I finished my PhD August of 2013 after 6 long grueling years. My PhD experience was pretty horrible. Even though I loved mathematics and computer science in college, I didn't enjoy the type of research that my department was conducting. It is only towards the end of my PhD that I discovered the area of research that I think I enjoy.
My PhD had quite a few instances of intellectual stimulation and joy, but it was overshadowed by my inability to answer the question of "why am I doing this?". I often felt lonely and lost. There were times when my depression was quite severe (never had medications though). I remember just losing it once while driving on a suburban road when I started swerving my car from left to right like crazy.
Finally, somehow I managed to finish and prove two nice theorems that has no practical applications / purposes. Now that I started working in the industry, I feel that industrial work can be just as challenging and stimulating as PhD. Furthermore, there is an element of direct applicability and impact that resonates with me strongly. This puts me back into depression occasionally but I realize that I could have entered the industry 6 years ago and not go through the suffering that I experienced.
The PhD does give me some edge though. I'm far faster at picking up technical information and machine learning research papers than my non-PhD peers. Although it is difficult to say if I could have acquired this skill via working.
Ironically enough, I feel that the biggest positive lesson I learned during the PhD is how to be honest to yourself and have a strong will to make tough decisions like quitting a PhD. I regret not having such strong will / courage in my 2nd and 3rd year to quit the program and go into work / maybe different PhD program.
Well, it doesn't sound you had a great experience, but you've learnt something along the way so that's got to count for something.
I sometimes feel the same way- my experience was actually great and I didn't have the issues you faced but now that I'm done, I wonder if it was all worth it. Mind you with stuff in my personal life going really badly these days it is making me depressed about everything, but my opinion is that it's not bad to think retrospectively in this matter so long as you're fair and identify both positives and negatives. I've gotten many positives from the PhD and only a couple of negatives that I can think of. My career is OK (not as impressive as I'd like it to be but don't want to complain too much). Just remember you have your health- that is priceless.
It is funny that you mentioned your health. I became pretty depressed near the end of my PhD that I went back to boxing (did little bit of that for fun at the end of college). I was pretty careful with hits to the head. However, I think the long hours of sitting un-ergonomically in front of a laptop + repetitive jabs gave me a neck injury. It was serious enough to disrupt my social & physical life for about one and half years. Finally about recovered now.
Now I realize, nothing is ever more important than your health.
See I did MMA myself during college and kept swimming (was a semi-pro swimmer earlier in my undergrad years). Now I don't get to do much of these but still go to the gym 6 days a week and am quite fit. Unfortunately my physical fitness is not matched on the psychological side- if you read my posts here you'll see I've been quite depressed lately so I guess overall I'm not at 100% health wise. I try to stay optimistic especially about the surgery I'm having in August for my teeth- if that goes well then 75% of my psychological issues will be gone.
I'd say keep boxing, have a varied lifestyle, and believe it or not just don't give a rat's. My contract at work expires in 5 months, I miss the UK so badly (currently in Canada), but you know what if they fire me or let me go so be it I'm sure I'll find another job and will just focus on the stuff I like doing like swimming. I've realised that happiness is priceless and more important than PhDs, careers etc… oddly enough I didn't appreciate how important being self-content is during the PhD, which was a negative. Now self-contentment and happiness are my mottos and guide my every decision in life even at the expense of time, money, etc…
Health comes first and self-contentment is a very close second.
My 2 year old had a blast watch a cartoon video that I played (and replayed it again and again)for him before he went to bed tonight and wanted me to stay with him. He held my hand until he went to sleep which took almost an hour. Meanwhile, I had to work on reviewing a journal paper with a closing deadline... Frankly speaking, I enjoyed every second being with him and the fact that I did not rush to put him into sleep so I can work on a paper...
I know it sounds corny, but after being in under and grad schools for over 16 years now (one BSc, one MSc, one PhD and two postdocs), I have come to this realization that nothing can replace, family, happiness, physical and mental health, friends and being a part of human society and live for now and not putting all of my hopes for getting a tuner track career (if that ever happen)... We live only once and nothing should stop us being happy and healthy human beings... not even spending your life in hope of winning a Nobel prize or a Field medal...
Wow Kim great post. You are right. Success can be measured in so many different ways other than career goals. Family and friends being one. The success of a PhD and family and friends can be more rewarding because career success can be fickle when it becomes about who networks better, who's in with the boss rather than your actual skills and abilities. Your PhD and personal life you can sort of have more influence over. Well in my experience anyway. It doesn't matter now why you did your PhD, you achieved it and that's an enormous undertaking to be proud of :)))
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