The Ph.D. Grind

 

It is a memoir written by a Stanford Computer Science student to record his hard but fruitful Ph.D. career from 2006 to 2012. As it is all well known Stanford’s computer science Ph.D. program is one of the hardest tasks to conquer around the world. We have to felicitate that the author, an American born Chinese graduated from the undergraduate and master program of MIT, finally survive in this day and night paper writing battlefield.

As the main task of graduate student is to turn coffee and cappuccino into ideas and papers, the author intentionally does not mention his qualification exam and social performance during these six years. The book is only about the research. He used the first three years in SLEE program, which produced no papers and finally he quitted the SLEE group. He considered his quit to be not so late because there are still more students eagling to publish papers to graduate spending another three to five more years in this group. Fortunately the author could raise fund in other ways rather than from the group leader of the SLEE group so that he can make that kind of quit easier than his classmates. Ph.D. students have the lowest status on the paper-generating research cycle, which hundreds of thousands of papers are judged by peer faculties. Different from those Ph.Ds., postdocs and assistant professors who have not yet earned tenure, faculties with tenure can design a group like SLEE and CAN afford failure in five or even more years. The original benefit of a professor with tenure is that they can continue their research and never be afraid of losing jobs. However, Ph.D. students and junior APs can never afford such kind of wasting five or ten years. They have to adjust their research interests to satisfy the taste of most referees in their fields. It is more likely to become a salesman. Hardly can we witness a great performance without tens of graduate students working sleeplessly in the laboratories and before the computers. If the program succeeds, we praise and respect the senior professors and group leader and if the program fails, no one can compensate the loss of the students doing dirty works. This is a deadly weakness of current research industry. If you are not a senior and distinguished professor, you can never have the chance to challenge and change the rules. You can either choose to adapt or quit.

The author plans to quit academia after his six-year tough graduate school study at Stanford. He asks in the book the most pivotal question. Why should we pursue a Ph.D. degree if we do not plan to be finally placed on the academia? Different people may have different answers from many aspects. One possible answer is that a Ph.D. program provides a safe environment for certain types of people to push themselves far beyond their mental limits and then emerge stronger as a result. Why would anyone spend years training to excel in a sport such as the Ironman Triathlon when they are not going to be professional athletes? In short, this experience pushes people far beyond their physical limits and enables them to emerge stronger.

Finally, I would like to say, not everyone has a chance to challenge his mental limit. So if you are provided with such a chance in time, money and intelligence, you should never waste your talent.

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