Why junior PhD students are miserable

I hope that elaborating on why we sometimes felt bad can help us feel better in the future.

People tell me that PhD students are miserable for a large portion of the time. They are the happiest when they first arrive at the graduate school. Then they become miserable. They boost their moods every now and then, such as when they pass their qualifications, their papers get accepted, etc., until they become numb.


PHD Comics [http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=125]

Why do they have to be miserable? Here is my analysis for junior students.

One reason is that this reason itself is hard to summarize. The reason for miserableness depends on who and where we are. Everyone has his or her own goals that depend on the research direction, the academic environment, and prior experience; there is no longer such specific shared goals as getting into good graduate schools by demonstrating that we are talented undergraduate students. A direct consequence of this loneliness is that it is difficult to solve problems, because everyone needs to figure out a solution that works for himself/herself; it is hard to follow advice, since other people’s advice may not help much. An indirect consequence is that we tend to doubt ourselves when other people do not resonate with our sufferings.

Another important reason of miserableness is in the nature of research — goals are unclear. We pursue a PhD to learn to identify problems and solve problems. This goal seems to lead to a paradoxical situation:

After we get this ability, we have almost already graduated. Before we get this ability, by definition, we are still unable to solve problems that we cannot identify. Thus, we cannot make progress. PhD students can never graduate.

Typical problems of this kind include not knowing how to find a good research project and not knowing if there is anything wrong with our life or not. To break this hopeless cycle of struggle, we need help from other people. They may have the experience to be omniscient enough to tell us what we are suffering from. This communication may be difficult: To seek help, it is our job to tell them what we want; but how to describe the thing that we want when we don’t have that thing yet? We can dissolve this paradoxical situation in a spiral manner.* Try to describe what we feel to be strange. Do something to change the situation a little bit. Now the sufferings may have become more obvious. Try to identify the problems once more and improve the situation again. After each iteration, there would be more hope. When we can finally identify the problems precisely, we are already half way solving them.

Another difficulty of PhD studies is related to another important training goal — to develop a taste of good research.***** The difficulty here is that we may not know ourselves well enough to tell what we will find interesting. We also may not yet know the field** well enough to tell what is meaningful. Thus, there may be a period of repeatedly destructing and reconstructing our value systems. For example, we may start the PhD thinking that the most respectful research outcome is a perfect solution to a difficult problem. We decided to follow this path, until we got stuck on a challenging but meaningless problem. Then we realized that all research papers are flawed in one way or another. As another example, we may start the PhD thinking that the most interesting research should give us plenty of interesting insights. We decided to follow this path, until we found that reviewers disagreed with our “insightful” claims that we had made without convincing evidence. Then we realized that many of the “insightful” paragraphs that we had read earlier were in fact well-written marketing arguments that could be argued one way or the other. In a word, we need time before settling down on a taste of what is good research. We may also need time before finding out an effective way to develop this taste. After developing this taste, we can move forward more steadily.

To overcome these philosophical difficulties, keep in touch with supportive friends. When in the hopeless stage, chat with fellow students in the same year. If we notice that everyone else is similarly unhappy for some similarly unknown reason, we would feel safer and have more courage.

Other difficulties seem easier to explain and easier to tackle.

Learning to do research involves an inversion of thinking habits. Research is different from schoolwork in that we don’t know the outcome before we have almost finished. To maximize the outcome, I find it more reasonable to act in a breadth-first manner — look around for possible breakthroughs before deciding to delve into any specific path. It could also be disappointing to find some direction not as interesting as it first seems to be. I am getting used to this fact, since doing research is about exploring the unknowns, anyway. There are also times when a direction turns out surprisingly interesting.***

There is hardly anything to be proud of. The most convincing source of happiness seems to be papers being accepted, but these events happen at the infrequency of once every several months or years. Before gaining the momentum to publish more frequently, things may happen too slowly to be motivating.

The lack of classes changes our social environment. We see our fellow students less often, since they no longer “just show up” in lectures or dining halls. Everyone’s schedules has become more monotonous: By default, everyone walks straight to the lab, straight to the eating place, and straight back home. We run into only those fellow students whose daily routes and schedules both overlap with ours. To see more human beings, we need to attend social events proactively. For me, I found that I had underestimated my social needs.

There is another source of difficulty for people who move to a different place for the graduate school. It may take a while before we can break down the abrupt change in life into separate problems and solve these problems. On the surface, there may be awkwardness in the food, the weather, the economics, or the language. Deeper inside, there can be awkwardness in the culture, the aesthetics, and the thinking pattern. One of my interesting cultural experience is entering this new world that is dominated by extroverts, when I had been a “good” introvert in my past world that was dominated by introverts. In this new world, these extroverts may not have seen a lot of introverts in the past. Thus, they look at the world with default assumptions that differ from what I grew up with. For example, they tend to encourage and discourage things that sometimes contradict with what my past world had always convinced me. I have been changing myself in certain aspects to make the best out of this new world. At the same time, I also consciously refuse to change in some other aspects, to keep my inner self consistent.****

Other small problems may occur at the same time, causing long-term invisible burden. I was surprised about how much better focused I became after I changed seemingly small things. Examples include improving the quality of food and sleep, removing the shade of my window to let in more sunlight in the winter, and adjusting the height of my desk to avoid pain in my back and shoulders. These problems were small but distracting.

* A later post, 写程序有感 (in Chinese), discusses what to do when being stuck or not knowing a direction.
** A later post, Learning to learn, discusses how to read papers in a new field.
*** More discussion in an earlier post, Nature of research vs. schoolwork.
**** More on the topic of extroverts vs. introverts: There is a TED talk on The power of introverts and a book on Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking which includes plenty of research. I also wrote something: Did you say you are an introvert?.
**** More discussion in a later post, Research taste.

Fixed typos.
Rephrased the first reason.
Moved footnotes.
Added links to new posts (*; **).