I recently read this nice blog post about doing a PhD by CMU’s Dave Andersen (who, not surprisingly, rather enjoyed his PhD), and it inspired me to share a PhD-related memory of my own.
When I finished my PhD at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I was asked by the powers that be to give a short speech on behalf of the new graduates at the university’s graduation ceremony. To help me prepare the speech they sent me the previous year’s speech, which I read in disbelief. Here is a translation of a paragraph from that speech:
During this period [of doing a PhD] it became clear to each one of us that writing a thesis is more than an academic endeavor, it is a test of character; a psychological rather than purely intellectual challenge. It is akin to the loneliness of the long-distance runner. Each small step seems inconsequential compared to the long way that must be traveled, but in retrospect every step, even if it seemed to be in the wrong direction, gets you closer to the finish line.
Other parts of the speech cite Freud and Goethe so I don’t think this person is a computer scientist. When I read this I almost lost my nerve though. After all, I enjoyed every minute of my PhD; but wouldn’t the philosophy graduates lynch me if I said so? Ultimately I decided to give the speech and admit how shamefully enjoyable those four years were. Although I didn’t use notes for the real thing, I had to submit a draft for approval, so I still have a version that’s presumably similar to what I actually said. Here’s a translation of the first and last paragraphs:
I recently read online a story about what is supposedly the most desirable job in the world: Protecting a coral reef in Australia while documenting your experiences in a blog. If memory serves, some forty thousand people competed for the job, and ultimately a lucky British guy got it. When I read that I thought to myself: they’re wrong, there is a better job: doing a PhD… and I’m saying this without a drop of cynicism. Which other job gives you absolute freedom to do the things that you find most interesting and work with some of the smartest people in the world, and at the same time there are almost no requirements and duties? [Well, this is true in Israel, not at CMU...] It is truly a wonderful thing if your goal in life is not to get rich.
[Two paragraphs about how awesome the Hebrew University is, thanking our parents, etc... ]
Personally I enjoyed every minute of this experience, which lasted a few years, but all good things must come to an end. Fortunately, the consensus among academics is that there is only one job that is better than doing a PhD: doing a postdoc!