“So what made you want to do a PhD?” : Why I’m doing graduate school, what I hope to achieve, and how this could relate to you

“So what made you want to go to grad school?”

Since making the decision to start a PhD program at UC Berkeley earlier this year (2019), I’ve been asked this question a lot from friends, family, and even strangers. As a result I’ve had many opportunities to refine my stock answer:

“It was a choice between becoming a software engineer at some tech company, or getting paid to learn and do work developing cutting edge stuff that I really care about.”

That’s the high level overview anyway, the abstract to this article. However, without the context of my life situation, my one sentence answer doesn’t really hold any sense or meaning. The purpose of this article is thus twofold:

  1. I want to formalize the more in-depth answers that I give to people who are looking to decide for themselves if graduate school is something they want to do. Hopefully putting this online will be of help to people.
  2. I’m writing this for myself, as a “pre-graduate school” snapshot of my motivations and objectives — a sort of time capsule to remind myself why I chose to go down this route, something I can look back on down the line as either a motivating reminder, or to laugh at how young and naive I was.

As titled, this article is separated into 3 parts: the why, the what and the how.

Why I’m doing it

To give the minimum spanning set of context needed to understand the motivation behind my choices: I was an undergraduate student studying a double major in chemical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley. Side Note: this combination of majors is one that I strongly discourage anyone from following, as outlined in the article linked. My PhD program is in the intersection of Computer Science, Materials Science and Biological Sciences — something along the lines of Computational Biomaterials Science & Engineering (It’s a weird program where I get to “Design my own PhD”). With that covered, here are the 3 key reasons why I’m going to grad school:

+1. interest

A graduate degree opens doors to careers I’m interested in. This, coupled with the lack of interest in other available careers at the bachelors degree level (at present I have little interest in being an engineer or project manager) are the primary driving forces behind my desire to pursue a PhD. I’m interested in entrepreneurship, research, leading roles at high-tech, small companies, and even teaching. In short, I’m interested in work where I can contribute a high level of meaningful impact, not only to a company’s profits, but also towards advancing humankind. A PhD opens these roles up.

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At present, I personally believe the worst reason to go to graduate school is because you don’t know what else to do — taking a gap year or working a chill job to give yourself time to reflect and figure out at least a hypothesis of what it is you want to do would be far more beneficial. By contrast, the best reason to go to grad school would be if it fits in with your long term vision of where you want to be. Note that in order to know this, you first need to have a long term vision — a career hypothesis.

+2. flexibility

One of the main complaints I’ve heard from those who have started working full-time jobs is that they no longer own their own time. For an average of 8 hours a day, Monday through Friday (weekends as well if you’re in a field like investment banking), you are an employee, and you are expected to work. As a graduate student, you are not tied down to a company and what they want from you. You have a research advisor who you work for, but hopefully you selected an advisor with whom your interests align (this is extremely important, make sure you are on the same page with your research advisor). You will have total ownership of your work, you still get holidays, and your work schedule is entirely in your control — no rigid 9–5.

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As an engineer at a large tech company you would be 1 of thousands, a small (comfortable and very well compensated) cog in a large, well-oiled but largely apathetic machine, working towards goals of definite moral ambiguity. As a graduate student you get to be your own, underpaid, overworked machine, working towards whatever it is you (and your research advisor) so desire. Graduating with a PhD will also open up a variety of career options that often have increased work ownership and schedule flexibility. Even if post-grad you end up working for one of the aforementioned large tech companies, at least you get to be a larger (even more comfortable and well compensated), more important cog!

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+3. learning experience

Finally, I love learning (read: I’m a huge nerd), thus the idea of spending 4–5 years both learning and actually producing new knowledge to contribute to advancing humankind’s combined knowledge repository, is something that I find really exciting (read: I am a science nerd). Graduate school is a rare once in a lifetime opportunity, where someone will actually pay you to learn (in most STEM fields anyway), and gain great depth of knowledge in a field you (hopefully) really care about. This is a privilege many people will never have access to in their lives.

+4. international student

A useful note for any international students, in general most jobs in the US at bachelors level (outside of the tech industry), do not sponsor international students. If you are currently on an F-1 Visa, this is something important to consider. Moreover, if you are interested in entrepreneurship, not having citizenship / green card is another huge hurdle in working on something you are passionate about independently. Unless you meet some very high bars, you will not be allowed to stay in the US and work on your idea. Thus your two most probable (I’m sure there are many more) options for staying in the US are to work in tech or go to graduate school.

This all sounds great so far, but as with most things in life, there are also major downsides to being a graduate student. These are current concerns I still have with pursuing a PhD:

-1. money

Yes money is not the most important thing in life, however lets not kid ourselves here, being broke kinda sucks, and so does being in your twenties with a college degree and still being dependent on your parents. I definitely would not have done a PhD program had tuition and basic living not been sponsored. Even still, not having a disposable income and living paycheck to paycheck for rent is not fun (granted, Berkeley and Bay Area rent is awful, this may be less of a problem in less expensive areas).

To survive, you must have enough motivation and passion for your field of research to fight the temptation of jumping ship, as you see your friends around you buy nice houses and cars, getting married, going on expensive vacations etc.

-2. wasted youth

I won’t graduate until i’m 26–28 at the soonest and will have no saved money. There will be pressure to start working straight away, there will be pressure to start a family, along with many other pressures associated with growing older. These all get in the way of life exploration and trying cool random things. I find myself stuck between the idea of finding life fulfillment through a meaningful, successful career versus finding it through maximizing cool, diverse experiences. I think by choosing a PhD, I’m not necessarily giving up on the cool experiences life goal, but I definitely made a choice to prioritize having a meaningful career.

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-3. will my research actually be useful?

Research can at times be super theoretical and not very application focused. It may take years for what you are working on to ever be viable for practical use in industry, if ever. The benefit of working in industry is the singular focus towards practical application. Moreover, even if you are working on something application focused in academia, it will most likely only be at bench-scale — you won’t get to do or see the actual scale-up into a commercially viable use-case, until you make the jump into industry.

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What I hope to achieve

I’m going to try my best in this section to not talk research specifics, partly because I don’t think my research advisor would appreciate me talking about unpublished research, partly because what I will be working on specifically is not finalized, and partly because I don’t think most of you reading this article would particularly care for the scientific detail. Big picture, my goals are:

  1. I want to become an expert in the niche intersection between polymeric materials, computer science (with emphasis in stats, data & machine learning) and bio-inspired engineering design. On their own, each of these 3 interesting fields would take a lifetime to master. I will specifically be focusing on dedicating my life to mastering the overlap between the 3.
  2. By advancing my personal understanding of science and engineering, I hope to better understand the nature of life (super fluffy, I know) through the lens of science. If during my PhD I solve a fundamental “holy grail” of science and advance humankind’s understanding of the world — great. If all I accomplish is developing a better personal understanding of how the world works and along the way contribute a little piece towards our collective human knowledge repository — not bad at all!
  3. While researching and acquiring knowledge, I also want to be constantly thinking of ways to apply the research done by myself and those around me, to solving the big problems we are facing as a society. Here are a couple of issues I’m currently pretty passionate about: waste (both organic & inorganic) recycling solutions, synthetic/sustainable meats & agriculture, renewable energy production, storage & transmission, advancing health technology & medicine, computational & science-inspired art, education, and pushing towards interstellar exploration.
  4. Hopefully over this next period of my life I will gain a better understanding of what it is I want to do for the many years after, when I am finally out of school. Right now, I have a singular focus (career-wise). At the end of my graduate program I hope to take one of the cool ideas I come up with (from Goal #3) and work on it for the rest of my life, ideally in the form of a profitable startup. That being said, who knows what I’ll aspire to do next year, let alone in 4–5 years from now. Maybe I’ll end up staying in academia forever, maybe I’ll end up staying at Berkeley forever…
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So should you go to grad school?

If there is one thing to takeaway from my story, it’s that I’m going to graduate school because given my current situation and background, I believe it to be the most probable path to achieving my big picture goals. If my goals were to live the most comfortable life, retire early, optimize money making, have a family while still young, or travel the world, I have no doubt I would have chosen a different life path.

At the end of the day, what I’ve presented in this article is by no means a concrete set or rules to decide whether or not to pursue graduate education — it’s just my story, and thats it. Not to mention, the graduate school chapter of my story hasn’t even started yet! The onus is now on you, having read (and hopefully understood) my thoughts, motivations and goals, to first figure out what your life goals are, and then to decide if graduate school is the best way to achieve those goals, as I believe it to be for mine.

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