Recently, I told Yaw Anokwa about my confusion whether to pursue a Ph.D. and asked him for a recommendation letter if needed. He recommended me a book for reference, The Ph.D. Grind wrote by Phillip Guo. This book is a depict of his six-year Ph.D. experience in Stanford CS department. And this post is something I thought after reading it.

The book can be found here.

Perspective

In its prologue, Guo described why he chose to pursue a Ph.D., the biggest reason came from his family. He thought having a Ph.D. degree is the basic requirement becoming a faculty in colleges, and, apart from some Chinese immigrants who worked in corporate engineering jobs, a professor work in the college has much more freedom to do what they want and don’t need to worry about something like the boss.

Guo has his perspective in those contradistinctions, and he is fortunately have such a clear view before pursuing the degree. I believe that most students in China don’t know why they need the Ph.D. before starting the real study.

So, this content reminded me why I need a Ph.D.. I was born in a teachers’ family, but my parents are both work in middle school, not a university. I don’t think a professor, a teacher are dream jobs for me, because my parents just give me a feeling that teachers are really boring. So, I’m mot sure the family background will be the motivation for me to pursure a Ph.D degree.

So, at least I know I’m not interested in the university life and a life-time research work. But apart from this, why I still want to pursue a Ph.D. degree?

I think that comes from two people I known.

The first one is Prof. Wei-Ping, the chairman of Hisense, chief dean in Shandong Univ and a professor in University of Waterloo, Canada. After receiving his Ph.D. in MIT, 1985, He became a professor in Canada, but he did not spend the rest of his life working in the campus, finally became a successful entrepreneur. I dreamed to be a personal like him, but I’m not so confident about spending the whole life doing research… I like talking to others, doing presentation and working in a team that can turn some exciting ideas into reality. I want to know more about the Ph.D. program is because I’m getting tired of building engineering projects with so much repetitive work, that makes me boring, and many developers just died in such mediocrity. I think pursuing a Ph.D. is a period that you can keep learning, trying to solve some new problems that nobody knows their answers, and this is a kind of life I want, full of challenges. From this point of view, I’d like to try some research work.

Another person I met is Rob Cheng, Chief of Staff and Head Coach at Elementum (a startup in the San Francisco Bay Area). Minh introduced me to Rob, he is a very nice person, aims to build successful startups can improve the world. Last year, Wei-Ping recommended me to Elementum to do an internship, and Rob is the person in charge of this. Unfortunately, Elementum is in a very difficult stage at that time because of the shortage of funds, and getting an intern from overseas costs a lot. You know, companies are all profitable and avoiding, this matter is not a good deal for them, so Rob still refused me, although there is a strong recommendation form Wei-Ping. This matter really hurts me, since it took a really long time to wait for a bad result. But it also let me understood that no matter what kind of person is willing to help you, you still need your core competitiveness. Everybody is a businessman, people need you only when you can help, nobody would say no to you if you are irreplaceable. Even if you are the best undergraduate, your skills are still replaceable. So, why me?

Those two things told me that my current Résumé can only tells people that I’m good at programming, or something like mathematics. But I’m not an expert in any areas, I need to focus on something that I’m interested in and make some progress, that will be good for both my academic and business life.

In short, I’m getting tried of the repetitive engineering work and want to try something new and challenging. And, I also want to build my core competitiveness in some specific field. Those are the reasons and motivation for me to pursue a Ph.D..

Difficulties

By reading this book, I have a clearer view about how many challenges are there when you are pursuing your Ph.D. degree. The Ph.D. study is not as simple as your thought.

As for Guo, the first year is a downfall. His advisor just asked him to do some repetitive and boring work, after near 1000 hours spent in the project, his paper still has not been accepted. Although I think studying for a Ph.D. degree is a kind of exploring and innovating, but actually we still need time and efforts to accumulate.

Guo got the prestigious NSF and NDSEG graduate research fellowships, so he can choose his advisor and if he is not satisfied with the current research direction, he can change anytime. But as for students come from overseas, we don’t have this option, all the study fees come from advisor’s project grant. That means most of us need to do some work that may not as we expected, so the advisor and the research direction should be well considered before applying for the Ph.D. program.

This is why I want to take a gap year as well, since we didn’t get in touch with many research projects, I think a one or two years research experience will be really helpful for applying Ph.D. programs and as well as figuring out which direction is the best for me.