Graduate Student: To Be or Not To Be
The penultimate months of undergraduate life, liberating as they can feel, are harbingers of future-anxiety for many students. Students are understandably concerned about making a career decision that, their parents and peers often coerce them to believe, will make or break their destiny. In this populace, there are many students who wish to pursue a graduate degree in a top western university. It is conceivable that within this lot there is a smaller, select group, whose members genuinely enjoy the process of learning and inquiry. They do not see the graduate degree as a means to an ill-conceived end, like an escape from the third world or a gateway into Wall Street investment banks. If this personal account will be useful to anyone at all, it is (probably) to this group.
In the spring of 2008 as a final-year dual degree student in Chemical Engineering, I was at the zenith of my self-confidence. With a nine-something CPI I was at the ‘top of my class’; I had PhD fellowships from three ‘top universities’ in my field and a ‘top consulting firm’ had recruited me . Without much friction, I decided to take up a PhD fellowship from MIT. I would be lying if I said this was an informed decision. Looking back from the present vantage, I had done very little thinking about my interests and what I enjoyed doing most. I did not come from an academic family and did not have particular role models who I looked up to. Both my grandfathers were high school dropouts who, after years of struggle as immigrant blue-collared workers in Mumbai, became successful small businessmen. My father, an engineer-MBA was the CEO of a very successful multinational chemical company that he co-founded in 1980. Having grown up in such an enterprising and ‘practically oriented’ background, I came into IIT with aspirations to become an entrepreneur and had no academic proclivities beyond a competitive desire to score high grades.
Now, I was good at acing exams and owing to the limitations of a campus worldview, equated this with real scholarship. Conventional wisdom of this sort is something all of us grow up hearing and even institutions like the IITs end up doing very little to break the veil. My peers made me believe that I was really good at whatever I was supposed to be good at, and I was easily convinced. Nevertheless, I genuinely enjoyed coursework (particularly physics) and ultimately, it was for this simple reason that I gravitated towards the fellowship and bid goodbye to the consulting firm. I was also fortunate enough to have interacted with a few inspiring teachers and, in particular, had a positive research experience at Purdue University where, I had interned for a summer. Dreams of having the letters ‘MIT’ on my CV were tempting too and naturally, such desires also played a subconscious role in my decision. Nevertheless, my desire to continue my learning was to a large extent, genuine and honest, but hardly ‘informed’ or ‘deeply deliberated upon’.
Three semesters into my research program at MIT, my self-confidence dropped like an anvil. The reason was not performance indices – I had done rather well in my graduate coursework, passed my qualifying exams without much difficulty and, having landed into a research group of my choice, was working on challenging problems that were considered ‘cutting-edge’. The root of my insecurities was the realization of a simple, but bitter truth: My ability to ace exams back in IIT was in no way correlated with being creative in scientific research.
I joined my research group at a time my advisor was beginning work on a completely new topic: identifying bottlenecks in the evolution of HIV and exploiting this information to design vaccines. This is a scientifically challenging and practically important question. My research group applies techniques rooted in physics and applied mathematics to understand the workings of the human immune system and its response to disease. As a chemical engineer trained in conventional tools, I was completely new to the areas I had to immediately acquaint myself with: virus evolution, immunology and a library of recent mathematical techniques that continue to be refined in order to harness useful information from vast amounts of biological data. Overwhelmed by the expanse of information I had to grasp and apply, I read aimlessly and haphazardly for many months. While this enabled me to acquaint myself with a lot of jargon, it did very little by way of educating me to think critically, to develop independent ideas and hypotheses. Time passed and despite my sincerity, there were no intellectual breakthroughs. I became frustrated and unhappy for lack of a sense of productivity, which is very important in domains of creativity.
This is a good point to emphasize the role of one’s advisor and peers. I can safely say that if it were not for my advisor and colleagues, the period of struggle and frustration might have lasted longer. It is extremely important to pick an advisor who is concerned about your intellectual growth and not just your productivity. Students who are starting up are often swayed by credentials and fail to evaluate the human side of the research advisor: of how flexible he/she will be to your needs and whether you can look up to him/her as a mentor?
Now back to what’s different about research – exams and quizzes are like short sprints but doing scientific research is the equivalent of running a marathon. You can maintain an extremely unhealthy lifestyle and impress your friends by outrunning them in short sprints thanks to your height or long legs (or vitamin supplements) but you cannot fluke a marathon. Analogously, many of us at the IITs have been ‘nurtured’ to cram lots of informationwith little or no deep understanding, and reproduce it in a three-hour sanitized setting but real research is a different game. It involves,
- Defining a new problem and generating hypotheses where no logical framework exists a priori
- Patiently working your way through the maze and literally struggling with it until you achieve some sense of clarity
- Finding and synthesizing tools from a vast array of available ones to ‘solve’ the problem that you defined.
- Understanding and presenting your answer(s) in a manner that is useful for future workers and which also makes evident what your intellectual contribution was.
Most important lessons of life are learned in the gut, not in the brain. It took me two and a half years into my PhD to understand that my IIT degree, despite its bells and whistles, had left many gaps in my education and work ethic that needed desperate attention. I realized these through failures small and large, while working on different projects. I was careless, disorganized and despite being ambitious, lacked a work ethic to sustain my ambition. My fumbles were embarrassing and disappointing but ultimately turned on a light switch. Ultimately, acknowledging what my strengths were and what areas needed desperate work was a liberating experience. I introspected more than I had ever before about what I really wanted to do in life and, when I realized how much I enjoyed doing what I did, and that if it was to be meaningful, I needed to change the way I worked. I embarked on a self-correcting experience, which continues as I write this. The most important lesson I learned was to be honest in assessing yourself, whatever façade you put up before others. As the great Feynman pointed out, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool”.
I apologize if I made a PhD seem a lot of hard work and not worth it. It’s by no means an unusual reaction: only a small fraction of people with undergraduate degrees, after all, choose to pursue a PhD. It’s a lot of toil and can often be disappointing. I have personally worked on more failed projects than successful ones.
And now comes the cardinal question: If research is so much hard work coupled with significant opportunity costs and potential risks (failure, bad advisor, job uncertainty post degree), why would any sane person opt for it? The answer, as I see it, is quite simple and one I have alluded to earlier: some people in this world get a kick out of thinking about problems and solving them. Curiosity is a quality common to all of us; some of us just enjoy it enough to hedge a living out of it.
A friend who critiqued my write-up suggested (correctly) that I point out one more thing: a university program provides you the opportunity for learning things outside of your domain and this ought to be taken advantage of. A shift of this kind in attitude, one of acquiring new skills, from that of merely competing for higher grades, could make the experience of a graduate degree (PhD or Masters) more enriching. During the past three years I have spent most of my time working on my research project but I managed to find interest in working for the local chapter of an NGO, which partners with a many grassroots organizations across India supporting projects that cut across all aspects of development. I became part of an inspiring and intelligent community of people who have taught me everything that I know about human affairs and social development. There are other hobbies I dabbled in, and many I couldn’t find the window for. The vistas are open and the sky’s the limit.
A final digression regarding a practical question that a lot of students grapple with: what’s different between a Masters and a PhD? A Masters degree is often a practical choice for people who wish to transition into a field that is different from their undergraduate degree. A Masters degree in the same field can provide you an opportunity to deepen your skill in a particular specialty. If you are not excited about an intensive research effort for five years but wish to learn a new set of skills, a Masters program is a great option. At the very best, it can expose you to a different academic/work environment and open doors to new opportunities (collaborations, startups) if you are receptive and ambitious. On the contrary, if earning grades is all that interests you, it can end up being an ordinary extension of your undergraduate degree with no intellectual value added. And if you are looking towards the Masters degree as an entry into the western job market, then beware that the present is a tough time for that sort of plan. You are better off working in India for a while, figuring out what you really wanted to do and then applying.
On the other extreme, there is a prevalent misconception that a PhD degree automatically condemns you into academia and teaching. Owing to a lack of personal experience, I am afraid I cannot make sweeping remarks here but let me state a factual observation: only a small fraction of PhD graduates from MIT actually end up in academia. There is a large fraction that ends up in jobs that require PhD-level skills – industrial R&D, technical consulting, finance (algorithmic trading, hedge funds) and exciting new startups looking for a small but highly skilled workforce. In short, as long as you are intellectually driven to do research and acquire new skills, do not be bothered too much by future prospects.
I hope I have done nothing to suggest that there is something sacrosanct about choosing science over other careers. I just happen to have chosen it, and have learned a thing or two so far from my experience (especially from the failures). The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut famously said (paraphrasing) in an interview, “There are three important life experiences everyone must have: Food, Sex and Becoming”. By Becoming, he meant the experience of stretching your mind and body to work for something that you believe is important and in that process, to make your soul grow. As much as we all have once fantasized about becoming millionaires and retiring by thirty to relish a life of idle sloth, human minds have not evolved to ‘retire’ and stagnate (notwithstanding a few exceptional exceptions). So whether it is science or something else, keep searching for whatever it is you like doing, and do not deny yourself this experience.
Karthik Shekhar is a graduate student at MIT. He earned a Dual Degree in Chemical Engineering in 2008 from IITB. He served as one of the two chief editors of InsIghT in 2007. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not claim universality.
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