I just finished my first few weeks at Google Inc. As quick as my actual transition from grad school to a corporate gig has been, the emotional rollercoaster has been ramping up for quite a while. And now that I have finally embraced the dark side, I am often asked – why? Why did I spent 6+ yrs doing an MS-PhD in Physics and then leave academia to work in an unrelated field as a Quantitative Analyst at Google? Some just ask why anyone would do a PhD at all?
Hmm… would I?
Would I choose to join my lab which (now I know) has to be punishingly cold and dark for the sake of state-of-the-art optics equipment? I used to think academia was a utopia, where brilliant people sit around together drinking coffee and solving equations on blackboards when they are not winning Nobel prizes. It is partly that, but it can also get very lonely when your funding is cut, or your experiments are not working or when everything works just not well enough. Now that I know that, would I still dare to choose that life? But most of all, would I still do a PhD, when I know that while all my friends are earning 5 times as much, I am spending 4+ years earning a degree that could actually decrease my value in the job market?
It is not an easy question to answer. Especially when it goes beyond hypotheticals and prospective students ask me if they should apply to grad school, it behooves me to be honest. So I decided to write down my thoughts, starting from why decided to do PhD in the first place to what I feel about that decision now.
School (Woe be upon thee)
Middle school, as far as I could tell, is where most students begin hating school. In the Indian school education, minutiae is often conflated with rigor, and the lack of choice with discipline. The ‘cool’ teachers would tell us then that high school would be better. That’s when we could choose our subjects. Some of us went ‘Yayy no more social studies!’, while others went ‘Yaay, no more science!’.
When we got to high school however, we were hit by more unnecessary discipline, painfully dull curricula and criminally hypocritical exams. And yet again, I had a ‘cool’ class teacher who told us every day to pay our dues and get into a top university, and that will be a magical land of sincere learning.
Thinking back I realize he never actually said that, but it is what I understood at the time. And so like most people, I worked hard to get into the best college I could.
Undergraduate (stars in their eyes)
I coasted through most of my undergrad as a mediocre student. Perhaps I should have studied more, learned more and fought harder for grades. One of the reasons I did not (besides the fact that I was surrounded by really smart people and grading was relative) was that I thought I had done it; I had made it to the promised land where grades did not matter.
And to be fair, some things were better. No unnecessary discipline and some professors really tried. Yet for some reason, it was not enough to make me commit.
In my final year however, I had to confront the reality. My four years at IITB were magical, but I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. It had, however, given me hope, that there could be better things out there.
So I applied to grad school, not even sitting in for campus placements.
Grad School (And the faithful shall be rewarded)
And grad school delivered. For 6 years, I was surrounded by brilliant people, who despite our disparate backgrounds, life experiences and present circumstances, somehow shared with me one uniting sentiment. They were here because not even 16 years of education was going to stop them from learning.
The attitude towards learning and discovery that some of my colleagues, friends and advisors had was nothing short of inspirational. They were here because they wanted to learn about everything ‘we’ know. Not how much you or I or the pope or the president knew, or how much you could fit in a sheet in a three hour slog, but what ‘we’ as a civilization, collectively through all the millennia of accrued knowledge, knew.
Of course not everyone thought this way, but enough did. There was plenty of bureaucracy, apathy and of course the pitiful salary, but these scarcely bothered me. It was relatively easy for me to lose myself in the joys of research, enough that for a while I really felt like I could be a graduate student for life.
But you can’t!
In the real world, graduate students have to, you know, graduate.
However the more I learnt about the academic life beyond grad school, the more I got disillusioned. Most professors spend all their time teaching, mentoring students and canvassing for their research, all the while navigating the bureaucracy of universities, journals and funding agencies. But that didn’t even sound half-bad against the 8-12 years between graduating with a PhD and becoming a tenured Professor.
The demands of publications, citations and funding dollars upon postdocs and untenured professors reminded me of the tangential success metrics of high school exams. But what infuses this nightmare with a Kafka-esque hilarity is that, unlike high school, academia success metrics are often at the mercy of social, political and scientific trends and vagaries.
I wrestled with my doubts and fears for over a year. Eventually, about 6 months ago, I decided I would not stay in academia.
I decided that the academic utopia I experienced was simply a sheltered atmosphere that could not last long. Realizing I would never be able to reconcile my unreasonable expectations with that reality, I decided to quit while I was ahead.
Was it all for naught?
I don’t think so.
Of course there are the tangible benefits. I have a shiny new degree, about 2-3 year worth of coursework in math, science and programming. I also have about 2-3 years worth of what can only be called work experience for lack of a better phrase. This work experience is different from industry I am sure, but different is not useless… I hope.
I personally do not believe switching from Physics PhD to Google is a loss. This is the first time after 10 years I am not surrounded by physics/physicists. It is a gamble; I also do not know how corporate life will suit me. So far, I am enjoying my work at Google. Of course I do not know enough about job markets to know whether my future prospects have broadened or narrowed, time will tell I suppose.
And then there is the intangible. For many years I have been chasing this ideal place of learning that I imagined as a boy reading books about science. I got a brief (=4years :P) glimpse into that ideal world. I believe that vision might just save me from the crushing cynicism that I often see around me about education or life in general.
While it is true that we must all grow up to accept the real world, I also believe that we must do more than accept, that we must seek to somehow make every day better than the day before. The optimism to work towards that abstract, Sisyphean goal is hard to find unless we have some direction, a glimpse into our notion of an ideal world.
Others might have their own unique experience; it might be the research team that wants to create the future, or the company that cares for its employees or the startup idea written on a paper napkin or just that parent/teacher/spouse/friend who showed you that our world is full of possibilities and wonder. For me it was grad school. And though they cannot last, I believe these brief glimpses are necessary to remind us what we are working towards, for without them our world is bleak indeed.
So should you do a PhD?
Go to the job fair at your college/university. If ‘student’ sounds better to you than any of the titles/positions at job fair in your college/university, you should think about graduate school.
If you spent your school/UG years being frustrated (or disinterested) with academics but ended up reading about those subjects from books outside the curriculum, you should consider graduate school.
In other words, if your goal with starting a PhD after UG is something like getting a good job, or winning the Nobel prize, or that your friends/classmates are doing it, you will probably not finish it nor benefit from it. I would advise not to plan your whole future before you start your PhD, and if you do, to be flexible. Research especially, and life in general, often does not go according to plan.
However if the PhD is your goal in itself because you either love the subject or love learning and being a student, then grad school is the place for you. Only then can you be happy with your doctorate, regardless of whether you stay in academia or not.
Ultimately, these reasons are not enough. 3-5 years is a big commitment and must be made with extreme prejudice. As with everything else, only you can make the completely informed decision.
All I can say is that if 6 years ago I knew everything I know now, and had to choose… I would definitely still choose to do a PhD.
PS : This post is simply my opinion based on my subjective experience. Most of these experiences depend not only on factors such as university and field of study but also on who you have around as parents, friends, advisor or significant other, all of which I think I was quite lucky with.