My 6 Tips for Surviving a PhD

Aqeel Anwar
Ascent Publication
Published in
8 min readSep 15, 2019

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Ph.D. is not merely an education, it’s a lifestyle. Not everyone can handle it. There are a plethora of factors that need to be taken into account before deciding to get into one. Unlike surviving other academic levels, say Bachelor and/or Masters, the correlation between surviving a Ph.D. and the intellectual merit of the candidate is not that strong. What does that mean? It means being smart is not the only factor that decides whether you are a good fit for a Ph.D. program. Even being the smartest, you can fail miserably, or at least go through a really rough patch.

There is a general increasing trend in this correlation until the bachelor’s degree and then a significant drop for the first two years of the Ph.D.

The reason behind this drop is the absence of a deterministic academic path (leading to stress and frustration in the candidate) coupled with some uncontrollable factors such as research area, professor’s attitude, personal reasons, etc. Once you realize and understand these factors and start acting towards mitigating the related issues, (usually in the first two years), then the correlation becomes strongly bound to your intellectual merit.

Understanding the following pieces of advice really helped me in the first two years of my Ph.D.

Everyone has their own pace — Stop Comparing:

If I have to give one piece of advice to a new Ph.D. candidate, it will be — never compare. One of the worst things you can do to yourself during your Ph.D. is comparing yourself with other Ph.D. scholars. You need to understand that intelligence and hard work are not the only factors that determine your success in a Ph.D. program. There might be people who you think are not as hardworking as you are, but still managed to publish in good journals. This doesn’t mean they are better than you, intellectually. In fact, it doesn’t even mean anything. You can’t compare yourself to other Ph.D. candidates because the comparing grounds are never the same. Factors such as research area, lab culture, professor’s work attitude, lab funding, support of lab-mates, collaboration with other labs, your research interest vs your professor's research interest, and other subtle ones, have much more impact on how well you will perform in the starting years of your Ph.D.

Speaking of Stop Comparing*:

  • “Hey, didn’t Sam and you join the Ph.D. program in the same semester? He will be defending his thesis this year, are you too?” — “Apples and oranges, John. My professor has a really high bar when it comes to publishing results”
  • “Aren’t you going for an internship this semester? Sam is.” — “I think it’s unfair to compare. I would have gone too if I were at Sam’s place”

( — I hate Sam — )

*inspired from ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman

Indeterministic and Non-linear Ph.D. timeline — Tolerate your Frustration

Ph.D. is all about controlling your frustration and being patient. Ph.D. timeline (effective work happening vs actual work done) is not linear, rather results come in steps. It is a combination of step functions with steps occurring at a highly indeterministic pattern (ignore this statement if you are not from an engineering/math background).

There will be times when you spend months working on an approach only to know that it was all wrong from the beginning, and times when you will work only for a few hours and solve something that you thought would have required (or you were stuck at for) months. This indeterministic career can cause frustration, and eventually lead to self-doubt. You need to understand that this is completely normal and happens to everyone. Yes, everyone. The sooner you accept this fact, the better off you are. Try to tolerate this frustration and not let it control you. I know it’s hard, but once you master tolerating it, your Ph.D. life will be much easier.

Speaking of Frustration Tolerance:

  • “So, I had been working on solving this problem for the last 2 months, and yesterday I solved it in an hour. It wasn’t easy tolerating my frustration, but I am glad I did it. I knew it will come around eventually”
  • “I feel like I am not smart enough for a Ph.D. program. It’s been over 3 months and I have not made any effective progress.” — “This is perfectly normal Sam. It happened to me too. That’s how Ph.D. work. Believe me, you will make progress soon”

(I think I was being hard on Sam — I don’t hate him anymore)

Pick up a routine that best suits you — Manage your Workhours:

Pick up a routine that is most productive for you. The two most common routines that most of the Ph.D. candidates follow is

  1. The 9-to-5 job routine.
  2. The irregular routine (I see an oxymoron there).

No one routine fits all. You have to find out which of these two you are more comfortable and productive with. The 9-to-5 routine works best for those who like to have an organized life or the ones with family. But if you can’t follow this routine, that’s perfectly fine. Research can’t be forced to be done between nine-to-five. Ideas don’t follow the work routine. They can hit you at any time. The irregular routine basically means inconsistent or odd time hours (for example working at nights). Some people are more productive at night (when there aren’t distractions). Talk to your professor and share your productive routine with him/her. Unless there is a strict routine lab culture, most of the professors are understanding about it. The same amount of productive work can be done in much less time when you work within your routine. But this only works if you can keep a check on yourself so that you don’t procrastinate. If you think you are procrastinating, then you need to force yourself to a 9-to-5 routine.

Speaking of Managing your Work Hours:

  • “Hey Sam, it’s 8 pm, why are you in the lab?” — I prefer working in the evening. That’s my productive routine.
  • “Hey Sam, you haven’t gone to your office for the last 3 days. I think you have started procrastinating and need to force yourself to the 9-to-5 routine even if you end up not doing any work”

Don’t linger on for immaculate perfection — Publish with enough results

One of the biggest mistakes Ph.D. scholars make is lingering on too much with the results. Of course, everyone wants their results to be ground-breaking, but unfortunately only a few get to that. You should have a realistic goal in your mind. Don’t linger on with your results to get to complete perfection before you publish it. Perfection is never achieved, and if you keep on dragging your results unpublished, there are high chances that someone working in the same area will end up publishing something similar to your work before you do, making your work look less significant. Also, publications act as a driving force for Ph.D. scholars. It gives you a sense of confidence of going on with your work.

In the first two years, you should realize that even if your results are not significant enough, you should still go ahead and publish them. As you move deeper into your Ph.D. your work will become more and more mature, and hence more and more significant in terms of quality of results. So, you don’t have to worry about the quality of results in the first two years of your Ph.D. as long as they are good enough.

Speaking of Publishing with enough results:

  • “Let’s publish these results. They look good enough to me”
  • “I just saw a paper on arXiv. That’s almost exactly what I have been doing for the past 8 months” — “I think you should have published when you had enough results, instead of waiting for more. You could have always extended the paper into another publication afterward”

Sorry I can’t help you right now, I am busy — Build the courage to say No

I learned it the hard way. You get to interact with all types of people, and among those types, there is a particular one which is not good for you. You should have the courage of saying no to a colleague if you think helping him or her will affect your work. Maybe you have a deadline, or that you are stuck with something and are brainstorming over it. Also, some people like being spoon-fed. You, out of your goodwill, help the person, and he or she makes it a routine, taking up a significant amount of your effective time. This can be quite harmful to you if you don’t step up at the beginning. There is no harm in saying that you are busy.

Speaking of Building the courage to say No

  • “Hey Sam, I am sorry I can’t help you right now. I have a paper deadline in 2 weeks and can’t spare time”
  • “Hey, did you complete your paper?” — “No, I have been helping this colleague to set up Ubuntu.” — “Was setting up Ubuntu for him worth more than your paper?”

Talk to other PhDs — Share the pain

Finally, we (Ph.D. Scholars) all are in the same boat. All the Ph.D. candidates go through the same phase. It’s always good to know that you are not the only one going through these troubles. Understanding that this is pretty normal makes you less stressed about it. Also, other Ph.D. candidates who have already gone through and understood this can help you realize these small things that might really help you steer in the right direction.

Speaking of Sharing the pain

  • “Do you have some time this week? I need to talk to you about changing my professor”
  • “Sam told me that you are thinking of dropping out of Ph.D. I had the same thoughts last year. But thank God I talked to another Ph.D. fellow and he made me realize that I was overthinking issues and also suggested few really good solutions. So, if you ever want to talk about it, you know where my office is”

Closing Remarks

The first two years of the Ph.D. are the toughest, mainly because it is different from any other academic programs that you have experienced. Realizing this difference, making your peace with it, and opting for correct solutions will help you mitigate the frustration and stress.

If this article was helpful to you, feel free to clap, share and respond to it. If want to learn more about Machine Learning and Data Science, follow me @Aqeel Anwar or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Aqeel Anwar
Ascent Publication

Senior ML Engineer @NVIDIA | ex-Samsung | GeorgiaTech | Writer | Researcher | Traveler | www.aqeel-anwar.com | https://twitter.com/_aqeelanwar