Does doing a PhD have to be hellish?
May 12, 2016 7:33 AM   Subscribe

I recently accepted a paid position as a MS/PhD student (I collect the MS along the way to the PhD) at a well-ranked research institution in the US in engineering. Having read some of the threads here about people's PhD experiences, I can feel some inner panic growing! Maybe it's an impossible request since I know there's an enormous amount of luck involved, but I'd be grateful to hear about the other side - PhD students who tolerated or even enjoyed their experience.

(Panic-inducing threads included, but were not limited to, this, this, this, and this.)

I'm especially interested in hearing from those in a similar situation (engineering in the US), but would love to hear about other situations as well! What were your strategies and mindsets that helped you get through (parts of or most of) your PhD relatively pain-free or even enjoyably? What factors helped you do that?

A few more details that might be relevant:
- I'm most interested in eventually working in industrial R&D. The world of academia doesn't really appeal (I was never very interested and reading Clairebear's post convinces me even more!)
- I'm a more "mature" married student on my second career path, having worked as a professional for a good chunk of my 20s. I'd like to finish relatively quickly (inasmuch as that is possible).

Thanks for reading.
posted by Pieprz to Education (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hi. I'm one of those people that flamed out of the Ph.D, but still went to work in industrial R&D (biotech) at a slightly lower level with my masters. I know a lot of people who completed successful Ph.Ds and work in industrial R&D.

The absolute most important thing is the professor you work for. If you have a good, funded professor (Primary investigator - PI) that you can get along with, you will almost certainly be fine.

For potential PIs at your school, look at their lab webpages, their research, whether or not they publish in good journals. Try to find out if they are good at getting funding and if they have current funding, hopefully with multiple overlapping grants. Check out the lab's alumni. Are there any alumni? Recent alumni? Where do they go after graduating? Check out the alumni's LinkedIn profiles. Do they work at good companies or are they floundering? Maybe try to connect with / talk to lab alumni on LinkedIn if you can. Starting in a new lab that doesn't have graduated students can be a high-risk, high reward thing. You will get a lot of attention, but sometimes new professors don't know what the hell they are doing, and you might get a bad one.

Sometimes there is a direct pipeline from certain labs into certain positions in industry, this was certainly the case in my industry. For the types of industrial R&D positions you might want to end up with, find those people on LinkedIn and see what labs (and what types of research) they came from, and gravitate towards similar things.

If you end up with a bad PI, you can still graduate. Many people do, and still go on to have successful careers. But it is so, so, so much easier if you dodge that bullet when you arrive and find a good PI.

Being older is good. I wish I had waited to do a Ph.D because I think it would have been very different. Good luck!
posted by permiechickie at 7:46 AM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I had a good PhD experience. Mine was in the humanities in Australia, a 3.5 year research-only programme. Being a doc student is very stressful, very high pressure, so emotions tend to be heightened. Things that helped me were having a good working relationship with my supervisors (mostly by luck, I didn't know them before I started) and having a life outside of the programme. Like you I was already married when I started and I notice that the single students seem to be more likely to fall into a trap of having the PhD become the focal point of their lives.

Although it was overall a good experience, my final few months before submission were hellish (mostly due to my inability to work with deadlines). It is a high stakes undertaking, and in a way is like an institutionalised "hazing" process - a person who's completed a PhD is a fully fledged academic, so there's good reason to maintain a high bar to completion. But recognising that and working appropriately, and maintaining a life outside of school, you'll be fine.
posted by nomis at 7:53 AM on May 12, 2016

This may be different in engineering (I'm in social sciences) but....

1) You're going to have to deal with the "world of academia" for awhile - even if your career plans are industrial R&D. The sooner you can sort of view academia as an interesting and quirky land you are visiting for awhile and not get too stressed by its vagaries, the better off you'll be.

2) Pick your dissertation adviser/chair very wisely. Look up their former students. Did they finish quickly? Did they finish at all? Are they doing cool work? Many faculty talk a good game, but the proof is in their students' outcomes.

(I'm a forty-something who is finishing up diss revisions this semester - it took twice as long as it should have and I spend a decent part of my days super angry at this program but am STILL glad I did it. Go figure.... ;) )
posted by pantarei70 at 7:53 AM on May 12, 2016

I'll echo the above. Academia is its own little land filled with odd and sometimes downright obtuse customs. Students who choose to pursue a Ph.D. are probably more neurotic than the average bear, it's what moves you along in school in your younger years, but it can lead to feeling like an impostor or like you're not good enough when suddenly everyone in the room with you is incredibly smart but also is incredibly anxious about their performance. It can lead to everyone putting way more pressure on themselves to succeed, setting off a circuit of everyone else feeling like they're not measuring up, etc. The key for people in my program was to treat school like a job. You work set hours and you are productive and meeting deadlines in those hours. When those hours are up, go home and focus on your responsibilities and your pleasures there. Find a mentor who cares about you and who has a track record of students finding success during school and beyond. Keep in contact with people outside of your program. Having the reality check from time to time that something is kind of silly or unreasonable helps to keep perspective that some things are just little hoops to get through and say nothing about your character or worth as a human being. Also, make friends or at least a positive working relationship with your cohort. Dividing reading, holding study groups and having happy hours or coffee together helped us all get through. It is absolutely doable. It's worth it.
posted by goggie at 8:11 AM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

You're gonna be fine. You have a spouse for emotional support. You're a woman? If so, be sure to join the Society of Women Engineers if you haven't already.

Don't rule out an academic career, you might enjoy working with students. Accept opportunities to TA undergrad classes if they're available.

I got my PhD in another field at a similar university when I was in my mid-forties. Some of the things that helped me maintain my sanity were daily rigorous exercise, friendships with university people outside the department and also with non-uni local peeps. And a good sense of humor.
posted by mareli at 8:14 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Even though others have said this, I want to emphasize that the absolutely most important thing is your advisor. For every person with a PhD I know, this was critical. It will be lots of work, no matter what (as Tom Hanks said, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it"), but a good advisor can help you on your way, and often help you see that there is a way, while a bad advisor can make life hell.
posted by ubiquity at 8:50 AM on May 12, 2016

Seconding treating it as a job. Most students end up super stressed because they get way too invested in playing the academic game, and skipping that helps a lot. Also keep in mind that, like a job... you can quit! Don't worry about sunken costs if you end up not liking it; just get out and find a different, better job.
posted by metasarah at 8:52 AM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've been in academia since I finished an engineering undergrad. Almost done with my engineering MS. I have had no interest in doing a PhD until I met the PI that I'll be doing my MS thesis with, and I've known a lot of PIs.

So don't panic, and don't be in a hurry to "settle" for a PI. That's what makes those programs miserable. Especially in engineering, where personalities can be... quirky.

And don't even begin to feel like a failure if you can't make it work with any PIs, or with the PhD program culture, and finish with your MS. That's a really good worst-case scenario, and will vault your career forward on its own.
posted by supercres at 8:56 AM on May 12, 2016

I had a very positive graduate school experience in the physical sciences. I had several friends in mechanical and biomedical engineering who also had very similar experiences (from what I could tell) to mine. I've supervised a number of students myself now (and have two currently). I, however, am not a university academic.

Your advisor is critical. As other's have said, you want to look for an advisor that's well regarded and well-connected to the field you have an interest in being part of. Do they co-author a lot? With whom? Do they go to conferences?

Group size and dynamics can be important too. You want an advisor who has a group that's small enough to get personal attention, while at the same time big enough to have exciting interactions with. You do not want to be handed off to a post-doc, only to see your advisor a few times a term. Does the group allow students to be first authors, or is it always the same bunch of author names? Ask your prospective advisors if they have opportunities for you to go to meetings yourself---that's where the jobs after the degree are found.

The research group (and department) can also play a big part in this too. Your labmates and co-students can be friends and colleagues for the rest of your life. I still keep up with a number quite a few years on. Once you know which group you'd like to work for, as a bunch of them out for coffee or whatnot and see what they're like as a group. Making friends with students, post-docs and other profs isn't just socially rewarding, it's important networking too. I'm working with the old advisor of a friend of mine now, as our interests overlap. It was a bit of a coincidence, but is turning out to be incredibly useful. You never know.

I'd like to finish relatively quickly (inasmuch as that is possible).

This bit is largely about you, and your self-discipline. External factors and advisor interactions can throw spanners in the works, but in most cases, how quickly you get through the system is in your control.
posted by bonehead at 8:57 AM on May 12, 2016

I finished my PhD in Science in Europe about four months ago. Mine was reasonably hellish, although I am very thankful that I stayed and finished. It took a year longer than I was supposed too, and I did have a really miserable time in the third year of my PhD. I burned myself out and it took a long time to recover and get back to my normal happy self. One of the things that I am most proud of is that I managed to re motivate myself, get back in and finish.

The biggest factor that made my PhD hard was my supervisor. He is a nice man, and personally we had a good relationship. Professionally, he was just not able to give the support a PhD needs. I couldn't change this. The second biggest factor that made my PhD hard was me. In hindsight I could have prevented my burnout, finished six months sooner and had a happier time doing so. But you don't know what you don't know.

My first problem was completely mine - confidence. I felt very lucky to have gotten my PhD position, and assumed everyone around me knew more than me, and I didn't belong there. This is imposter syndrome, and it held me back. With a more confident attitude, I would have asked more questions, been easier on myself when I didn't know things and crucially recognized that you can never please everyone - in fact in academia, you can rarely please anyone.

The second problem was getting feedback from my supervisor. My papers would lie on his desk for months, and when I got them back he hadn't actually read them, just made a few cursory notes. The way I found around this was to build a really good network and basically outsource my supervisors role. I made links with other universities and other researchers, asked them to give me feedback, and added them as co-authors to my papers. This is what saved my PhD, and - most likely - my sanity when it came to writing up.

The third thing - I did not know when to take a break. It's a common attitude in academia that it's normal - even expected - to sacrifice your free time, your social life and hell even your health for your PhD. I worked weekends in the lab, stayed late, and felt an enormous amount of pressure all the time to be doing more. But it's important to understand that the pressure came from me. In the end I took a month off, and it was the best thing I could have done.

Lastly - I wish I had started writing earlier, and worried less about quality, and more about getting words down. It takes a while for your writing to get up to the standard for a PhD (for me it took a year of rewriting the same paper) so the earlier you start learning how to write, the quicker you will get to a good standard.

Was it worth it? I perhaps wouldn't choose it again if I knew what I know now - but it was totally worth it for everything I have learned (mostly about myself)!
posted by Nilehorse at 9:01 AM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

At its worst, my PhD in the sciences in the US (at a smaller university though) was never hellish. The advisor is critical. Good communication between the two of you is a must. I actually switched advisors halfway through to a better fit, which is how I could graduate in a reasonable amount of time.

This might sound like a strange suggestion, but make sure you schedule time for some other pursuit. I volunteered to stay connected to the outside world, and to help me remember there are other more important things than academia. Meditation might help too.
posted by umwhat at 9:08 AM on May 12, 2016

My husband enjoyed his hard science PhD. His advisor was great and after year two he was funded through outside fellowships which made him feel like he was in a bit more control of his fate. He wanted to get an MA in an unrelated field (with a "since I'm in grad school anyway I may as well pick up a few more degrees" mindset, I guess) and the independent funding made that more of a "Hey, I'm planning to do this, any objections?" conversation with his advisor since she wasn't paying him.

I think for him the key was that his sense of self-worth really wasn't tied up in his academic future. He entered grad school with the mindset that not becoming a career academic was not a failure; honestly, I think his main objectives in grad school were as follows:
- Get a degree from someplace more prestigious than big state school we attended for undergrad
- Do not pay for that degree
- Be allowed to put "Dr." in front of name
- Travel to interesting places
- Maybe learn something useful?

He achieved all these objectives and is not an academic now. A lot of his cohort spent a bunch of time doing postdocs but at this point only one of them is teaching at a college with any kind of secure employment (another is a visiting professor and a third is at a national lab; all the rest are in industry). I think a lot of them feel a bit more disappointed about their career paths because they really, really wanted to be professors. And those same people had a harder time in grad school because any bump in the road they hit, they were freaking out about whether this was going to kill their chances to become academics, and they were freaking out about this being the first time they had ever failed at anything.

I think if you enter with the mindset that you want to go to industry and your entire identity isn't tied up in the idea of yourself as an academic success, grad school will be a lot easier on you. You're seeing it as a means to an end, not the culmination of an odyssey of the mind that began with the first time you solved 1+1 in kindergarten.
posted by town of cats at 9:33 AM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Observing an acquaintance in a top school in a STEM field and it does not seem bad at all, I'm sure there is hard work but he seems to have time for activities and does not seem particularly stressed. So possible.
posted by sammyo at 9:36 AM on May 12, 2016

Oh my god I love my PhD program! I'm in my fourth year and will probably do one extra year, but it's so exciting and fun!

That said, just get a therapist early on. It's just a fundamentally isolating endeavor and you need someone to talk to, you just do. Don't fall into the head-down nose-to-the-grindstone trap, either -- get involved in your graduate student association and do extra-curriculars.

You're going to love it! Congratulations!
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:43 AM on May 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hi! Similar situation in working in industry for 5 years and then PhD in engineering. I had a great time in comparison to working. The first year is especially fun, since you're experiments aren't typically expected to work.

Two things make a hug difference in your enjoyment level. Your adviser and your interest in your project. I love my project and after five fun filled years still want to work on it. Try to do something you are super into.

My adviser is amazing. Although, he's super hands off. He wanted me to make some data in project area. I got to pick the type of project and analytical tools from those around and affordable. He wanted to see some data in year two. This really helped me stay excited about my project. He is also a HUGE believer in work life balance and encouraged me to play outdoors and spend time with my child.

Huge caveat. I am not at a top ten university. Work life balance is harder for everyone to achieve there and I purposefully avoided that. I did however love this job. BEST JOB IN THE WORLD. Too bad it pays poorly and is limited to five years.
posted by Kalmya at 10:51 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing choice of advisor as a key, but I think that life experience post-Baccalaureate is big plus. What you really don't want is to take the guy no one else wants, or who is new to being an advisor, or who is only looking for someone to do the grunt work on his own research, or is otherwise unsatisfactory. The years of experience should make you better prepared to judge and better able to stand up for yourself. [This comment is based on my son's experience with an advisor who was not much help.]
posted by SemiSalt at 11:38 AM on May 12, 2016

Advisor is key.

I didn't finish, largely due to my advisor, and there was a lot of suffering there at the end, but...if you love your subject, there is magic in being able to devote yourself to it, in being surrounded by people who care about it just as much as you do. I'm in a demanding profession now, but I don't know if I'll again ever be in a room with as many purely brilliant people as I was at departmental meetings. People who warn about job prospects, about the years of deprivation, about the possibility of things going horribly wrong are not mistaken, and indeed they need to be heard more. But there is an ideal there, if you can get to it.
posted by praemunire at 12:20 PM on May 12, 2016

I had a generally positive Ph.D. experience. My advisor was supportive of my specific career goals (in grad school, these were a position at a small liberal-arts college), which made a big difference. In your case, you should try to work with someone who has connections to industry and won't object if you take internships along the way.

Any Ph.D. entails a huge project of a sort you've never done before, so some existential angst is nearly unavoidable, but interpersonal mess is not inevitable.
posted by yarntheory at 3:18 PM on May 12, 2016

You don't need a PhD.
It won't help you get a job.
It won't help you get paid more.
It'll be a lot of hard work, and you won't know what you're doing for a long time, and it will feel like it never ends, and you'll spend a year wondering what the hell you were thinking.

And at the end you will have a piece of paper that said you once studied something.

Got all that? Good. Now go at it. You'll do fine.
posted by doomsey at 6:26 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

It doesn't have to be hellish! It's been rough, at times, but it helps me to remember that this is my life, right now. I'm not enduring some awful period of my life in order to get somewhere else. This is it--this is what I want to be doing. So I should enjoy this period of my life (being paid to do research) as much as I believe that I would enjoy what comes next (being paid to do research). This is the end game.
posted by MrBobinski at 6:37 PM on May 12, 2016

Yet another vote for your advisor being key.

I started an engineering PhD at a well-ranked research institution in the US and ended up withdrawing after a year. A few thought on what I'd do differently five years later (I consider going back in the not too distant future).

- Spend more time researching my advisor. I didn't really have an opportunity or try hard enough to get to know him and that was a problem. He hadn't graduated any students in several years and while I was there his lab imploded and nearly all (six, if I recall) of his PhD students left without their degrees (a couple after 6+ years) and I did as well. I was accepted into a couple other programs where I wouldn't have been forced to pick an advisor from the outset and would have had a year or two to build some relationships with a few professors and find a lab to work in. This might have been a better choice for me. The potential downside is of course not finding home at all.

- I think the few years I've had in industry have help me mature and would have been useful the first time around.

- As far as I can tell my withdrawl from my PhD hasn't hurt me. People have seemed generally understanding of my story. I had a Master's degree already so I didn't stick around the extra time to get another. I managed to get some good experience out of it which helped me land a job. I still think leaving was the right choice, and it is always an option.
posted by Medw at 7:42 PM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Be competitive with yourself, i.e. do the best you can manage without driving yourself nuts so that you're proud of your work, but don't be competitive with other students. Form a study group, admit when things are hard. Collaborate! Discuss! Assist and be assisted with problem sets and exam studying! Go to BBQs and parties with your department yearmates, or host them yourself, because you may not have time to make other friends (unless you have a specific hobby with its own community).

Consider living more cheaply than you think you have to, and consider having a side gig (tutoring, dog walking, etc) because life has no respect for your educational mission and will continue to throw crap at you (parking tickets, friends' weddings, unexpected bills, long delay in getting departmental reimbursal when you go to a conference, etc) and an extra $100/month goes a long way toward not panicking about minor stuff, and if you're freaked out about being broke all the time you tend to resent working 60 hour weeks even more (where "work" = studying, lab work, project work, etc)

That said, I liked grad school just fine. In fact I was in no huge rush to leave, it took me about 7.5 years. And I agree, get a therapist as soon as you think you may want one.
posted by aimedwander at 8:18 PM on May 12, 2016

Oh man, that's so reassuring! Thank you all for such great responses!
I'm going to print this whole thing out and tack it to my wall.
posted by Pieprz at 11:51 PM on May 12, 2016

I loved grad school. It was an amazing time during which I flourished. The actual education in terms of classes was shitty. But I learned a ton overall. If I won the lottery I'd go back and do another PhD, I think. I was super driven and totally in love with my field, and I had some brilliant friends in the program to learn with.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:06 AM on May 13, 2016

I just defended my dissertation last week, so you may call me dr. thingy! I have left academia proper, so I mostly finished just to finish, but I'm very glad I did (my dissertation was already in revisions when I left, so not finishing would have been a waste of a LOT of effort).

I think it is worth remembering that a lot of the pushback people give here (myself included) to people who are asking about grad school is both experience-based and context-specific. The advice is rarely "don't go to graduate school". The advice is usually "don't go to grad school for the wrong reasons."

A PhD is a GREAT idea for some people, such as:

-people who are getting full funding and will be able to live on that funding without taking out loans
-people who already know that getting a PhD no longer means becoming an absent minded professor who teaches one class a year and writes the occasional obscure monograph
-people who have clear career goals in mind, and knows what those goals require
-people who have their mental health well in hand
-people who are going to be able to handle possibly never living near their extended families again
-people whose employers will be paying for the degree, so that they can eventually be promoted

A lot of the people who want to go to grad school, however, are people who

-are afraid of leaving academia after undergrad
-see list above, re: absent minded professor career path
-think teaching is all Dead Poets Society
-still believe that intelligence+effort=success (it really, really doesn’t)
-think the degree, in and of itself, will make them into viable job candidates in any field (it won’t)
-think academia is a haven away from society's ills (it isn't)
-don't know what else to do

You sound like a fantastic candidate. Congratulations!
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:37 AM on May 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

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