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First Day as a PhD Student at Stanford

September 26, 2016
TL;DR: I have worked in worked in eight different research groups across five universities since I started performing research my first semester of undergrad. As far as understanding what it means to be a grad student (specifically a PhD student) in the sciences, I am more informed than just about anyone my age. I have seen both the good and the bad parts (especially the bad parts) of academia first hand; and in my opinion, anybody that is not absolutely sure they want a PhD (or has a halfway decent alternative) that chooses to attend graduate school is almost certainly an idiot.

Six days ago I arrived in California after driving 30 hours and over 2000 miles from Minneapolis, Minnesota (my home town). I didn't waste any time either. It was three long days of driving sunrise to sunset; and I did it by myself. A bit of anxiety and nervousness always accompanies new experiences; but spending 30 hours in the car thinking about the next 5-6 year of constant grad student struggle amplified my concerns to fullblown terror by the time I arrived.

You see, I am well aware of the ways a PhD can end in disaster (or least be a net negative experience). While many of my fellow first year computer science PhD students opted to intern at Facebook, Google, or other tech companies during the summers of their undergrad, I embedded myself in academic research groups exclusively. I spent a summer at UC Berkeley doing large scale distributed systems research, another summer at Carnegie Mellon doing computer architecture, and another at Caltech doing computational physics (along with a slue of other research positions during the academic year). From these experiences I caught a glimpse of the negative side of academia; the side that is underplayed or left completely unmentioned by your professors, coworkers, or colleagues. I have had first hand experience with disfunctional research groups, egomaniac professors, high-stakes authorship disputes, and department politics. I have also met more than a few grad students who have had their happy personalities crushed out of them by mental illnesses they acquired during their PhD and many others whose career's have benefited little from their suffering.

These are not the things you hear when someone tells you about the joys of their graduate school years. And if you are not intentional about finding these things out on your own, it is unlikely you will hear the other side of the story which is frightening common. My general advice to people who are considering a PhD but are unsure (or already have a job or have enjoyed working in industry during an internship) is to STAY AWAY! More specifically, the only people I have met that I would encourage to consider joining a PhD program are already dead-set on doing a PhD; and I do not think this correlation is by chance.

For many PhD students, graduate school is a series of research set backs with a smattering verbal abuse from their peers/adviser and frequent self-doubt. It is no wonder why PhD students have significantly higher rates of depression, suicide, and divorce than even people living well below the poverty-line (at least in the United States) . There are very few people who can cope with these constant indignities and not be affected mentally. And it is exactly these kinds of people who go to graduate school, persevere until they succeed (often with little external support), and not only graduate unscathed, but also smarter and with better opportunities than when they entered their PhD program.

So despite experiencing many of the negative parts of academia myself and having full information of horrible ways a PhD can end, I have still chosen to attend graduate school. Surely I must be crazy? My reaction to this question is: "I know I have what it takes to persevere through the hard times of my PhD ahead because I have already perservered through much harder times." I hope to expand more on my life story and what exactly gives me the confidence to pursue a PhD in a future blog post, but until then I will leave you in suspense.

So with tempered excitment, I begin my journery toward a PhD today. And I hope that anyone adamant about pursuing a PhD will be emboldened by my experience.