Wisdom from the ‘Ph.D. Grind’

Wisdom from the ‘Ph.D. Grind’

2 more months before I start my Ph.D. (if everything goes well, fingers crossed), I started scraping the internet for Ph.D. advice books and blogs. I am excited, but also at times anxious about what awaits. Reading the personal memoir by Philip Guo ‘The Ph.D. Grind’ heightened this mixed feeling of excitement and nervousness. The 6 long years Philip spent at Stanford were full of a spectrum of emotions, actions, and invaluable lessons. I am grateful that for whatever reason I downloaded this book ages ago, and that I decided to finally click on it yesterday – it was just the right time, somewhat like all the ‘lucky opportunities’ that just seemed to fall in place at the right time on Philip’s journey.

Philip took a very entrepreneurial approach to his Ph.D., opportunistically seeking out projects, collaborators and co-authors. Had he not use his unconventional strategies to create opportunities, it would have been impossible for him to graduate on time from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I am amazed by how well he could push himself to change the circumstance even when he was exhausted and demoralized by the tedious manual crunching he did not intend to sign up to. I hope that in my Ph.D. grind, I can keep the big picture that Ph.D. is about trying to push my personal limits and the boundary of human knowledge (even by a tenny microscopic amount). It may be tough, but should always be meaningful and rewarding in the end. I hope that I when the ‘dark days’ come, I can return to the blog and remind myself this journey is meant to have dark days so that I can see light and rainbows when these days pass.

Philip attributed his success to a rare combination of great luck, personal initiative, insightful nudges from generous people, and nearly ten thousand hours of grinding. To me, the order of these elements could probably be rearranged because none would have happened without his personal initiative first. His will to improve the situation and immediate actions created ‘luck’, opportunities, connections and projects to grind at.

I love his analogy of a Ph.D. to the grueling Ironman Triathlon: why would anyone sign up to a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run—when they know it’s going to be beyond their physical capacity and they aren’t going to become professional athletes anyways? The answer is that the experience itself matters – it pushes people far beyond their limits and enables them to emerge stronger than ever. Of course, most people tremble at the idea of doing it, some call quits at the training phase, and yet some make it almost to the end but faint before reaching the finish line. Only the most determined and resilient make it. Actually, nature is full of processes like this, one that makes you ‘suffer’ first, but actually molds you into a much stronger being. A Ph.D. is just one that we can choose to voluntarily put ourselves through, in order to learn and grow. Philip was made wiser, savvier, grittier, and more steely, focused, creative, eloquent, perceptive, and professionally effective. I hope that I could remember this outcome on the future days when I think of quitting.

Here are 20 lessons from Philip’s Ph.D. Grind and some of my own reflections

Results triumph intentions.

Although Philip did not have pure intellectual motivations for doing a Ph.D. (ie. hoping to revolutionize a field), he eventually produced results and found passions and pride along the way. If I had to ask myself the intentions for doing a Ph.D., it is probably a mixed bag of things. First and foremost, I feel deeply privileged to be a researcher and dedicate my time and energy to studying something new. Not to de-value all the repetitive and fundamental services we need in our community, but the opportunity to base next day’s work on past results is rare and exciting. While there are certainly many ways to spend one’s life, I personally feel that thinking of ways to experiment and get new scientific knowledge is a very meaningful use of my brainpower. I love thinking, pondering, reading, writing and especially the moment when something makes sense (even if it’s short-lasting). Other than these Nobel reasons, there are also realistic reasons why a Ph.D. seems a logical step in my career if I would like to stay in academia or STEM. Lastly, as much as I try to keep egoistic emotions (eg. personal pride) out of it, the idea of being a ‘Dr.’ is still unavoidably enticing to me and my family, who have been telling me ‘Just do it’. So when Philip started the book by telling us his parents had high hopes of him completing a Ph.D. and get a tenured professorship, I could totally relate.

Outputs triumph Inputs.

This is a big one that I am currently struggling with. I tend to just download a bunch of papers, read, take heaps of notes and feel good about it while in reality, I haven’t produced any output. I haven’t synthesized these readings and use them to extract meaningful themes, research gaps or new ideas. Honestly, it is just a less guilty way of procrastinating… Hopefully, when my project becomes more specific, my readings will also be more specific and help me generate meaningful outputs.

Find relevant information.

I did well in undergrad, largely because all the relevant info was fed to us, multiple times! But Ph.D. is nothing like that, there is no classroom learning, no textbooks, no lecture notes, and no instructors to tell you the answers. So how do you dig out relevant information? – It could be a research paper (maybe ancient), an obscure website, or inside the mind of someone you need to track down and ask for help. There are many episodes in the book when Philip reached out to people, who turned out to be very helpful, maybe not immediately but unexpectedly in the future. Every person’s knowledge truly is an asset.

Create lucky opportunities.

Philip worked with many people who turned out influential in his career due to the ‘luck’ he created. I think ‘luck’ is just an opportunity that you did not explicitly expect when doing something. But it is also not out of nowhere since the more you do, one day or another, it pays off in some form of ‘luck’. Philip repeatedly put himself and his work on display—giving talks, chatting with colleagues, asking for and ordering help, and expressing gratitude. The vast majority of the efforts didn’t result in serendipity immediately, but if he just gave up, then there may not be those ‘luck’ later. Sometimes, one action plants the seed, and repeated efforts add to that, which bears the fruit called ‘luck’ ultimately. I totally agree with this and attribute the opportunities to work with my previous and current lab group to ‘luck’ that I had created by attending seminars, searching for researchers, cold-emailing and showing up for their classes.

Play the game.

Interestingly, academia is in some ways similar to the corporate ladder game and a Ph.D. student could be at the bottom of the pecking order who has to conform to the established rules. To publish, to graduate, to get jobs after graduation all require you to satisfy a set of rules. While the rules aren’t perfect, they are there for a reason. Following the rules blindly do not guarantee success, but not following the rules can also kick you out of the game. I guess the point here is to be aware of the rules, learn how to play the game most effectively within the realm of the rules and not lose your passion just because of the tough and sometimes unreasonable rules. If you are not powerful enough to change the rules yet, play it smart.

Lead from below.

While it’s great to have ideas and passion about such ideas, when you are at the bottom of the pecking order, it is a difficult gig and fine art to lead from below. Ph.D. students are not independent researchers with unlimited fundings, so you need to consider those who are funding and supporting you. Don’t always think about yourself, but try to understand the motivations of your supervisor. Ideally, you would have picked a supervisor based on matching interests, but aligning your project to the supervisor’s research theme and grant applications can make sure that both parties are equally excited about the work. If you are the only one who cares about the ideas you are working on, then it may be hard to gain momentum and feedback.

Professors are humans.

Professors, like everyone else breathing on this planet, are human beings with their own tastes, biases, interests, motivations, shortcomings, and fears. Even well-respected science-minded intellectuals have subjective and irrational quirks. From a student’s perspective, since professors are the gatekeepers to publication, graduation, and future jobs, it’s important
to empathize with them both as professionals and also as people.

Be well-liked.

Probably a common thing that as humans, we will be happier and more productive when working with people who liked us. Of course, it’s impossible to be well-liked by all colleagues due to inevitable personality differences. But effort should be spent to make genuine relationships and nurture them. One day, these fruitful relationships may turn into something more than friendships – like a collaboration.

Pay some dues.

It’s necessary for junior lab members to pay their dues and be “good soldiers” rather than making presumptuous demands from day one. Depending on the supervisor, it may be necessary to work on a grant-funded project to start with (although it shouldn’t be too long for a PhD before you start coming up with new ideas based on results). Other dues may be helping out with lab chores and volunteer for lab events. Don’t just think that as a Ph.D. student, you need to pump out data so everything has to be about you. I may be guilty of this one in the old lab, since I was taken such good care of as the ‘little one’ and as time went on, I took it as granted.

Reject bad defaults.

It’s important to know when to reject the defaults and to ask for something different. For example, famous tenured professors like Dawson in the book got multi-year grants to fund students to work on “default” projects that were lengthy and not as exciting. As long as some papers get published from time to time, then the professor and project are both viewed as successful, regardless of how many students stumbled and failed along the way. Students must judge for themselves whether their default projects are promising, and if not, figure out how to quit gracefully. I can imagine this one to be a really important but hard thing to execute, as people don’t like rejections, especially supervisors whom you depend on for fundings and guidance. Hopefully, I will learn to judge for myself and know when to say yes and no.

Know when to quit.

The first two years of Philip’s Ph.D. was a hate and forced love story with a default project. After hopes were repeatedly broken, Philip finally called quits, which enabled 5 exiting projects in the following yeras. If Philip kept fooling himself that he was near the end of the tunnel, he may just get three more years of painfully slow (or no) progress and a very much un-rewarding outcome. The judgment of what is really promising and what is just false hope is an important skill to acquire.

Recover from failures.

Failure is inevitable in grad school, or in life in general haha? It’s slightly worrying to learn that nothing Philip did during the first three years made it into the dissertation, considering the Australian Ph.D. program is only three years. While it is a hard pill to swallow, real life is probably just as hard and we all fail big time to learn big lessons. In comparison, grad school may arguably be a relatively safe environment to fail and practice recovering from failures, since the stakes were low compared to failing in real jobs. In the early Ph.D. years, it’s easy to grow anxious, distraught, and paralyzed over research failures. But just learn to channel such anger into purposeful action – the productive rage. Treat every rejection, doubt, and criticism as a whip to work harder.

Ally with insiders.

Publishing is hard, but it could be easier if you are allied with insiders and harder when allied with outsiders of a field. The difference is that the insiders have failed, learned and succeeded to know all the tricks of the trade required to get papers published in their respective subfields. This will save lots of frustration.

Give many talks.

This is a good one to learn as I only sought out to give talks to ‘relevant audience’ during undergrad. In contrast, Philip gave over two dozen research presentations, ranging from informal talks at university lab group meetings to conference presentations in large hotel
ballrooms. The informal talks were useful for getting design ideas and feedback; those for submitting papers were useful for discovering common criticisms that needed to be addressed. Also, every talk is a great practice for improving public speaking and in responding to sometimes-hostile questions. Finally, you never know how talks could spark follow-up discussions that lead to serendipity, opportunities, and connections.

Sell, sell, sell.

One thing that surprised me was that selling the work was the key to publication, recognition, and eventual graduation for Philip. While I knew storytelling in a manuscript helps get it published, I was shocked by the extent Philip had to sell to progress. On another thought though, this may just be the ‘hidden beauty’ of Ph.D. training, you get a bunch of interpersonal and transferrable skills for the real world! I’m sure the selling skills will be useful at some point in later life whether you become an entrepreneur or not after graduating.

Generously provide help.

One of the most valuable lessons is to be generous and give help to others even as a stressed-out Ph.D. student. When you give a hand, or feedback on ideas and paper drafts may well help yourself at some point down the track. Of course, it is not about expecting things in return, but just like any kind of human being, helping others is a virtue that shouldn’t be compromised even on the darkest days of Ph.D.

Ask for help.

OK, I really need to improve on this one. There have been so many times that I wanted to ask for help but felt too shy to do it. It is important to know when, who and how to ask for help so that you get the help that can make yourself unstuck. It may involve getting referrals or even cold-emailing strangers, but if it’s necessary, it’s better than sitting there and praying for a way out.

Express the gratitude.

Of course, no one ought to help you out. But most of the time, people are nicer than you think, so always remember to express gratitude for the help received.

Ideas beget ideas.

Don’t think your brain out and force births of new ideas. It’s nearly impossible to come up with substantive ideas in a vacuum. Ideas are always built upon other ideas, so it’s important to
find a solid starting point. Ideas can also sometimes take years to blossom, usually after several false starts, so don’t be frustrated or impatient. For Philip, it wasn’t until the sixth year that he was able to solidify those fuzzy thoughts into a real project.

Grind hard and smart.

The book is named The Ph.D. Grind because there would be no Ph.D. without ten thousand hours of unglamorous, hard-nosed grinding. Creative ideas mean nothing without the extreme effort to bring them to fruition: showing up to the office, grinding hard to make small but consistent progress, taking breaks to reflect and refresh, then repeating day after day
for over two thousand consecutive days. However, grinding smart is just as important as grinding hard. Don’t blindly work to death on tasks that won’t get favorable results: approaching a research problem from an unwise angle, using the wrong kinds of tools, or doing useless errands. Grinding smart requires perceptiveness, intuition, and a willingness to ask for help.

A note to self on 11/11/2019

Just like the slogan ‘Nothing is impossible’, a Ph.D. may be as difficult as a Triathlon but many determined and resilient people have made it to the finishing line in human history. It may only be less than 5% of the population, but why can’t you be that 5%? This excitement for embarking on a new journey now may fade once the ‘reality’ kicks in in a few months time, but remember a GROWTH is what you asked for and no growth comes without blood and tears. The dark days will pass, just like how Philip’s journey was full of ups and downs – it will only be strange if everything worked out smoothly (as it’s not to!). Ask for help, and push yourself out of bed to seek change when you are stuck with a seemingly impossible roadblock. Just think about all the barriers that you though you could never overcome in the past: speaking English, getting straight 7s, winning awards, scholarships, speaking on stage, becoming a tutor, inspiring others…See? There is a huge reserve and you might just be surprised how much you can do if you put your heart to it. If you don’t believe it, just read what Laura said about you again!

Yunan is an exceptional student who managed her Honours year with a grace, enthusiasm and aptitude that constantly surpassed my expectations. Yunan’s ability to understand and integrate feedback on a very high level made reading iterative versions of her thesis a true pleasure, and she displayed excellent motivation, experimental technique, record keeping and organisational skills throughout the year. The enthusiasm Yunan showed for truly understanding the questions of the project resulted in a deep insight into the relevant theory and experimental outcomes that often enriched my own. All in all, supervising Yunan through her Honours year was a delight, as she is one of the most talented and hardworking students I have encountered. I therefore have no qualms about awarding her the highest grade possible.

OK. Now time to start the Grind.

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