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.

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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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