First-year of Ph.D. — Experiences, Dos and Don’ts

You simply need to take a leap of faith in your choices, and do the best that you possibly can.

Exactly one year ago, on this very day, I walked out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and boarded a bus to the college town of Champaign-Urbana. I didn’t sleep over the seemingly endless 20-hour flight from Bangalore to save myself from Jet lag (Yes, that works!). I only remember boarding the bus before dozing off, and three hours later, I reached the tiny little town that would be my home for the next 4–5 years. The next day would mark as my first day as a PhD student in the Computer Science department at the University of Illinois.

Several months before the start date are generally gruelingly difficult. In that period, a prospective grad student makes a lot of choices that could potentially take his/her personal and professional life on completely different routes; deciding whether you want to quit your industry job or not, whether to pursue a master’s or a PhD, choosing the right university and the advisor of your choice: they all make a LOT of difference! I continued to contemplate whether my choices were right or not for a long time. Now that I am a little wiser, I know the answer: “you will never know!”. You simply need to take a leap of faith in your choices, and do the best that you possibly can.

Why PhD?

Let us first address the elephant in the room. It is certainly not an easy decision process that results either in a 0 or a 1, rather it is an analog signal that varies based on your preferences and you need to set a threshold to make a decision that suits you. The work hours are long — often laborious and unrewarding, the pay is below average and the field certainly is ruthlessly competitive. Naturally, it is tempting to jump for an early monetary success to get a job in industry and “enjoy” the life!

My decision was majorly based on my industry experience right out of my undergraduate degree. As a fresher out of Bachelor’s/Master’s, you are likely to land in a design/test engineering team, like I did. There is certainly so much to learn as a fresher, and I found my 2 years of industry journey extremely valuable and enjoyable. But over the time, the learning curve starts to become flat, as seen from the illustrative graph. Moreover, there is an inherent resistance in engineering teams about trying radically new things; which is understandable given there are deadlines to follow to meet the “time to market” expectations. As a fresh joinee, often times your assigned work depends on internal politics or the resource availability or what the project manager decides; not always based on what you actually would like to pursue. Several design decisions can not be questioned, as they originate from a much higher paygrade than yours.

The new knowledge that you acquire has an excellent gradient in the beginning, but starts to see a pleateu as you continue to work on the iterations of same product.

As a student, you are used to flying as a free bird working on whatever interests you, and these restrictions can lead to some frustration. That is when you need to switch teams, which is a herculean task in a typical corporate setting. However, I was fortunate to get a chance to work with an excellent set of industry researchers for a few months — thanks to the open policy my company had. By the end of two years, I could visualise a full stack of technical roles in a successful organization. The following is a mental model that I developed over my time in industry(many might disagree), which is how I see a successful product/solution development in any organization.

Essential components of a successful organization. Note that there would be several feedback loops affecting the decision process. Example: Marketing decides if the proposed product is profitable or not.

An organization can not run without all these elements, but it is up to you to decide what you want your role to be. I realized being a researcher is what would give me the most independence, a sense of intellectual freedom & satisfaction, an opportunity for a larger impact and certainly the overall recognition. As someone whose role is to look ahead in the future to identify opportunities in developing something new/profitable/useful, you might be a professor or an industry researcher or a founder. A PhD in the field of your interest is probably the best way (not the only way) to make yourself a strong candidate to excel as a researcher. Often getting a PhD may be the only way to be a part of such a team! For example, being a professor or an industry researcher almost always requires a PhD, as it should.

This line of thought process aided with an opportunity to actually work in an industrial research team part-time before applying to grad school, tilted me towards pursuing a PhD. Coming from a not so affluent background, the prospect of guaranteed tuition waiver and associated stipend was attractive as well.

Overall, I think I enjoyed my first year of PhD; I have a great advisor and a set of amazing colleagues to work with. I have become a better researcher, a better learner and (un)fortunately also a better cook! Certainly, there are several aspects in which I have a large room to improve. This article is to look back at the last 12 months as a PhD student and reflect upon things that immensely helped me and things that I wish I had done differently. I sincerely hope that this is worth a read for all the prospective students planning/beginning to pursue a PhD in their areas of interest. Here are some advises I wish someone gave me before I started my PhD.

1. Take Initiative.

My industry mentor once said, “Do you have a plan? If not, you are a part of someone else’s plan. Guess what they have planned for you, not much!”. I think this is a great piece of advice for a PhD student (or anyone!). You are in a PhD program to become a researcher who identifies unsolved problems and envisions the future course of a research field, but not someone who is content implementing someone’s ideas and requirements.

2. Be a Team Player.

A team of great colleagues can achieve targets much faster, without deviating from the planned track. Interestingly, it also helps you avoid procrastination, most likely because you want to do at least as good as the team does. This a co-operative work culture that is inculcated in the corporate world from day 1, but not so in academia. People are often careful about the ownership of an idea and the related recognition; it is important to maintain the academic honesty and integrity by giving due credits, yet reaping the best out of co-operating and working together in a team.

3. Passion and Enthusiasm.

If I had to choose between an inexperienced but enthusiastic student vs a highly accomplished student but with a sense of apathy towards his/her research, I would choose the passionate and enthusiastic student on any day of the week. I have seen this in industry, I continue to see this in academia. It is probably because of the simple logic that if someone sounds bored and tired about the project they are working on, they are likely to do a terrible job at it.

4. Project Confidence.

I can not emphasize this enough. As soon as you start meeting your fellow PhD students on campus, it is normal to feel overwhelmed by the competitive vibe that is present around you. You will interact with several students who are highly accomplished and talented. However, it is very important to maintain the confidence in your abilities, and use them to further your own career. If you don’t project yourself as someone who is confident and positive in nature, nobody will take you seriously, period. Be sure to not sound over confident either, be humble.

5. Develop Industry Collaborations.

My personal opinion and observation is that a large number of academic researchers are attracted towards fancy but unrealistic/unfeasible ideas that can never see the light of the day in the real world. It is probably because academia incentivizes such ideas as intellectual contribution. The best way to stay away from getting drawn into this is to closely collaborate with industries, as they have a business interest in making something out of your research. Additionally, this gets you lot of connections in the field, tools and importantly $$$s.

6. Develop Taste.

I asked my advisor about when he would consider me being ready to graduate. His answer was surprising but helped me shape my choice of research direction. He said, “I would consider my student ready to get a PhD when he/she develops a good taste in choosing research directions”. It is possible to get your PhD by working on some fields that are beaten to death where you are likely to make an incremental Δ contribution at best, which might not have any impact. It is perhaps one of the best skills you can learn in your first year; learn to choose great problems to work on.

7. Aim for Relevant Networking.

As a new PhD student, everyone asks you to network with as many people as possible because they will “somehow” be useful. It is common to see new students trying to speak to every famous person at conferences, which would not give any returns. Make connections that are relevant and will be actually useful for you (sounds selfish, but harsh reality), else do not bother to waste your (and their) time.

8. Learn to Present and Write Well.

I was surprised by how neglected this crucial skill is among the new students (myself included). To put it in simple words, if you can’t effectively present your research both in writing and in oral, no one will know about your work! Every problem has multiple solutions, and it is your responsibility to present your research as a competitive solution and to push for its further adoption. Keeping your audience interested and encouraging them to read your work is certainly a skill to learn. You should appeal to both: a generic audience by not getting into too much detail and an expert audience by not sounding too shallow.

9. Maintain a Positive Atmosphere Around.

I have seen several excellent students go down the spiral of depression due to bad company around. While it might be out of your hands, try your best to maintain a very positive atmosphere around that helps you thrive. I was fortunate to have very supportive parents and girl friend, a set of amazing friends around me.

Bonus: You are also certain to meet a set of people whose sole ability is to spread negativity around, possibly to discourage others. Their typical complaints include: “I hate the weather here” or “This town sucks, I can’t take it anymore” or “I should’ve gone to xx university”. Avoid them like plague.

10. Pursue a Hobby.

An apple a day keeps a doctor away, while a hobby keeps the depression away. Learn a musical instrument or any art that interests you, join a gym or play a game and find a group of people who are passionate about the same. This keeps you running during difficult times, which are sure to come once in a while. Several people told me that a PhD is a journey that has its ups and downs, but in retrospect, I think you can avoid the downs with a hobby!

Overall, the most important takeaway from my first year is that: a PhD is neither making you more intelligent nor smarter, but it is honing you and your personality as an individual to be a leader in your field. Therefore, take initiatives, be passionate and enthusiastic, project confidence, collaborate with industry, develop a good taste for research problems, network with relevant people, learn to present your research effectively, maintain a hobby and most importantly — celebrate the independence you have!

Kartik Hegde — www.kartikhegde.net