11 September 2012

How to Grad School: Wanting It

As I recently finished a PhD, I figured I'd start a little series about graduate school. I thought about doing this before, but then I figured I hold off until I know I can do and finish graduate school before I try telling other people how to do graduate school. I guess now that I have graduated, I can safely assume that I can write this series.

I guess the first thing is to actually want a PhD. Not everyone can finish it. I have read somewhere that the attrition rate is actually at 50%: this means that half of the people who start graduate school end up not finishing it. And anecdotally, that is true. Half of my friends who I first met were PhD students in the same program as I was ended up quitting the program.

So what does it mean to want it? Well, it pertains to a very specific type of want. Something that can at times, be actually characterized as masochism. If you're in a PhD program because you decided to apply to graduate school immediately after graduating from undergrad since you have nothing better to do, then that's not wanting it. If you're in a PhD program because you were curious what it would be like to live in a foreign country and is using graduate school as an excuse to be a foreign student elsewhere, then that's not wanting it. Believe me, I have personally known individuals with these reasons, and sure enough, they left the program afterwards.

I've told other people that in order to succeed in graduate school, one must have a big ego. Yeah, I do admit, I have one. The thing is, graduate school is not for everyone. This is an environment where people have big ideas, and there are other people out there to trash and destroy these ideas. Unless one has a big ego, one probably cannot handle the cut-throat environment of graduate school.

So yes, graduate school is not a walk in the park. There were times when I thought I myself cannot handle it, due to discouragement, frustration, and such. But hey, the pay-off still was worth it. I've had to work long hours at times, sometimes even during the weekends, sometimes running statistical analyses on Sundays, preparing lab meetings and such, answering tough questions from my adviser and committee members, and yet, at the end of the day, I think I still am glad that I did it. It was fun, from the nerdy point of view, but yeah.

So yes, the first step to succeeding in graduate school is wanting it. If one has other motives than that, then chances are one won't succeed and drop out instead.

(Shapes, from my Museum of Modern Art Series)


  1. I love studying and I loved being a student. Honestly, without bragging, I learn easily and always had good grades.

    Yet I understood I wasn't meant for research or a Phd. It takes a special mindset I just don't have!

    1. Zhu,

      It sure does. Most people don't realize that. They just sign up, and sometimes it's for the wrong reasons.

  2. You really have to be have a passion but I hadn't thought about the ego part, that's interesting. I would have loved to do a PhD but once you've tasted the joys of a job and stable income, it's really frustrating to go back to being a student. My 3 years of MBA was a challenge enough; I don't want to repeat it.
    Good series btw, how many posts have you written so far? Maybe I can suggest more topics about graduate lifestyle that intrigue me.

    1. Priyank,

      I agree about the money part. It is true that once you upgrade from a hamburger to a fillet mignon, sometimes you don't want to come back.

      Regarding the series, I haven't planned this thoroughly, I am just going along. If you have topics you want me to address, feel free to let me know, and I'll see what I can do!