I received my degree conferral letter earlier this week, certifying that I have completed all degree requirements and will be conferred a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Hydrologic Sciences from the University of California Davis. My PhD experience was in some ways quite different from other students. My research was very self-driven and was not funded by any particular grant or project, and the dissertation ended up being much more about the methods I used to answer questions rather than the answers themselves. I’m a proud that my research really was of my own making, rather than an incremental extension of someone else’s research. But it was also a difficult, circuitous, and often lonely road, and I came close to quitting a few times (but that, at least, is a common sentiment among graduate students). I learned a lot and I don’t regret the progress I’ve made or where I find myself now, but if I were to have a conversation with my younger self I would probably advise that hopeful, eager, naive person to do things differently.
This post is about recognizing mistakes I made, assumptions that turned out to be wrong, and choices I could have made if only I’d known better. And I made some choices that turned out to be the right ones, and those are worth sharing too. If you’re reading this, I hope that it will help you make better choices, or at least more informed ones, so that you don’t experience quite the level of frustration, regret, and sorrow that I experienced (although frustration, regret, and sorrow is unfortunately on the daily menu of most graduate programs). My advice is a bit biased towards STEM programs and those of you who are not planning to pursue post-doctoral research or a faculty position, but I think most of it will apply to those of you hoping to make it in academia as well.
If at all possible, don’t pay tuition out of pocket
Professors are writing grants all the time, and there are a lot of projects that need doing—and they need graduate students to them. If you can be flexible about where you live and what you are willing to work on, I suggest you cast a wide net and follow the money, so to speak. Whatever your field is, you probably know what the “big names” are, and various voices have told that those are the places where you’ll get the “best” education or work with the “pioneers” of research. But in truth, the name brand is not worth paying for out of pocket, and it’s definitely not worth graduating with a mountain of debt. If you look at the faculty that work at the “best” university, you’ll quickly realize that practically none of those faculty got their degrees from that school. Furthermore, the quality of a school’s research program is at best unrelated to, and at worst anti-correlated with, the quality of the school’s educational program. The best researchers often make poor teachers, and the masters of your field probably have some really problematic personalities that makes it hard to work with them or learn from them. Combine that with a constant struggle for money and you’ll wind up despising your program by the end of your second year. Besides, good programs usually have funding while bad programs don’t—so a program that offers you a full ride is probably fairly high-quality anyway. You won’t ever be in a position where you’re offered funding from a bad program; a bad program will ask you for money. And if you do get a funding offer, make sure to get it in writing.
There are probably some exceptions to this—for example, if networking is extremely critical to finding a job afterwards or if the program offers something that you literally can’t get anywhere else. Just do your best to make sure you’re making the choice to fund your own education for the right reasons. I have yet to hear a convincing argument for paying your own way through school though. You’re already losing so much money by choosing to work as an undervalued, poorly-paid graduate student. Paying tuition on top of that is adding insult to injury.
I had a strong aversion to paying out of pocket, so I haven’t racked up any debt—just the opportunity cost of getting paid graduate student wages instead of gainful employment. I had funding offers from multiple schools, and I ended up choosing UC Berkeley for my Masters largely due to its reputation. I don’t know if that was the right choice—I didn’t have a great time in the program, and I don’t think the courses were particularly higher quality than the courses I took at UC Davis during my PhD—but my Masters was paid for, so that’s a win in the end. I chose UC Davis for my PhD based on the funding offer as well, but it didn’t work out as well as I would have liked; My PhD funding dried up about halfway through, in part because the program decided to drop some key internal scholarships halfway through my program. I made it work by getting hired as a TA or jumping on a project here and there. A key part of my “strategy” (if you can call it that) was working a full-time job while in school, so I took small teaching positions (just enough to qualify for fee remission) and applied for grants that would pay tuition but wouldn’t put food on the table. In some ways that made me a competitive applicant because I could apply for smaller amounts and stretch money farther than other students. But I worked a lot of hours, and I probably could have completed my degree earlier if I’d been able to focus on it full time. I actually had to pay my final quarter’s tuition up-front, and although I managed to recoup those costs through a scholarship a few months later it still left a bitter taste in my mouth. If I’d been facing more than one unfunded quarter, or if it had happened earlier in my program, I probably would have dropped out.
Avoid the “interdisciplinary” buzz
I am still attracted to jobs, organizations and groups that boast “interdisciplinary” work. But be careful, because “interdisciplinary” might actually be code for “we are completely disorganized and don’t know what we’re doing”. For example, UC Davis has interdisciplinary “graduate groups”, which are programs that are not tied to a specific department and have participating faculty from a wide variety of fields. Unfortunately, not being tied to a department means that the group doesn’t have access to the resources of any department, and as a student you might not even have access to your advisor’s department. That means that you might not have access to teaching positions and internal funding that are reserved for the students of a given department.
Student support is better managed and supported by established departments; they have probably existed for longer and have a stronger foundation in the university administration. They may also have grants or endowments that support students, or offer more classes and thus more TA positions. Interdisciplinary “graduate groups”, in contrast, are probably relatively new programs, are fairly small, and are likely to offer fewer resources. On top of that, throwing a bunch of faculty members from different departments can make academic politics even worse and limit opportunities for you to collaborate with other groups. Besides, just because the department or lab doesn’t have the word “interdisplinary” in the name doesn’t mean you can’t still do interdiscplinary work. PhD research can easily transcend the typical field or research focus of a department, and you can always take classes outside of your department!
I joined an “interdisciplinary” graduate group that I could not in good conscience recommend to anyone, and I probaby would have been happier if I had applied to my advisor’s home department rather than through the graduate group. I ended up taking almost of all of my classes from outside the program anyway (primarily the civil engineering and statistics departments) and many of the classes that my program advertised on its web page turned out to be on a six-year rotation or longer (i.e., you could finish a PhD before that class was ever offered), and in some cases had only ever been offerred once. The small number of classes also meant that few TA positions were available for students in the group. Furthermore, there was limited internal funding and scholarships. contrast that with e.g., the Civil Engineering department, which had teaching positions reserved for engineering students and had enough money that they would sometimes reach out to students unprompted to ask if they needed funding. Which situation would you rather be in?
Seek out a project that is already funded
Chasing funding isn’t fun. Spending time writing grants to fund your research means you have less time to actually do research, and more of your proposals will be rejected than receive funding. Similarly, teaching while doing research is hard and more teaching means less time to actually do research. If you can, seek out a project that someone else already wrote a successful grant for and now has money waiting to be spent on a fresh new PhD student. An advisor offering “a year of funding” or “a combination of research and teaching positions” means that at some point you’ll be writing grants for months straight or grading 200 exams on Christmas eve, all for the privilege of dragging out your PhD by another year or two. The other benefit of a funded project is that both you and your advisor will have some idea of what the final form of your dissertation will look like, and what the major milestones of the research are. And again, if you do get a funding offer make sure to get it in writing (gee, did I already say that?).
I also recommend this approach because it can be really hard to figure out what you want to do, or even what is doable. You’re not an expert when you start out a PhD (that’s kind of the point) and you likely don’t know what has already been done, what research is feasible, and what resources you’ll need to complete it.
Neither I nor my advisor had a specific project in mind when I started my dissertation, and while my first year was fully-funded there was an understanding that future work would be funded by teaching positions and various long-term contracts that my advisor had with local and state agencies—meaning that I knew at least some of my work wouldn’t tie directly into my dissertation, or that I’d have to put in some extra effort to glue it all together. I didn’t actually know what my PhD really was until my final year, and I had a lot of doubt about what I was doing for most of the journey. I think I would have been happier and more relaxed if had been hired for a specific project. My PhD was challenging and I often felt like I was trying to steer a rudderless ship—but I was also really lucky to have an advisor who was interested and willing to support me through my PhD even when my interests took me outside of his typical research field. It would have been far worse to be hired onto a project and later realize that I thought was boring and that I didn’t want to specialize in that field—which is sort of what happened during my Masters program, and why I decided to go elsewhere rather than stay for a PhD and pigeonhole myself into a field I didn’t care about.
Seek out a project that lets you interact with industry
This is particularly important if you’re planning to work outside of academia—e.g., as a consultant or employee of a government agency or NGO. The time you spend doing a PhD is time you could otherwise spend working in industry. If your goal is to work in government, that also means lost time in position (and thus a longer time before you’re eligible for promotion) and lost time in any pension fund that might be available (which you’re probably not thinking about, but maybe you should). A PhD is not strictly required for a lot of government positions—even research-oriented ones—so spending 4 years doing a PhD probably won’t be as valuable to hiring managers as 4 years actually working the job.
On the other hand, being a student can open doors and provide shortcuts. Many agencies have internship programs (one good example is the Federal Pathways Program) which are only open to students, including graduate students. These programs can be a mechanism for agencies to collaborate with universities on projects that have a need for advanced research or scientific analysis that isn’t common among government employees. In other words, it’s possible to be hired through one these programs to do research that you would be doing anyway. If you can make that happen, you’ll be miles ahead of your fellow students because you’ll have been racking up bona fide work experience while you were doing your PhD. You’ll also have contacts in the agency who are willing to recommend you to colleagues, and maybe even a job lined up and waiting for you when you graduate. For example, the Pathways Internship Program generally provides for student interns to be converted to regular employees once they complete their studies (on the flip side, you have to resign if you quit your degree without finishing).
In my case, I worked on projects that gave me a way in to agencies that I wanted to work with after graduating. I pushed to get involved with a research office that was able to hire me through their internship program in order to work on the project as their employee on top of my involvement through the university. I also was able to develop professional contacts from other collaborating agencies, which produced opportunities years later that I never expected. My internship also qualified as engineering work experience, which meant I was able to get licensed as a Professional Engineer before I graduated.
Avoid the non-tenured advisor
Being the student of an assistant professor, i.e., a new professor pursuing tenure, is tough. Although they may be more in touch with the cutting edge of their field and more sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of modern-day graduate school, a newly-minted professor brings a whole lot of baggage to the student-advisor relationship that you should probably avoid like the plague. They have about as much experience advising students as you do and are struggling to spin up their research enterprise, rabidly chasing funding and frothing at the mouth to publish papers and prove to their department that they deserve tenure. They also will be learning the hard way how their department (dys)functions and getting repeatedly slapped in the face by academic politics. Those issues will trickle down to you whether you like it or not, and whether the professor means to let it happen or not—and you will face more pressure than the students of tenured professors while likely also receiving less or worse guidance (which is not to say tenured professors can’t be terrible—they definitely can!).
Rather than tag along on the miserable journey that is the tenure track, seek out an advisor who has already run the gauntlet and isn’t counting on your performance to give them job security. A seasoned professor will know how their department operates, will have learned from their previous mistakes guiding PhD students, and be able to avoid at least some of the traps that can ruin your graduate studies and will have the resources of an established research program to back you up if things go wrong. But perhaps most importantly, they won’t take your struggles as a personal failure or conflate them with their own issues.
The only exception to this that might be worth considering is if (1) the tenure-track has already landed a multi-year grant with an established research scope that will fund your entire PhD, and (2) the tenure-track advisor only has a few students and has instead packed their lab with post-docs who can help out in a research advising role. But those situations are probably about as common as unicorns.
My advisor during my Masters was an assistant professor who had started only a few months prior to my enrollment, and it was a rocky road. I wasn’t the student she needed (although I think what she really needed was a post-doc) and she wasn’t the advisor I needed. I felt a lot of pressure to perform but I also felt like my advisor didn’t have time for me. My PhD advisor, on the other hand, has guided many students to graduation over the years and has been a tenured faculty for a long time—and while he was pretty hands-off at times, I never felt like I was bothering him by asking for guidance and he never brought other stress or baggage to our meetings. In fact, he was comfortable enough with his research enterprise and status in the university to let me do my own thing and take risks that a tenure-seeking professor probably would not have supported. I’m really thankful that I had a healthy and professional relationship with my advisor—there are way too many examples of horrible and unhealthy student-advisor relationships, and I know too many students who quit their program because they couldn’t handle the pressure that their tenure-track advisor put on them to publish papers and secure grants for the lab.
Try to do some recon on your potential advisor
The student-advisor relationship can make or break a PhD, and you owe it to yourself to find out what kind of person your potential advisor is and how they treat their students. You should definitely talk to your potential advisor’s current students; the advisor will probably suggest this themselves or be willing to organize a get-together, especially if they consider you competitive applicant. Otherwise, a prospective students gathering—something often arranged by departments and graduate programs—will give you a chance to do some digging. Unfortunately, current students—especially those early in the program—will still be drinking the kool-aid, so to speak. They will probably have a pretty rosy view of the program and their advisor and still be in denial about the issues they being faced with. You’ll get a better picture of your potential advisor by talking to the soon-to-be or recently-graduated students, but these students probably won’t be showing up to the mixer. it feels awkward, but honestly you will probably have decent success by just emailing those late-stage students and frankly asking about the advisor. You can probably find student contact info by looking at your potential advisor’s recent publications, or just comb through the program directory. If things went bad, those students will probably be all too eager to tell you about it.
I was lucky to meet PhD students while I was doing my Masters who had my future advisor on their committees, and they were able to give me a pretty good idea of what to expect when I mentioned I was considering joining his research group. And they all had good things to say about him but also a few complaints, which gave me confidence that they were providing a realistic assessment of him. I made an informed decision when I chose my advisor, and I think it was the right one.
Choose the “easy” committee members
During your program, you’ll learn that some professors have a reputation for being “easy” or “nice”, as if those qualities are a bad thing. Grad students for some reason become masochists early in the program and convince themselves that they want a trial by fire. Don’t be like that. Academia is a terribly subjective environment, where goal posts are constantly moving and people change their minds about months worth of work in a day. Choosing advisors and committee members who can support you and teach you is great, but you should also pick faculty who acknowledge the flaws in the system and recognize that their job is to help you graduate without wasting too much time or money. Looking down on a professor because they won’t tear your work to pieces and make you cry is one of the dumber attitudes you’ll come across in graduate school. One of my colleagues (who completed his PhD many years ago) once said something to me that really resonated with what I had seen and experienced in graduate school: “academics are so vicious because they are fighting over so little.” (this turned out to be a variation of Sayre’s Law). Try to rise above that, and find professors who also have risen above that—try to avoid packing your committee with people who are willing to fight to the death over scraps, or at least don’t seek them out.
At the end of the day, your dissertation is approved or rejected depending on the opinions of 3-5 people. They are not infallible. They are probably neurotic. They may be completely out of touch. And even if they are leaders in their field, they are still just big fish in a small pond, and maybe not even in the same pond as you. In the grand scheme of things their opinions matter very little. However, they have a whole lot of power over you, so pick people who can at least be nice and actually care about whether you complete your dissertation or not.
I didn’t exactly choose the “easy” professors, but I avoided professors with bad reputations when choosing my committee—even if they were idolized as pioneers of their field. I still got a few surprises and my qualifying exam ended up being challenging anyway, so I think I (mostly) made the right decisions.
Try teaching at least once
In a way, this directly conflicts with my previous advice about funding; if you have a funded project you’ll probably never have to teach. For me though, teaching was one of the best parts of my dissertation. I personally enjoy teaching so your mileage may vary, but one of the most interesting things about teaching is that it makes you more of an expert. Teaching really helped crystallize some of the fundamental concepts in my field and made me develop a level of comfort and familiarity with the mechanics of problem-solving—and explaining things to others—that I absolutely would not have otherwise. It’s a great way to practice thinking on your feet, communicating complex concepts, anticipating questions, and public speaking in general—skills that will benefit you in virtually any profession. It’s also good to interact with undergraduate students and remind yourself how you felt about school before graduate school dragged you into the pit. You’ll have an opportunity to be a mentor and maybe give the advice you wish someone had given you.
I enjoyed teaching so much that I still sometimes think I’d like to be a professor. I find it really fun and rewarding, and even in my current job I look for opportunities to teach workshops and do demonstrations. Maybe someday I’ll find myself looking for teaching-focused faculty positions at a small liberal arts college… but probably not.
Is a PhD worth it?
Well… I don’t know. When I started my PhD, I thought I wanted to work in academia, become a professor and teach and do research. It took a few years of a PhD program for me to realize that I absolutely did not want that. And I’m happy with my career and what my options are, but they don’t technically require a PhD. However, being a PhD student was what got me the internship that helped me get the job that helped me get the next job. I got to work on really interesting projects that I probably wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. And my experience as a PhD student taught me to be more of a self-starter than many of my colleagues and made me develop skills that they don’t have.
Then again, how much of that is my PhD and how much of it is my Masters? I think I would have still ended up in the same field, doing similar work, if I just had a Masters degree. I wouldn’t have had the exact same work opportunities, but I would have probably had similar ones—and I would likely be in a more senior position by now. But you never know, the dissertation may give me a leg up in a future job application or open a door that otherwise would remain closed to me.
So I guess I would say: definitely get a Masters degree if you want to work in industry, you will learn a lot and it is a major step up from a Bachelors degree. But don’t take more than two years to do it, and try to get someone else to pay for it. And don’t turn your nose up at non-thesis Masters programs; graduate coursework is really valuable on its own, and doing a full thesis doesn’t add much value to industry work (you’ll get enough project management experience on the job, and project management in industry is very different from research project management). Doing a full thesis can be risky because research delays, failed experiments, etc. can really drag out a Masters degree.
If you want to work in academia… well, you’ll need a PhD for that. Just try to remember that the PhD is the first step, not the end goal, and try to make choices that will help you fast-track your dissertation. My advice regarding a funded project stands, but also consider that grant and proposal writing will be a major part of your job as a professor, so you’ll want to make an effort to practice those skills as a student. One good approach might be to jump on a funded, planned-out project but practice proposal and grant writing along the way by pitching enhancements and auxiliary projects that will make your research better, but aren’t strictly required to complete the work.
If you don’t know if you want to work in industry or academia, or think you’d be happy either way, then your best option might be to try to go straight to a PhD from a Bachelors degree. It sounds counterintuitive, but most PhD programs will force you to complete the requirements of a Masters degree along the way; if you start a PhD program and later decide it’s not for you, you’ll have the option to gracefully bow out but still take a Masters degree with you. This will help take the edge off of any pain or bitterness you might feel about your “failed” PhD and you won’t have to awkwardly explain an unfinished PhD during job interviews (just pretend you were only going for a Masters degree all along!).
But hey, at least I can be really annoying and make people call me “Doctor” now. That’s worth it, right? Right?