To Govind: is a happy PhD possible?

When I told my friend that I was going to do a PhD, his response was: why? Can’t you find a real job?

From the perspective of a graduate from an engineering school, doing a PhD means seeing a salary of two third or even half of an engineer job (on average). Normally in Western country, especially in France, an engineering job is a permanent job, while a PhD contract limit only in a few years. The worst part is after this few years, another job hunting procedure would restart, but with much more disadvantages of being over-1qualified or over-specialized. Only choice seems to follow academic path (which is not true by the way). So is the PhD worth the effort? Can one be happy in such condition? For me, yes. Almost every minute of almost every day over these 4 years. I am going to explain to you why.

Unlike most of blogs that discuss the subject by well established researchers, this note is written by a freshly graduated mind, with all foggy perspective for the near future. I humbly hope this would bring another story with a different perspective for a very common question. Before grad school, I worked in the research and technical division of a big glass-making company in France, Saint-Gobain. This makes my beginning to be slightly different from most of PhD students.

1. The scientific curiosity:

Curiosity leads to happiness, especially when it is satisfied.

I remember distinctively two moments during my PhD: the first was when we successfully created sub-micron textured fibers using the method we invented in 2015. When we saw those patterns by microscope, I could not help smiling. I was always curious by surface phenomena, and such result proved that I really understood one thing or two.. In addition, the result came from a understanding that we were the first to develop, with the technique that had not been discussed anywhere, and achieved unprecedented resolution. I knew immediately that we were on the front of the field.

The second moment was when I saw those axons growing through a textured hollow-core fiber in 2016, and learned about the guiding effect of our fibers on DRG. This opened my eyes to the field of bio-engineering, about which my ignorance is quite complete. And it seemed to me at this time that the field itself was in its infancy. A lot more to learn, to discover, and to invent.

I strongly believe that the scientific curiosity plays a crucial role in the happiness and well-being of a PhD student. Curiosity does not ensure a happy life, but no curiosity definitely prevents PhD students from enjoying the long years of low-paying and over-loaded work. No other motivation to do PhD, like to impress parents, to get a “Dr.” title, or even to be incapable to find other jobs, would be strong enough to cover the lack of curiosity.

I found myself very lucky to start my PhD with a quite big curiosity, and that my scientific curiosity has kept growing during these years.

2. Soft skills

A side effect of a PhD is developing skills, among which, 4 are crucial in my opinion: to write well, to present well, to organize well, and to supervise well. Coincidentally, there are the skills that I had always wanted to work on. Writing is when you prepare your reports and publications; presenting is for conferences and meetings; organizing is always needed because most of the time, there are too much work; and supervising involves working and teaching fellows that do not a specific knowledge in a specific project. The first three skills are required in any program, so if we have to do it anyway, why not do it well. The supervising skills is more personal, I was even luckier, because I want to teach and to interact with students, and my Professor allowed me to do so.

Developing those skills was sometimes a source of my motivation, especially when the research projects did not go as fast as I wanted to. EPFL provides huge resources to help us to do so.

3. Low expectations on the salary:

The fact that you cannot get rich from your PhD salary is well-known, but there are still too many PhD who are frustrated by their relatively low pay, considering long working hours and highly stressful periods time to time. I believe before doing a PhD, the awareness of such situation is a must, and no one should be surprised by it.

Ismael in Moby-Dick the Whale explained it very well: “though [the salary was low], yet it was better than nothing, and if we had a lucky voyage, might pretty nearly pay for the clothing I would wear out on it, not to speak of my three years’ beef and board, for which I would not have to pay one stiver. It might be thought that this was a poor way to accumulate a princely fortune, and so it was, a very poor way indeed. But I am one of those who never take on about princely fortunes and I am quite content if the world is really to board and lodge me”. After his trip with the Pequod, he could have started a PhD.

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To conclude, I have met some students that are truly miserable during their time in grad school. There is even a study showing that there are much more miserable PhD students than happy ones. You might keep this fact in perspective, but also be sure that it is possible to be happy doing a PhD. I humbly consider myself as a living proof if you want, and I have meet quite a few who are. The best way to prepare for yourself is to discuss with as many people as possible before decide which path is good. In this sense, I hope that this testimony is useful.