Why the PhD?

Ever wonder about the value of a PhD?  People often ask me about my experience and why I chose to do one. Here are a few thoughts…

  1. The true value of the PhD for me was the processes learned.
  2. The people you meet are one of the most valuable parts of the PhD experience.
  3. You learn a lot more about the topic and yourself during a PhD than during a Master’s degree.

So let’s dig into these three points a bit (not presented in order of importance).

Process just means the steps and actions taken to get to a particular end result. The end result of the PhD is defending a thesis but along the way there are some major milestones. The candidacy exam, first journal publication, acceptance to better research conferences, invitations to review, invitations to take an active role in the research community, maybe your first experience teaching to a room of 100+ students, and on and on.

For me these processes shared a couple of common themes, namely: stress, acceptance, and confidence. For me, teaching was always something fun that I looked forward to but I can’t say the same about the stress of my candidacy exam or thesis defence. The end result of these stresses, paper rejections, seemingly never ending paper edits, and often vague feedback from research advisors was a galvanized researcher confident of their abilities and knowledge.

Just as valuable as publishing, for me, was being asked to review the work of other researchers in the field, learning to read and write research paper rebuttals, adapting a research project to a paper and then to a journal paper, participating in research workshops, writing research funding requests, and traveling to present the actual research. Like most things, the little steps between the largest pieces of completing a PhD were the foundational skills that I find I use day in and day out in my life. I am sure I could have learned all these little skills intentionally but the PhD gave a flow and rhythm to learning a large number of skillsets while building to something bigger.

The people and connections you make during the PhD are amazing. If you are a human computer interaction geek you get to meet your research heroes and maybe even share a meal or two.  Maybe more important than they “grey hairs” is meeting your research colleagues in their 20s/30s who I am sure will go on to be the though leaders in the field in 10/20 years time.  Some of the people you meet along the way are just amazing. Just being around all these people, you work improves and you improve as a person.

I was very lucky to be the volunteer chair for CHI 2014/15. About 8,000 hours of student volunteer time went into the events and that is just during the actual conference weeks. To be entrusted to organize a work force of 200 people over a week’s time in cities around the world has been perhaps the most interesting experience of my entire PhD.

During my PhD I have met students from all over the world, seen prototype cellphones on a mountain top in Korea, had dinner at the Googleplex, competed in a technology design contest in Scotland, and evening visiting the celebrity resort town of lake Como in Italy. Why did I have these experiences? Because the people I met during the PhD were amazing and amazing people connect you with other amazing people/places/things. I probably already meet the next Bill Buxton or Jacob Neilson and don’t even know it yet…

My final point is that the PhD and Master’s degree were night and day different experience. At the end of the Master’s degree I didn’t feel like an expert in my field. I felt like an undergrad that had spent two more years in school.

The rate and quality of the work in my PhD, the desire to publish in only top tier venues, and the depth of the work all far exceed my Master’s degree experiences. One definitely took twice as long as the other, but I emerged from the PhD with confidence, experience, a greater sense of the world wide research community, way more hands on experience running research projects, managing small and large teams, connecting research ideas in new and different ways, and a much higher personal expectation of the quality of the work I know I can deliver. For me it was one thing to be told my work was good by my professors, it was another thing entirely to be reviewed and review with the top people in the field.

If you have more questions about the PhD feel to drop me a line…

Cheers,

Jon