I wrote a partially tongue-in-cheek post a few years ago about what I termed “PhD depression.”  In the time that it has been up, it has somehow managed to crawl up the google rankings to sit #1 for searches on “phd depression.”  A funny thing started to happen: depressed PhD students from around the world (who had presumably stumbled onto the post after googling “phd depression”) began posting comments.  Sometimes, the comments were words and ideas that echoed my own; other times, students posted their own depressing experiences.  I think though, that many students simply posted that they were glad to see someone else was going through what they’d been going through themselves… somehow, the awareness that “they weren’t the only ones” made everyone feel a lot better.

In the few years since I wrote that post, I have had even more experiences as a grad student (and a PhD student).  I have seen many smart people whom I respect leave the program, and I have also seen many smart people whom I respect complete their programs.  Even though each person’s particular experience is unique to their particular circumstance, what draws us all together is that we are going through a PhD, and I think there are some unversalities to that.  I have discovered that the PhD is not the institutionalized “degree” that I’d imagined it to be at the outset.  Instead, it’s a very personal /process/ – one that comes with a lot of soul searching, reflection, and self-discovery.  Ultimately, doing and finishing a PhD is a decision one makes, and completing a PhD is more a reflection of conviction rather than intelligence.

Interesting Thoughts

“You don’t give up, you just kind of give in.” – PhD candidate near completion

“The PhD process is the exact opposite of the therapeutic process.  In the therapeutic process, you set up an environment of non-judgementalism, and allow for self-discovery through dialogue.  In a PhD, you are thrust into an environment with existing ways of scholarship and thinking, and your work is immediately (and often harshly) critiqued against existing work.” – Counseling psychologist

Core Competencies of a PhD Student

I have come to think that successful PhD students have several core competencies.  It is possible, I think, to complete a PhD without being “excellent” in each of these things, though I suspect that it is a might bit harder.  The reality is that people are often lacking in these areas when they come into a PhD, and so a big part of the PhD is like remedial work where you “bump up” one of the core competencies.  That said, I think many of the “star” students are essentially those that came in with all of these, and were probably a bit more creative than the rest of us.

Communication: Do you bore them with your elevator speech?

Ultimately, you have to be able to organize your ideas and be able to succinctly, concisely, and effectively communicate the myriad of ideas floating around your head.  If you are unable to communicate, whether it be spoken or written, then you are at a severe disadvantage, because knowledge and ideas are not useful if they locked in your head, or difficult for people to gain access to them.  A particularly successful HCI professor actually prides himself on actually making communication ability one of his primary recruitment filters.

Ability to Focus: Can you zen out?

The PhD process is a funny one where they ask you to essentially focus on a single idea, or a single set of ideas for a very, very long time.  This is difficult, because the mind wanders and becomes bored of the idea long before the usual 3-6 year term is up.  In the long-term, this means that you need to be able to focus on “the prize” so to speak, without becoming distracted by other opportunities that may arise (in the tech industry, many such opportunities arise).  In the short term, one also needs to be able to focus: it’s generally hard to come up with something new since it is much easier to just remember or come up with something someone else has already said. 

Confidence & Conviction: Are you willing to speak your mind?  How stubborn are you?

During the PhD process, a student will face many obstacles: both in terms of the ideas and work s/he is trying to produce.  The reality is that the work that one is attempting to complete is novel, and often there is harsh judgement being placed on it.  At any given point during the PhD process, there are far more reasons to stop what one is doing than to continue.  One’s conviction to continue along the existing path is related to one’s self-confidence, and so your self-confidence has a big role in determining how quickly you finish.

Curiosity and Humility: Do you know what you don’t know?

I don’t know if this is a core competency, but to me, the best researchers seem to be the ones that are always asking questions: not questions to the speaker, necessarily, but questions of the world, of the knowledge out there, of themselves.  Essentially, these researchers are those that know they don’t know everything – and also know what they don’t know.  If you think you know everything, you’d never seek anything else out.  The best researchers are those that understand they don’t know anything, and even more imprtantly, know what they don’t know.

Concluding Thoughts

I have no data on any of this, it’s just a collection of thoughts and ideas from the many discussions I’ve had with PhD students – not about their work, but about the thoughts they’ve had.  I could be wrong about all of this.  What I do know is that I’ve seen people leave a PhD, and it has nothing to do with how smart they are or how talented they are.  It’s difficult to understate how many things have to go “right” for the 3-6 years it takes to complete a PhD: real life, boredom, timing with respect to the community, supervisor fit – all of these things have an impact on a PhD student’s likelihood of success… and the amazing thing is that many are out the student’s control.  I’ll leave with three thoughts:

  1. There are certain things the best researchers seem to all share, but just having them doesn’t guarantee success.
  2. A PhD is a process and reflection of conviction – not of intelligence.
  3. Everyone gets depressed during a PhD because of all the judgement that one is subject to. This experience is unbelievably normal.


Trevin (2009-04-11 04:29:00)

I think this blog post violates the basic tenant of your ““1 minute”” blog rule :)

karpar (2009-04-12 19:04:00)

Written in 1 minute after years of reflection?

Matthew (2009-04-28 18:06:00)

Thanks for the follow up post Tony!

NCLPHD (2009-06-27 19:30:37)

Thanks for posting. Having a rough day/night as I type this….did nothing all day! It's the anxiety that is debilitating. However, reading these perspectives does help.

Peter (2009-11-30 09:32:47)

Great post, just two thoughts: 1) I don't think creativity is needed, or even helpful, to get a PhD. 2) From experience (using a grounded theory approach) I'd say that the really smart people don't finish their degrees.