The Shape of Your Ph.D.

You’ve probably seen this graph. This is a popular graph known as the Gartner Hype Cycle: it is a graphical representation of the lifecycle of new technical innovations as they gets introduced into society.

It’s a simple concept: new technologies, when first introduced, typically get a lot of visibility as people envision the exciting futures these new innovations entail.

As expectations rise and people start exploring how to use this new technology, however, people get disillusioned — the tech is new, unstable, and we probably haven’t developed enough collective expertise to fully unlock its potential. So, expectations nosedive. Skeptics call it a sham, snake oil, a “winter”. These dissenting opinions start taking over — subtly, at first, then more vocally. At this point you’ll probably hear people making jokes about the innovations whenever they come up: “Gotta get some blockchain in there to really hit all the buzzwords.” This is the trough of disillusionment, where the once promising new technology fades into obscurity in disgrace. For most.

Not for all, though. As the new tech recedes into the background, a few people maintain their belief. They get to work, chipping away at the kinks. And, slowly but steadily, the tech gets better. It starts to realize some of its potential. It’s still raw. But the potential is there. You can almost touch it. This is the slope of enlightenment.

Then, one day, the right people knock heads and come up with a killer application that actually works. The tech is stable now, it’s good, it can help with real problems. People can use it. It never quite elicits the same level of enthusiasm and intrigue in society as it originally generated, but it’s useful and ubiquitous. This is the plateau of productivity. This is where this once-new tech starts to make material change in the lives and livelihoods of people.

There are a number of relevant case studies: blockchain, AI, virtual reality. I won’t get into specific cases here.

I only bring it up now because this is also the shape of your Ph.D. Look at the modified version of the Gartner hype cycle below. This time, think of the thing traversing through time as being you, the graduate student.

Graduate students often start out with an intense excitement about the work they hope to do in pursuit of their Ph.D. After all, grad students are a self-selecting bunch: they go through 16+ years of schooling and decide, at the end of it, “hey, what’s 5–7 more?” They almost have to be excited about the field that they’re entering. This is probably your first year.

There are exceptions of course, but that ruins my narrative so I’m going to ignore them.

The thing is: good science is hard, even if you’re brilliant. The enthusiasm you have in your first year will, inevitably, wane. You’ll start realizing that many of the ideas that you’re most excited about will either be: (i) done already; (ii) not really Research; or, (iii) impossible to do given the current state of our knowledge and tools. You will start experiencing some rejections — paper rejections, fellowship rejections. And, even when you start producing publishable work, it will probably take longer than you expect and the output will usually not look as good as you might have hoped. This is the trough of disillusionment. It could happen one semester in, or in your third year. Dread it. Run from it. The trough of disillusionment still arrives.

Why? Ira Glass, from This American Life, has a good observation about this:

In other words, our expectations of ourselves is mismatched with our actual skill when we are beginners. It’s not surprising. You can appreciate the finest food, the most beautiful music — but you wouldn’t be able to produce those things yourself without years of practice. Science is no different. And, if we’re really invested in our work, that gap can be unbearable. Hence, the trough of disillusionment.

But, just like the Gartner hype cycle, there is a next phase. This is where you, through force of will, embrace the uncertainty. You dig your heels in. You recede away into the background and you work. And you slog. And you start to get better. This, of course, is the slope of enlightenment. This is where you learn where you can plant your flag in the field of human knowledge. It may not be what you thought, or what you expected, but it’s there and it’s yours. Matt Might has a wonderful graphic illustrating this. I don’t have his permission, so I won’t share it here — but you should see it.

There is an alternative — you can decide it’s not for you, and that’s perfectly okay too. Academia is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. There are plenty of other career paths that are just as good.

But, if you do slog through this “messy middle”, you will find your way to the coveted “plateau of productivity.” Just like with the Gartner Hype Cycle, this is where people will start to notice who you are, what you’ve done. You’ll feel good about your work. I cannot guarantee anything more. I can tell you, however, that if I had to place a bet on who would finish their Ph.D. between someone of exceptional intelligence and average grit versus someone with average intelligence and exceptional grit, I would pick the person with exceptional grit every time. Here’s the rest of that Ira Glass quote:

And then? Maybe you get the job of your dreams and the cycle starts all over again!

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Assistant Professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech. Ph.D. from CMU HCII. HCI, Security, Data Science.