5 Great Reads On Academia and the Pursuit of Your Ph.D.
This is the fourth and final installment of my public facing Ph.D. starter package. In the previous three posts, I tried my best to distill my personal experiences and conversations with friends and mentors into insights that I hope will help you navigate your Ph.D. or, at the very least, know what to expect.
At this point, however, you’ve heard enough from me. When I was getting my Ph.D., I relied on the writings of those who came before me. I continue to do so as I have moved on to my faculty position. This post is a collection of a few of the writings I’ve come across on the academic blogosphere that have resonated with me. I hope you will find them as helpful as I did.
The Ph.D. grind came out at the beginning of my second year in graduate school. At the time, I was well on my way into the trough of disillusionment and was seriously starting to question my ability to be a successful academic. Every first-author paper I had submitted up to that point had been rejected, multiple times. Reading Philip’s accounting of the process, and the difficulties he faced, really resonated with me. It was one of the first times I encountered the idea that getting a Ph.D. is about persistence, grit and the ability to productively handle criticism and rejection. It is one of the most honest and detailed first-hand accountings of the Ph.D. process that I have read. It is also entertaining! I recommend the whole book, but the tl;dr is an excellent summary.
Philip is also one of the most prolific academic bloggers out there — he has plenty of other posts you might find interesting.
Jean Yang’s “What My PhD Was Like” is also a good read in this general genre.
When I graduated, I thought about writing one of my own. I decided against it, because I wouldn’t produce anything nearly as good. But, I did write something of an origin story when I announced that I had taken up a position as an Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech.
Jean Yang, another one of the OG grad-student bloggers I started following once I started seriously considering getting my Ph.D., wrote this great post about the myth of the “instagenius” academic. Jean writes about how the important part of being a good academic is not raw brainpower, but being a good finisher and sticking it out through the tough parts. Plenty of people with raw brainpower never make it through the Ph.D. process, because raw brainpower is not the most important attribute of being a good scientist.
This wasn’t a post I read while in graduate school, but I think it is important for graduate students to read.
Amy Ko was somewhat of a mythical figure at CMU HCII, where I got my Ph.D. When I joined, she was a few years out — just enough time for her legend to build up, while still being fresh in the memories of senior Ph.D. students. We heard all sorts of crazy stories about her, like how she never got a paper rejected as a Ph.D. student, despite submitting something like 17, and did so all while being a parent to a young child. What a legend!
Here is this legend, discussing how she, too, has had to deal with her own feelings of insecurity in academia. It happens to everyone. And we can, and should, do better as a community to make sure we do what we can to avoid making the problem worse.
Another great post along this general vein is Casey Fiesler’s “Tenured Professor Rogers Talks About: Imposter Syndrome.” Casey, who was my TA at Georgia Tech back when I was an undergraduate, and is now a professor at CU Boulder, writes this entertaining script about Mister Rogers coaching a grad student through their impostor syndrome.
A classic post from the academic blogosphere that I read during my Ph.D. Matt Might, a legendary figure himself who went from Computer Science professor to Director of a Medical Institute to focus his efforts on research that might help his son, wrote a post about three qualities he sees in successful Ph.D. students: perseverance, tenacity and cogency. Note, again, that raw brainpower is not one of them. Some of these ideas are reflected in my previous post.
There’s a wide range of career paths that might await you on the other side of your Ph.D., and all of them are valid and important. But, while you’re in the hallowed halls of academe, you are likely to sense like there is one “best” outcome — that you get a tenure-track position at an R1 university. You probably won’t hear it directly, but you’ll impute it from subtle cues: e.g., how people talk about alum who went on to find great faculty positions versus alum who didn’t. I think it’s important to recognize, though, that while a tenure-track faculty position at an R1 university is a really great outcome, it’s not the only really great outcome. There’s a range of other options, and none of them are inherently better.
Early in my Ph.D., I came across Matt Welsh’s blog post on why he was leaving his tenured position at Harvard to work at Google full time. This post opened my eyes to other possibilities. It relieved some of the nagging pressure I felt. Ironically, because of this relief, I was able to double down on what I cared about and ended up realizing that a tenure-track position is exactly what I wanted.
Matt Welsh, this year, wrote about he’s now leaving Google for a start-up by the way.
Evan Peck, professor at Bucknell University, also wrote a wonderful post about the wide range of possible academic jobs you might take on after you graduate.
There are many other great blog posts in the academic blogosphere — these are just a few really good ones that I think should benefit an early stage Ph.D. student. I’d love to hear about some of your favorites, as well.
This post is the fourth and final installment of my public facing Ph.D. starter package. If you’d like to read the previous three posts, you can find them here:
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