are stuck in a rathole, and you may not even realize it.  You should be particularly worried if you have spent 2-3 weeks “debugging” or on some “implementation” without getting any feedback.  Chances are, you are ratholing on something that probably isn’t getting you any closer to a publication.  Seek help immediately!

  • Attend every single group meeting.  Do not miss group meetings.  These are one of the most important structural elements of your graduate career that actually relates to your research.  Group meetings are important for several reasons: (1) You learn about what others in the group are doing, which may be a useful resource (or, you may find out you can be a resource to someone else).  This all helps with collaborating across the group. (2) You find out what your advisor has been up to and why he or she has not been replying to your emails immediately. (3) You can quickly identify if you need to have a longer meeting with your advisor, with other students in the group, etc.  This can be a huge timesaver.  (4) Group meetings mark the passage of time.  It is useful to hold yourself accountable and make sure that weeks and months don’t slip away without progress.  I have group meetings with my students three times a week; initially, I thought that this might be excessive, but it turns out to work pretty well.  Three short group meetings can often be a lot better than one extended group meeting.  I will expand on this more in a later post.

  • If you need more of your advisor’s time, ask for it.  Students are often confused or concerned that an advisor spends more time with some students than with others and may even (wrongly) think that the advisor is either less excited about a particular project or (worse) doesn’t like some students as much as others.  (I remember comparing notes with my fellow Ph.D. students in grad school about how much time our advisor was spending with each of us.)  Yet, it is important to remember that good advisors don’t play favorites.  The time that an advisor spends with a student (or on a project) is typically determined by the advisor’s perception of how much time is needed; the required time can vary dramatically according to both the stage of the project and the stage of the student’s development.  Students who are early in their careers typically need (and should be asking for) a lot of guidance and “closed loop” feedback.  Students who are close to graduating also tend to need more attention of a different sort—help with building their professional network, seeking out job prospects, practicing job talks, and generally landing on their feet.  Similarly, nascent research projects or projects with substantial coordination components (e.g., large systems-building efforts) often need a lot of advisor attention, since they have lots of moving parts and can involve coordination between multiple sub-projects and students. Do not be overly concerned about strict time accounting.  If you feel you need more time, simply ask for it—or, better yet, just try to take more time (walk into your advisor’s office, approach him or her on IM, send regular email updates…whatever it takes).  Advisors tend to spend more time with students who demand more of their time.
  • Keep your emails short and to the point.  Here is a simple rule of thumb: If the email is longer than one paragraph, it probably won’t get read right away, particularly if there is no summary at the beginning of it.  It almost certainly won’t get an immediate response.  Additionally, consider whether email is the fastest way to resolve something, or whether it’s quicker to have a 5-10 minute meeting, hangout, IM chat, phone call, or whatever.  Use the right communication mode for the job.

  • Do not assume that if your email doesn’t get a reply, it hasn’t been read.  I read everything in my inbox, almost always on the same day that it arrives.  Unfortunately, I also receive 300-500 emails per day in my inbox (not mailing lists), many of which are actionable.  Suppose that half of those emails required action, and that each one required one minute to process and respond to—that’s already six or seven hours a day just to process email.  That is insane and can kill anyone’s productivity.  I am convinced that it is possible for a professor to do nothing else in life except reply to email.  To control this insanity, I often process emails “in batch mode”—leaving email to (mostly) pile up for a few days and then responding to a bunch at once.  I tell my students that if they do not receive a reply right away, “retransmission” after a few days is fine. I do not consider this to be rude, nagging, or pestering behavior; most likely I have simply just forgotten (I have found that it’s surprisingly difficult to even keep a to do list for all of these things that students ask professors to do, as doing so becomes a monster mega-task in and of itself).  Before sending a retransmission (or initial email), however, consider whether you have chosen the best medium for your message. Sometimes an in-person meeting or IM follow up to a an email will get the response you want/need.

  • Make the meetings count.  Many meetings are wasted by not asking yourself simple “does this make sense?” questions before presenting a plot/result.  I ask my students to read Jon Bentley’s “Programming Pearls”, particularly the chapter on back of the envelope calculations.  Also, I advise my students to read Vern Paxson’s “Strategies for Sound Internet Measurement”. Your advisor has almost certainly seen a ton of plots/experiments/data and is pretty good at quickly determining whether a graph that you spent two days producing makes any sense at all.  You can have a more productive meeting if you do some simple debugging of plots before hand.  On this note, bringing specific, concrete things that your advisor can react to is helpful.  “I ran some experiments and things seem to look OK.” is a report I have heard many times from students.  Such a report is utterly useless.  Even if it were true (often things may not be OK), it is impossible to give feedback on or brainstorm based on vague statements.  You are likely to get a “sounds good!” in response, which is equally useless for you.  Bring something concrete to discuss.  You can present anything: A performance number, a paragraph of writing, a plot, … something to react to and figure out next steps.  Even a plot that appears buggy or inexplicable is sometimes a good topic for a meeting, too, presuming you’ve recognized the discrepancies and can’t figure out the problem.  Sometimes what appears to be a bug might in fact be an interesting artifact, or even the spark for a new paper or discovery.

  • Take notes and organize them. The students who make the best use of meetings tend to have: (1) an agenda beforehand; (2) minutes afterwards; (3) something focused and concrete to discuss/think about/talk about; (4) a consolidated place to keep minutes.  Your advisor can read these minutes to prepare for the upcoming meeting, think about problems offline, review/think about the problem outside of meetings, and guide progress.  Sometimes your advisor may take notes, sometimes not.  Don’t count on it.  Even if your advisor is taking notes, your notes will complement and fill in gaps.  Different people remember different things.  Taking notes is also an important opportunity to practice writing—and students need to practice writing at every opportunity (more on that in a later post).

  • Do not wait until the last minute to write your paper.  Most graduate students are working on one or at most two papers or projects at any given time.  It can thus be easy to overlook the fact  that your advisor is involved in many more things (albeit at a higher level) and, from a purely practical standpoint, might be submitting two or three papers to the same conference deadline. Thus, waiting until the last minute to write a paper draft (or complete a project) is an invitation for scattered, distracted, and superficial feedback (and severely diminished chances of a strong paper submission).   Can you write a good paper or think clearly while doing four things at once?  If not, consider your poor advisor, whose aging brain is no longer as agile as yours.  Write early, write often.  Writing is not a task that happens after the research is done; rather, it is part of the research and thinking process, not something that is done when the research is done.  Writing is part of the research.  I ask my students to have a complete paper draft at least one week before the deadline.  Nobody ever follows this advice, and I think that we can recognize that it is idealistic.  I’ve periodically threatened to ban paper submissions if there is no draft a week before; I don’t have the will to do that, although I know at least one of my collaborators who enforces this rule.  Still, the point remains: early attention == focused attention == good attention.

  • Do not ask for a recommendation letter with less than one week’s notice.  A letter takes at least an hour to write—longer if there is no earlier draft from another instance.  Short notice makes for letters that will probably not be as strong as they could be, because a good letter takes time to polish.  Consider writing the first draft yourself, or at least putting some points into bullet form or providing an up-to-date CV, for quick reference.  All of this stuff makes the letter stronger and easier to write.

This list is mostly based on tips and tricks that I have found work for me.  I refined this list of advice after a discussion with Professor Jennifer Rexford, who is also full of useful advice.  Jen’s advice for new graduate students is particularly useful; I am in strong agreement with her thoughts on the benefits of regularly coming to the lab and integrating with a research group.  I’m interested to hear what other tips and tricks people have for managing their advisor(s), or thoughts from other faculty members about tips they find that work well.  In the coming weeks and months, I will follow up with specific posts on advice for writing, preparing talks, and managing time.


Welcome

Welcome!  We (Professors Nick Feamster and Alexander Gray) have created this site as a resource for advice on research and creativity methods and techniques for Ph.D. students.  Our intended audience is Ph.D. students in computer science programs, but many of the concepts that we present on this site may also apply to other disciplines.

The material we have provided will prepare you to perform great research in computer science, regardless of the area you ultimately choose to pursue for your Ph.D. The material should:

  • Teach you many skills that you will keep in your “research toolbox” for the rest of your career:
    • time management
    • productivity and (selective) procrastination
    • how to read a research paper
    • how to review a research paper
    • how to write a research paper (technical writing)
    • how to generate ideas, creativity, sources of problems
    • information management (research notebooks, etc.)
    • how to give a good talk
    • how to write a proposal
    • how to be a good TA
  • Find some inspiration regarding open problems and big ideas
  • Offer general tips for life in graduate school and beyond

The material that we have provided on this site is based on a class that was designed by Professors Nick Feamster and Alex Gray from Fall 2006 through Fall 2010 at Georgia Tech and is now being revamped in Fall 2013 by Professor Nick Feamster.

This project started in Fall 2006, when the two of us were asked to prepare a course for incoming Ph.D. students at Georgia Tech to help them become exposed to research methods early in their career.  After agreeing to take on the preparation of this new course, we quickly discovered that, while there is a wealth of knowledge about research techniques and methods, and many thoughts on skills for creative and critical thinking, this material had not been aggregated or distilled into a single document or course.  We spent the next five years developing a course at Georgia Tech, “CS 7001: Introduction to Graduate Studies”, refining the concepts, methods, and assignments each year.

We have learned a lot from these course offerings.  We have distilled many of our insights and lessons from teaching this course in a an ACM SIGCSE paper.  On this site, we will codify the modules from the course.  We have also made our course notes available on this site, for the benefit of both other Ph.D. students and for faculty at other universities who may choose to use this course as a model for similar courses at their institutions.

Various aspects of this course have been replicated at other universities.  We have made the material from the course available to others for the benefit of both computer science Ph.D. students and others who might wish to teach a similar course.

With Fall 2013 upon us, we are now planning to add material to the site on a weekly basis, as students take the course at Georgia Tech this fall.  By the end of fall term 2013, we will have amassed a full set of resources for graduate students as they embark on their graduate careers.

We are working on adding all of the content to this site.  Meanwhile, please also feel free to peruse some of the previous course offerings (e.g., 20082009).

We will welcome feedback on the material as we post it.

Thanks!

Nick FeamsterPrinceton University
Alexander GraySkyTree, Inc.