First-year reflection

First-year reflection

First-year reflection

Is a PhD really for me?

November 16, 2022 | Anzo T.

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

More than once in our career, most of us will find ourselves asking whether we made the right decision. Often, this questioning is triggered by setbacks, “less-than-ideal” circumstances or a mediocre environment. Without a doubt, the majority of graduate students will probably face this kind of uncertainty during our journey (especially for PhDs, as 5 or more years is a long commitment!). 

During my undergraduate days, my goal was clear: to study in a world-renowned graduate program. I did whatever it took to reach that goal: I studied hard to obtain a great GPA; I worked diligently as an undergraduate research assistant to deserve great recommendation letters and hopefully a publication as well; and finally, I poured my soul into my applications. This hard work felt worthwhile when MIT’s acceptance letter arrived in my mailbox. I felt the world was my oyster. Naturally, my college friends started becoming envious (heck, they even joked about how I could delay facing the “adult” problems, like finding an off-campus apartment, that they had to face immediately after graduation). 

Fast forward to August 2021. I waved my college friends goodbye and came to MIT, excited about the prospect of graduate school that I have romanticized for too long. It did not take long for me to grow disillusioned with the rosy grad school picture. At first, I was relieved that I didn’t have to face a tight production deadline like my college peers in industry. “Sounds like a good way to make some ground-breaking discoveries!” …or so I thought. The truth is, these “ground-breaking” results were difficult to come by, and more often than not I ended up not having any progress that I considered “meaningful”. Sometimes, I even found myself panicking over the upcoming meeting with my PI to update my (uhm…non-existent?) progress! 

The meme repeats the same image of a confused man looking at a laptop, with a different caption on each image. On the top version of the image, it reads, "My code doesn't work. I have no idea why." On the bottom version of the image, it reads, "My code works. I have no idea why."

The pain we all experience when training machine learning models [1]

Amid the confusion, “Ding!”: a notification from Messenger in college friend group chat. Those friends, who once sat in lecture hall and struggled through the homework problems with me, were now talking about climbing the career ladder, earning more, investing, financial independence, and cryptocurrency! I checked my research stipend and realized that my salary does not remotely compare to their salaries. They are on a whole different level, at least in the financial sense. (Looking at you, FAANG/equivalent software engineers!) By the time I make it to the “Dr.” title (that’s if, I do make it), I feared that I would be far behind my peers (money-wise, at least). 

Amid the doubt and challenges, I reflected on why I chose to pursue a graduate program. Thanks to University of Waterloo’s co-op program, I completed a total of 6 internships and research assistantships during my time in college. There is no question that every internship was a great opportunity, and I got to contribute in a meaningful way. In retrospect, however, the most valuable characteristic of my internship experience was the diversity of the work, which let me identify that my passion lies in research-related matters rather than in pure software positions. I find that I enjoy digging into a rabbit hole to solve a problem, rather than debating with people who define for me the parameters of what is a ‘good’ code or production style. 

This inclination toward research seems to influence my performance too; it reinforces my belief that I can stand out in a research-related environment, whereas I might only be mediocre in a software and production role. For example, for one of my co-ops, I worked to add features in database import. My mentors had the following to say to me at the end-of-term: “It was nice working with you!” and “Thanks for your contribution, we were happy to have you!”. Like it or not, in North America there are two valid ways to interpret this feedback: either you are really excelling in your internship, or people are just being polite (employers tend to give great evaluations to students). Looking at how well other interns have performed in comparison to my performance, I strongly believe that in my case, it was the latter. 

How did this feedback compare to my feedback at the other 5 research-related internships that I completed? While there’s a reason to believe that these end-of-term evaluations are exaggerated, the compliments were much more concrete than my evaluations for the software role:

  • “Even without relevant background to start with, he accomplished within 4 months what a typical PhD intern struggled to achieve,”
  • “He wrote a world class implementation of an algorithm in a recently published paper, and understood it better than anyone else to the point where he could pinpoint a very subtle mistake that escaped the notice of the authors,”
  • “I’m calling you to thank you for the progress you’ve made; it’s a substantial leap forward compared to what we had 4 months ago,”

After some further reflection, I have realized that starting a PhD program should be a transformative process: a journey to transform me from someone who wants to do research to someone who is passionate about and is an expert in a certain research area. It’s an uphill journey, and even more so with the high expectations and responsibility given to us at MIT. And the setbacks will only keep coming in bigger waves. But if we learn to celebrate every little step in the right direction (including realizing and accepting that some approaches don’t work) and make the most out of our PhD (i.e., hoping for the pandemic to go away soon so that we can socialize and attend free food events again!), we will have the energy and motivation to keep going. Hopefully several years from now, I can wear the rounded cap at graduation, look back, and say all my struggles and perseverance were worth it, just as all the challenges in the past made me made me who I am today. 

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