23 Jun 2018

PhD after 3rd year: a few pieces of advice

Notes on phd:

I was a panelist for a discussion titled: “A Day in the Life of a PhD Student”. It was addressed to students who consider pursuing PhD and currently take part in a summer research program. I really enjoy such discussions and hope that many students found some helpful suggestions.

I was in a fortunate position of knowing since young age that I really wanted a PhD. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for any very well-thought-through reason: first, I liked studying and I wanted to learn as much as possible. Second, I wanted to be an inventor. This requires more knowledge and skills that hopefully I can get during my PhD.

Take the advantage before PhD and get a taste of research as an undergraduate on a summer research program before you decide to commit to PhD.

PhD pros:

  1. your only opportunity in life to really drill deep into a topic and learn how to solve difficult problems
  2. more freedom during PhD than in industry
  3. more variance in your experience - you can still join a company and work in industry for next 50 years after PhD
  4. higher starting salary after PhD
  5. more interesting job after PhD
  6. most exciting for those of you who are hooked at discovery: seeing something that nobody else has seen before

PhD cons:

  1. highly competitive: working very hard (especially before paper deadlines or conferences - prepare presentation, poster, teaser talk, alone in the lab on a beautiful, sunny Saturday, mental stamina and determination to deal with the pressure, throw away 3 months of your work while somehow keeping your mental health intact)
  2. badly paid: about 5X less than your friends at Google or Microsoft: if you are in your thirties and have to pay the mortgage load then probably this stipend is not sufficient.
  3. family-unfriendly: not many are able to strike the right balance between family and work, only few of my PhD friends have families (usually your PhD lasts very long - 10 years or so or you simply quit it or maybe sacrifice even more important aspects of your life, e.g., the time with your children)
  4. very hard to get a job in academia; it’s as hard to become a full professor as as it is to create a successful start-up
  5. huge investment of time and energy - you need a few days to relax after a conference or a paper deadline (e.g. hibernate for at least 12 hours)

What will you need?

  1. strong reference letters
  2. a research publication under your belt from a summer research program is a great advantage
  3. a few potential advisers: the adviser-student relationship is a symbiosis.


  1. you have to decide which problems are worth working on: develop a taste for a problem.
  2. how to review papers: train your own binary classifier to cast a paper as bad or good.

Official stages:

  1. coursework + master’s thesis defence (up to the first quarter of 3rd year or the end of 2nd year)
  2. gain admission to candidacy exam (the beginning of 5th year)
  3. write and defend a dissertation (up to the end of 6th year)

During the first phase, students take courses, write a Master’s paper, and take an oral Master’s exam. In the second phase, students work independently to identify specific research questions of interest, master the relevant literature, and take an oral candidacy exam. And during the third phase, students do independent research and write and defend a dissertation. Throughout the process students document successful research in publications as well as in their doctoral dissertations.

In practice there are slightly different three stages in a PhD:

  • 1st stage: look at a related paper’s reference section and you haven’t read most of the papers.
  • 2nd stage: you recognize all the papers.
  • 3rd stage: In the third stage you had lunch with all the first authors of your favorite papers.


  1. This is one of the most important choices – spend time on it and try to maintain a very good working relationship – it helps a lot.
  2. Points you into the right direction if you’re lost.
  3. A young on tenure-track advisor is hands-on (can give you comments such as use this tool or library or “you’re missing this on the right-hand side of the equation”), professors are usually more hand-off with comments like: “you should read more about it”.

General advice on PhD:

  1. The real value of graduate school is in education, not in degree.
  2. Rehearse your talk before a conference until you can deliver it in your sleep.
  3. Major deadlines always tend to fall around the same time – work hard long before them to meet all of them.
  4. How much time you want to pour into your job? It depends on how much you want to get out of it.
  5. Become the CEO of your own research enterprise!
  6. You can only eat an elephant by chewing piece by piece.

General advice for summer program:

  1. Be laser-like focused – you have only 10/12/14 weeks.
  2. Go for every possible meeting with your advisor, post-doc or PhD student, including lunch.
  3. Try to meet with them every every day to keep track on your progress.
  4. Plan to write a paper after your summer program.
  5. Go for group meetings – if possible contribute to them and, for example, volunteer to present a paper.

Read more thoughts on PhD by:

  1. Andrej Karpathy
  2. Rational views
  3. Leonardo Almeida-Souza and Jonathan Baets
  4. Eva Lantsoght
  5. Nathan Yau