A letter to a prospective grad student

Preface: I wrote this to a friend asking me for advice about whether to embark on a science PhD. At the time of writing I still had more than a year to go – so I could see the summit in the distance, but I was feeling grim about the steep icewall I had to climb to get there.

In retrospect, I think a lot about Jeff Bezos’ advice: don’t be proud of your talents – be proud of the things you really worked hard to achieve. For this reason, I’m more proud of (and glad about) my PhD than anything else I’ve yet done.


It’s hard for me to summarize my thoughts on grad school, perhaps because it varied so much in so many ways. Grad school was wonderful when I was excited about it – for the first few years, there was literally nothing I wanted to do more than talk and think and write and program lab stuff. Every week was filled with new ideas, a sense of progress and discovery, and I bounded into the lab every morning.

I don’t know what changed exactly, but at some point, I started to really lose enthusiasm. I’m perenially stymied by an inability to understand the source of my own motivations, and to make sense of my own emotions. So I don’t really feel like I understand why the joy started to fade. Perhaps because I worked for years on ambitious experiments that didn’t work out. Because I’d been in one place for years. Because I’m a little flighty. Because I thrive in a more competitive or fast-moving jobs. Because really I love AI and computers a little more than brains. Because I wanted to be my own boss. Because I lost confidence. Because I need to feel part of a team working towards a common goal. Because I needed more inter-personal contact with a range of different people. Because I’m not temperamentally suited to be a scientist. Because I need to be in a city. Because I felt obliged to finish it, after investing so much into it, long after I would have left a normal job. Because the specialization necessary can come to seem like a straitjacket. Because I got obsessed with new ideas. I don’t know.

It seems to me that a PhD is the right move if one loves what one’s doing, and one wants to be an academic. Of course, you can’t know for sure in advance that both of those are true. But if you think they might be, then go for it! While I think we have some things in common, I don’t expect the idiosyncracies of my experiences to apply closely to anyone else, so don’t look too closely for parallels to yourself in my issues above.

Right now, starting a company feels like the job I’ve been looking for my whole life, but I wouldn’t have the wherewithal to do it unless I’d been through the last few years.

I don’t know where your path will lead. Like me, I think you get excited about a lot of things, and could happily set off in many different directions, including becoming a great and happy scientist.

This email doesn’t really answer any of your questions. I’m sorry about that – I just don’t want to give advice one way or the other, because I think you’ll make the right choices without my advice, and because you’ll make whatever choices you make into the right ones. You are a lucky guy, in this (technical) sense – http://gregdetre.blogspot.com/2009/10/i-dont-believe-in-luck.html


Keep me posted.

One thought on “A letter to a prospective grad student

  1. Greg i’ve just finished my PhD in psycholinguistics and now I’m on a postdoc at York Uni. I’m going to pass this onto a friend of mine who recently asked for my advice about doing a PhD. I feel quite like you about it except that where most of my peers lost their enthusiasm somewhere along the way I didn’t and I think that this is because I did lots of ‘side’ jobs whilst doing it. I used to be a TV editor/director/unit manager so I did a bit of editing, making educational videos in the style of a ‘youth’ programme rather than an OU special! This fulfilled my need to be creative in a visual way and work with people. I also collaborated with peers and the BPS on issues of ethics in research and practicing psychology and I taught undergraduates statistics, which always made me smile (because I failed maths at secondary school!), but also made me feel like I could make a difference to someone’s life in the short term. This course of action might not be advised as you are meant to be specialising in one area but like you I felt constrained by that requirement and needed to branch out!

    Now I’ve reached this position the only problem is that I’m not sure I like academics …. šŸ˜‰

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