It’s expensive, time consuming, and risky… so is it right for you?
The following piece is by Duncan Watts (author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age and Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us) and is excerpted from Should I Go to Grad School?, an essay collection featuring more than 40 essays by writers, artists, academics, actors, and other creative types about the decision to go to — or avoid — grad school.
Just over 20 years ago, I left my job as an officer in the Royal Australian Navy, said good-bye to my family and friends, and hopped on a plane in Sydney toward the United States to start at a Ph.D. program at Cornell University.
At the time, I didn’t know a single person in the country that was to become my home, or for that matter, anyone who had ever studied in the U.S. I barely even knew anything about Cornell. This was 1993 — still the pre-internet era — so the extent of my knowledge was a one-page write-up in one of those college guides they used to have in libraries and whatever the admissions office had sent with my acceptance letter. I remember someone telling me that the campus was beautiful and that the winters were long (both true, as it turns out), but that was about it. I didn’t even know what classes I would be taking.
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.
What on earth had I been thinking?
To be honest, I’m not actually sure. It certainly wasn’t that I had my heart set on an academic career. During my undergraduate training at the Australian Defence Force Academy, I’d found myself more inspired by the military officers than by my academic instructors, so the idea of becoming a professor wasn’t terribly appealing. At the same time, a navy career didn’t seem in the cards for me, either. In the final year of my degree in physics, I had stumbled on chaos theory, which at the time had felt like the next big thing in science, and I ended up writing my honors thesis about it. The navy, however, had no interest in chaos theory or in letting me do research of any kind. I also wasn’t able to go to sea on account of my bad eyesight, so I was stuck doing mostly administrative jobs.
Grad school seemed like the obvious way out of this rut. But there were two problems. First, the navy didn’t send officers to Ph.D. programs, especially not officers who had only just completed their first degree, so there was a good chance they wouldn’t let me go no matter where I got in. And second, I had to get in somewhere.
Oxford had always been a vague dream of mine, but in order to afford it I had to win a scholarship, which effectively meant winning a Rhodes. I applied two years in a row, both times reaching the final round only to fall short. The second year, however, I also applied to some U.S. schools, which I’d chosen by looking at the addresses of the authors that I’d run across in my thesis research. Cornell was one of them. Given how little I knew about the place, I had always assumed I had less chance of getting into Cornell than Oxford. But a few weeks after missing out on the Rhodes for the second time, I got a surprise letter in the mail telling me that I had been accepted to Cornell’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. It wasn’t my first choice by any stretch, but I figured it would have to do, so I went to my boss with the news that I wanted to go to the U.S. for grad school. Even then it was a long process — I remember the commodore in charge of Navy personnel asking me why I would possibly want to go and get a Ph.D. when I already had the best job in the world. In the end, however, they were surprisingly understanding, and they let me go.
It didn’t exactly get off to a great start.
Cornell, if you’re not familiar, is a big university in a small town called Ithaca, N.Y., about four and a half hours north of New York City. The campus is as beautiful as I had been told, but it’s also pretty intimidating for a newcomer, and very isolated. I didn’t know a soul when I arrived, and phone calls back to Australia cost more than a dollar per minute, which on my stipend meant that I couldn’t afford to call home more than once a month or so. I remember feeling incredibly lonely.
My program also had some surprises in store for me. For one, I had to teach introductory mechanics, a class I’d never taken myself. Being engineers, all my classmates had taken it, so I was already behind the curve. I also didn’t realize how many mandatory courses I would have to take on topics that had nothing to do with my actual interests. And worst of all, the chaos theory people whom I’d been looking forward to studying with had all left the department.
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. But I did seriously consider leaving Cornell, even going as far as to apply to a program at MIT that I thought would be a better fit.
Right around this time, a young MIT professor named Steven Strogatz visited Cornell to give a seminar. As a lowly grad student, I wasn’t aware that his visit was actually a job interview, or that he would soon be offered a faculty position in my department. I just remember thinking how interesting his work seemed and what a clear and entertaining speaker he was. So as my first year of grad school came to an end, I called him to ask whether he’d take me on as a student if I were to transfer to MIT. That’s when he told me that he was actually coming to Cornell — in just a couple of months. I decided to wait.
Up until then I’d been working with a professor in mechanical engineering and had been feeling pretty stuck in my research. He was a very distinguished researcher and was in many ways a kind and caring adviser who was doing his best to help me. But we were on different wavelengths.
On the rare occasions when he actually had time to meet with me, he would interrupt whatever question I was trying to ask by thrusting a pile of books into my arms and telling me the answer was in one of them. Typically, it wasn’t, but by the time I’d determined as much the meeting was long over and I’d have to wait another couple of weeks to try again. Presumably I was supposed to figure things out on my own, and I did manage to make some progress that way, but it also made me wonder about the point of having an adviser.
When I met Strogatz, the difference was palpable. Steve’s research was on the synchronization of coupled oscillator systems, and he had just published a popular textbook on nonlinear dynamics and chaos, so he was very much doing the work that I cared about. But it was more than that. It might seem strange to talk about chemistry between an adviser and a student, but we just clicked. It didn’t hurt that, being relatively young himself and also new to Cornell, he had much more time to spend sitting around talking about research, or to just talk. So with the consent of my original adviser, who turned out to be such a good sport that he even let me keep a desk in his lab, I became Steve’s advisee. Neither of us had much idea what we were going to do, but both of us had a feeling that it would be fun and interesting.
And indeed it was. I won’t go into the details, but the short story is that we wound up doing something quite remarkable, inventing, in effect, a whole new field of science. We didn’t realize that at the time, of course, but our first paper, “Collective Dynamics of ‘Small-World’ Networks,” which was published in the journal Nature in 1998, the year after I graduated, quickly became a blueprint for what is now called network science. Fifteen years later — and with more than 20,000 citations and counting on Google Scholar — it is one of the most cited papers in any field in the past two decades.
At this point, you probably think that I’m going to recommend going to grad school: Look at me! I went to grad school, followed my dreams, and had a wildly successful academic career. You can, too! But that would be misleading, for three reasons.
First, 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.
Second, the gap between superstar and anonymity is far fuzzier than most of us feel comfortable admitting. As successful and influential as that 1998 Nature paper now seems, the reality is that it came within a hair breadth of being rejected. How it eventually did get published and what happened after that is another long story, but the short version is that if it had been rejected by Nature, it would likely never have garnered the attention it did. And without that early attention, most of what followed in my career — a book, a job at Columbia, a second book, tenure, etc. — wouldn’t have happened, either.
And finally, just getting to that point meant taking some risks that any sensible grad student would regard as crazy. When I told Steve that I wanted to prove the theory that everyone in the world is connected by just six degrees of separation — which in the mid-1990s still seemed like an urban myth — and that I also wanted to connect that idea to problems as diverse as the synchronization of coupled oscillators, the spread of epidemics, and the outbreak of revolutions, he was sufficiently intrigued to let me try, but only after I promised him that I wasn’t interested in an academic career. As he reasonably pointed out, everything in academia is organized in terms of disciplines, and what I wanted to do didn’t fit into any existing discipline. So even if I succeeded in figuring out something interesting, chances were it wouldn’t be the kind of interesting that would get me a job.
As it happened, I didn’t care about having an academic career. So I went ahead and did what I thought was interesting rather than what I thought was expedient, and I had a career anyway. But that doesn’t mean Steve was wrong. I think that if you do want to have an academic career, it really is a good idea to pick one particular field of interest and be very attentive to that field’s priorities, methods, and norms. I just don’t think that that’s the only reason to go to grad school, or even necessarily the best reason.
Going to grad school as a stepping stone to an academic career — or to any other career, for that matter — is to treat it as a means to an end; and it can be that. But it can also be an end in itself. And as muddled as my thinking was leading up to grad school, and even through most it, I always thought of it as an end in itself, an adventure that I was going to have solely for the sake of having an adventure.
I don’t know exactly why I thought this, but it was an idea I’d had since I was a boy, hanging out with my dad in his lab, looking at all the work benches and machines and blackboards covered in diagrams, feeling a sense of wonder that this was a place where people figured out how the world worked. I didn’t know exactly what that entailed, or even what I would have to do to experience that sensation for myself, but I had convinced myself that if I went to grad school I would find out. It wasn’t exactly a plan, but it was something like a scent that either got weaker or stronger as a result of any particular activity that I tried. So I just kept trying things and following my nose until I found it. That I turned it into a career after I found it is all very well, but it’s also beside the point, because that wasn’t what I was after.
So do I think going to grad school is a good idea?
I’m not sure. Certainly it was a great experience for me, but it’s not for everyone. Grad students are by nature competitive, analytical types who are already predisposed to overthinking everything, so the intensity and uncertainty of grad school make it a breeding ground for insecurity and anxiety. It’s definitely not something you should subject yourself to because you can’t think of anything else to do, nor should you suffer through it on the grounds that you’ll be happier with the academic career that it leads to. There are plenty of miserable academics out there as well, and lots of great and interesting things to do with your life that don’t require a Ph.D., not to mention the five to seven years that most people spend getting one. Don’t sign up for it lightly.
But if you do decide to go, remember that those years are not just a prelude to your life, they are part of your life as well, and in some cases, a pretty good chunk of it. So you might as well make them count. Beyond that, I don’t want to get too prescriptive, but here are three suggestions.
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. My classmates thought I was crazy because I wasn’t getting credit for these courses, which also took time away from my mandatory coursework. But I thought they were crazy, because when in the rest of their lives would they ever have the luxury of sitting in on some world-renowned expert’s course on a topic that they just happened to find interesting? Grad school is full of these wonderful opportunities to learn about almost anything under the sun. Take advantage of them while you can.
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.
And finally, find your question. The best piece of advice that Steve 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.” I used to do a lot of rock climbing back then, and I was surprised to learn that the thrill I got from the occasional breakthrough in my research was not unlike that of leading a challenging route, or reaching a mountaintop. There’s no physical danger, of course, but it’s the same sense of pitting yourself — in this case, your mind — against the world, of pushing yourself to your limits and then realizing your goal, of experiencing the beauty of the world anew. You don’t have to go to grad school to experience this feeling, but if intellectual adventure is your thing, there’s a chance you can find it there. I hope you do.
Duncan Watts is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a founding member of the MSR-NYC lab. From 2000–2007, he was a professor of sociology at Columbia University, and then, prior to joining Microsoft, a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directed the Human Social Dynamics group.
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