how to handle great uncertainty – pursuing a masters or PhD

Here on orgtheory, we’ve discussed the many steps of the grad school process and beyond.  One of the most difficult parts is deciding on the first step, whether to attend a program for a masters or PhD.  The anthology Should I Go To Grad School?: 41 Answers to An Impossible Question offers 41 other perspectives on this, from those who entered programs to those who decided on alternative ventures to get what they wanted.

Duncan Watts is one of the authors of the personal essays, a version of which is excerpted here.  In his essay, Watts describes his original trajectory, starting with his service in the Australian military and realizing his drive to learn more about chaos theory.  After being rejected by Oxford but accepted by Cornell, he decided to leave for the US and to enter the great unknown:

I was only 22 at the time, still young enough to make major life decisions without thinking too much about them. But as I hugged my sister and my best friend good-bye that day at the airport, the enormity of what I was doing finally hit me. I’m a big guy — 6-foot-2 and more than 200 pounds — and I thought I’d been through some tough moments during my years in the Navy, but this was more than I had bargained for. I broke down and cried like a baby, right there in front of hundreds of people in the passport line. I remember feeling horribly embarrassed, but I couldn’t help it. I was leaving my whole life behind and I had no idea where I was going, how long I was going for, or what I would do when I got there.

He candidly describes the alienation of graduate school and questioning his decision to pursue a PhD, especially upon realizing that the faculty he wanted to work with had departed for elsewhere:

So here I was in a strange place with no friends, taking courses I didn’t like and teaching courses I didn’t understand, feeling totally overwhelmed and wondering how I had managed to misjudge things so badly. The only reason I didn’t head straight back home was sheer stubbornness and pride.

Luckily for Watts, finding a kindred spirit in a new, young faculty member, who soon became his adviser, was a turning point in his graduate school trajectory.

At the end, he offers three suggestions.  The first of which concerns maintaining a “glass-half-full” outlook and getting the most out of the university’s offerings, including crossing disciplinary boundaries:

First, try to be positive. Grad school may be a time of great uncertainty about the future, but it is also a time when in the present you don’t have a whole lot of responsibility, you do have a lot of time to think and learn, and you are surrounded by an incredible depth and diversity of knowledge. There were academic programs at Cornell that I’d never even heard of until I got there, and once I got my feet on the ground, I started auditing classes in completely unrelated programs, such as philosophy and political science, just because I could. …

The second suggestion is about finding a supportive mentor who can help develop “a life of the mind”:

Second, find the right adviser. Unless you meet your future spouse in grad school (which actually is not all that unlikely), the single most important relationship you are likely to have is with your adviser. So it’s important, both to your success and even more so to your happiness, to find an adviser who is a good fit for your needs. In part that means that he or she knows enough about your intended field to guide your research. But learning how to do good research is about more than just mastering certain skills or domains of knowledge. It’s also about learning how to ask an interesting question, which after a lifetime of answering questions that have been handed to you suddenly requires you to think in a whole new way. You’re going to need some help with that.

Watts’ third suggestion is finding one’s drive through research questions:

And finally, find your question. The best piece of advice that Steve [Watts’ adviser] ever gave me was that I would know I had found my question when I found myself unable to articulate why it was so interesting to me. That I could go over all the usual reasons (interesting math, practical applications, etc.), but in the end it would be something else, something that — as Steve’s mentor, the great mathematical biologist Art Winfree, told Steve — “irrationally grips you by the imagination.” …

Many of us have similar stories of the ups and downs of navigating the academy, with long quests that are not readily apparent in our official bios.   However, most of us don’t have the same trajectory as Watts – in fact, Watts describes the role of chance in getting his co-authored paper into Nature, followed by a tenured position at Columbia, and he explicitly warns that aspirants only see the “winners” in a winner-take-all system:

…the odds of having a wildly successful academic career after going to grad school are about the same as the odds of becoming a movie star after studying acting. This reality is one of those obvious numerical facts that somehow many ambitious students miss until it’s too late. Because you spend most of your academic career studying the ideas of famous people and reading highly cited papers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that those are the norm, when in fact the overwhelming majority of papers receive very few citations and don’t end up in anyone’s curriculum.

This cautionary note seems to suggest that academics will have to value various outcomes (for instance, an academic career with more effort spent on teaching and mentoring students?  working with the community?) – or decide whether the uncertainty is too great to bear and pursue another path.


Written by katherinechen

March 10, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Posted in academia, books

2 Responses

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  1. Thanks, I like it to see again topics on grad-school environment. This is one blog, I keep on coming again-n-again for posts like this.

    Please keep it up for the troubled and confused community of grad students.


    Santosh Sali

    March 11, 2016 at 9:20 am

  2. Thanks, Santosh, for stopping by and commenting. Your feedback is helpful for understanding what orgtheory readers are interested in reading and discussing.



    March 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm

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