The Ph.D. Grind: Philip J. Guo’s Free Memoir Offers An Insider’s Look at Doctoral Study

Recent­ly, a video circulated—one of those weird Xtra­nor­mal cre­ations that set text to stilt­ed ani­ma­tion and robot­ic voices—entitled “So you want to get a Ph.D. in human­i­ties.” It spawned a num­ber of imi­ta­tions, in oth­er dis­ci­plines, of a sim­i­lar scenario—a world-weary pro­fes­sor chip­ping away at a star­ry-eyed undergraduate’s naïve illu­sions about the world of acad­e­mia. For a week or so, this meme had some of us wiz­ened, griz­zled doc­tor­al stu­dents laugh­ing through our tears while we hunched over key­boards and suf­fered through carpel tun­nel syn­drome and irrel­e­vance. In his free and down­load­able mem­oir, The Ph.D. Grind, author Philip J. Guo points out that such dis­par­age­ment can serve a purpose—as com­mis­er­a­tion for dis­tressed insiders—but it hard­ly helps less jad­ed or expe­ri­enced stu­dents and can be mis­lead­ing and disin­gen­u­ous.

In his pref­ace, Guo promis­es to give clear-eyed advice, avoid too much geek-speak, and steer clear of “bit­ter whin­ing.” Guo is an accom­plished engi­neer at Google who received his Mas­ters from MIT and his Ph.D. in Com­put­er Sci­ence from Stan­ford. His memoir—written imme­di­ate­ly after he fin­ished his degree and there­fore free, he claims, of what he calls “selec­tive hindsight”—documents his expe­ri­ences as a doc­tor­al stu­dent over the course of six years. He offers the book as a prac­ti­cal man­u­al for a vari­ety of read­ers, includ­ing under­grad­u­ates, cur­rent Ph.D. stu­dents, pro­fes­sors and poten­tial employ­ers of Ph.D.s, and any­one gen­uine­ly curi­ous about the nature of aca­d­e­m­ic research.

The most imme­di­ate­ly help­ful part of the book is the Epi­logue, which func­tions as a set of con­clu­sions in which Guo lays out twen­ty of the most mem­o­rable lessons he learned dur­ing the years he nar­rates in the book.  It’s all good advice and well worth read­ing his fuller expla­na­tion of each one. Here’s the short ver­sion of Guo’s “twen­ty lessons”:

  1. Results trump inten­tions
  2. Out­puts trump inputs
  3. Find rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion
  4. Cre­ate lucky oppor­tu­ni­ties
  5. Play the game
  6. Lead from below
  7. Pro­fes­sors are human
  8. Be well-liked
  9. Pay some dues
  10. Reject bad defaults
  11. Know when to quit
  12. Recov­er from fail­ures
  13. Ally with insid­ers
  14. Give many talks
  15. Sell, sell, sell
  16. Gen­er­ous­ly pro­vide help
  17. Ask for help
  18. Express true grat­i­tude
  19. Ideas beget ideas
  20. Grind hard and smart

Notice that none of these relate direct­ly to the arcana of Ph.D.-level com­put­er sci­ence. While Guo cer­tain­ly achieved a high degree of mas­tery in his field, his mem­oir demon­strates that, despite the inten­sive spe­cial­iza­tion of doc­tor­al work and the pre­car­i­ous posi­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic pro­fes­sion­als in the cur­rent job mar­ket, com­plet­ing a Ph.D. has many intan­gi­ble ben­e­fits that well exceed the nar­row goal of tenure-track employ­ment. The full-text of Guo’s book is avail­able in PDF here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Illus­trat­ed Guide to a PhD

500 Free Cours­es from Great Uni­ver­si­ties

Josh Jones is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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