Reflections on PhD life after a paper deadline and MIT visit days

The last 3 months have been rather crazy involving a couple of papers and a bunch of events like PhD visit days, snow storms, etc. Despite the craziness, I had some time to chat with prospective MIT PhD students and reflect on my PhD with some people in my lab. (It’s surprisingly a good way to reduce stress.) I wanted to share some thoughts and lessons that I learned from these conversations. I hope this will be helpful to current PhDs and people considering PhD programs.

Empty lab after a deadline

To start, for those of you considering various PhD programs, here’s a very well-written blog post on the types of questions you should ask when visiting, composed by my fellow labmate Neha Narula. It might seem specific to computer science, but many of the questions apply more generally. As a 3rd year PhD student, I wish I had asked these questions when I was visiting, but luckily, I am happy with my choice of graduate school. These questions help a prospective graduate student decide the PhD life that they want to have for the next 5–6 years. This decision is really important because different programs and labs have different cultures, which will substantially impact your PhD experience. Below, I’ll provide a few questions that people frequently ask me and weave in some reflections.

Are you happy?
Straightforward answer: yes. I feel like a more loaded question has never been asked. However, I would have been happy wherever I went to graduate school because I wanted to do a PhD and I enjoy doing research. This is a question you have to answer for yourself instead of asking others because everyone has a different criteria for happiness. For me, I enjoy being around smart, caring people and being in a place with a strong graduate community. I also enjoy being in an environment where I have the freedom to pursue interests that are not directly related to my research. This is my current MIT experience, which is great! For example, I am a student member of Roughdraft Ventures. I run the MIT security seminar. I am helping out my friend, a professor at CMU, with their first Coursera class. I also actively participate in my graduate housing community, Sidney Pacific. The list goes on, but all these activities on top of research have made my MIT experience awesome. I wouldn’t flag a school because someone at that school is unhappy because there are always unhappy people everywhere. I think it’s important to first understand what makes you happy and see if that graduate environment can help you achieve your criteria for happiness.

Are you friends with your labmates?
Straightforward answer: yes. I discuss many topics with my labmates and share parts of my life outside of research. However, this is my active choice, but of course, you can have friends exclusively outside of lab to have a better work-life separation. Of course, I’m not best friends with everyone in my lab, but I do reach out to some of them for advice on a variety of personal matters. I also personally think it’s nice to get to know people with whom you spend most of your time. They also are going or have went through many of the same issues. Moreover, I have many friends who work on my floor in other labs and also in my graduate housing. We do frequently hang out after work and on the weekends.

How much do you sleep?
Straightforward answer: I am very well-rested. Of course, closer to paper deadlines, I have more work, so I don’t end up sleeping as much. However, in general, I sleep plenty, and I don’t have set hours. I know the point of this question is to ask how hard PhD life is at a certain school. PhD life is as hard as you want it to be. Most of the program is self-directed and requires self-motivation. I push myself pretty hard because I really enjoy it, but if you want more work-life balance, you can do an equally solid PhD. Taking care of yourself is an important step toward performing well as a PhD student.

What research do you do, and is there research in X area in your lab?
I do systems security research with a focus on developing systems that have strong cryptographic guarantees. In my lab, you can pursue whatever topic interests you, and you’re not constrained to any set of topics. When I first came to MIT, I had more background in applied security and cryptography, but now, I am focused on building systems, which I’m more excited about. If a lab gives graudate students freedom to pursue their own interests, then it really doesn’t matter what research the lab does. If an advisor constrains the research that his or her students do, then this question becomes more important.

The most straightforward questions might seem very vague. When visiting schools and talking to students, it’s important to know and understand the situation of the student so that you can correctly interpret his or her answers. For example, if a student states that he or she is happy, then you should figure out what makes them happy and how the school and lab have cultivated an environment that creates and furthers this happiness. Similarly, you should look at the characteristics of the successful people from the lab and program. You should spend some time thinking whether this is the type of person you are or want to be. Also, look at the other side, which students are unhappy and what their characteristics are.

Looking at graduate schools is a big step and is definitely underestimated by many prospective students. A PhD program is more of a job than going to an undergraduate program. The process of picking a school is very self-reflective. You should think about what type of person you are and want to be as well as what environments you are most likely going to be happy and succeed. For many, I know this is a lot to think about, but it’s important to know before committing yourself to a 5–6 year program.

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