Crowdsourced questions and answers about doing a PhD

About once a week, I receive an email notification that someone has added a new PhD-related question to Quora. Sometimes I read the question and notice that I’ve often wondered the same, and other times I read it and realize I never even thought to ask the question.

What are the benefits of getting a PhD?

I’d be seriously misguided if I hadn’t thought a lot about this. The most obvious answer is that in the course of earning a PhD, you gain research skills that can be applied in your career after grad school. Many people still think of a PhD as training for a life in academia — and while achieving a PhD is the only route towards becoming a university professor and researcher, becoming a professor and researcher is not the only productive use of a PhD.

The range of responses to this question on Quora demonstrates that there are lots of non-obvious benefits of earning a PhD. Fahad Ali points out that working towards a PhD can be intellectually satisfying, can help build confidence, and “[y]ou’ll learn how to be tough (mentally tough that is) from all the grilling, criticizing, and second guessing you will have to endure…” Abhinav Varshney added that you will cultivate patience and the habit of observing things closely, since good research and breakthroughs are built on many small things.

What are some skills that every Ph.D student should have?

So many suggestions! A few on this thread that especially resonate with me:

  • Independence
  • Critical thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • Thoroughness
  • Humility
  • Ability to collaborate

Some of these may come naturally, but in my experience, even if they don’t, they can be cultivated.

How can a graduate student make the best out of his/her PhD experience?

My own advice stems from something I often struggle with: just be present. Try not to think of a PhD as a means to an end, but instead as an experience in which much of the benefit is in the process itself. Immerse yourself in your field, your work, and building relationships with the people around you.

Scott Fahlman, a Quora responder, similarly advocates for focusing on the aspects of a PhD experience — like the ability to delve into a topic you’ve chosen — and considering ways to maximize those unique aspects. He notes that working with a PhD advisor is an opportunity to learn from someone at the top of their field, and that other graduate students present opportunities for learning from brilliant and interesting peers.

If you’re ambitious (and most of us are), a lot of the stress you feel will be self-inflicted. So try to modulate your ambitions and not try to solve the most cosmic problems in the 3 or so years available for PhD research. There is an after-life for most students, so try to save something to work on during the rest of your career. (Do as I say, not as I did.) -Scott Fahlman

Similar advice reminds people that to receive a PhD, you don’t need to be the smartest… PhDs are earned through hard work. But on the flip side, perseveration on a dissertation isn’t the path to success: “The best type of dissertation is a completed dissertation.” Joseph Perazzo sums a lot of the advice up well: “Making the best out of the PhD experience, in my opinion, requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone. You can’t be afraid to meet people, ask questions, and learn learn learn!”

I’ll leave off with one of my favorite question-and-answer combos:

How did Ph.D students become so good at writing? 

  • “Uh, they didn’t. From talking with many of my academic colleagues, it’s clear that the large majority of graduate students do not become good at writing even when they graduate and defend their PhD.” -Ben Zhao
  • “Your question is worded (grammatically) to imply that they are good at writing. Which I disagree with.” -Maxine Power
  • They didn’t… PhDs learn how to research topics. (And, frankly, they often don’t do that well, either.) Their writing often lumbers and lurches along—inelegant and often unfocused.” -Donald Tepper

The assertion that PhD students, by and large, are not very good at writing is a recurring theme in the responses to this question. I love this in part because I know I’m not nearly as good at academic writing as many people I collaborate with. But I also love it because it reminds us that achieving a PhD doesn’t necessarily mean mastering research skills in your field (I consider writing about research to be a research skill). When you earn your PhD, you’ve contributed at least a drop of knowledge to a much larger pool, and you’ve massively improved and honed your research skills. But the PhD is not a magical transition from apprentice to master researcher — all throughout your career, you’ll continue to improve. The PhD is a first step of many.

You can find more curated questions and answers about the PhD experience in an earlier post.

4 years later: Why write this blog?

My blog is 4 years old today!

My first post was called Why write this blog? I was a fourth year undergrad, less than a week from graduation. Now I’m a fourth year PhD student, and uh… more than a week from graduation. Are the reasons I began blogging the same as the reasons I continue to blog?

Why I started blogging 4 years ago

I love to write, but writing in an online forum, where anyone could be sitting at their computer reading my thoughts, has always made me feel too exposed and vulnerable. Time to get over that, especially since I hope to go into academia, where putting myself “out there” will be a key to success.

There’s a funny paradox: on the one hand I want people to read what I write, but on the other, it can be paralyzing to actually think about people reading it when I’m trying to get words out. I deal with this by imagining that only a few people will read. I imagine someone who’s my quintessential audience. Usually, that’s my mom (you’re reading, right, mom?!). She’s educated and curious, but she’s not a cognitive scientist. She’s my ideal reader. So I imagine my mom reading, and no one else, and I just go with it.

It’s still hard to express your thoughts when you think smart people are listening and might criticize them. It took me a long time to be able to do this in person — in group meetings and talks — and I have no idea if my blog helped me with that. Throughout grad school, my relationship with criticism has evolved. Criticism is almost always an opportunity for improving your work, and actually has very little to do with me as a person. When I think of it that way, criticism is something to seek out, not to avoid.

I want to keep learning, reading, and thinking about thinking, and I think the best way to do this is to collaborate as much as possible. I’ve loved having frequent opportunities during college for cog sci dialogues with so many people, and I don’t want to give those dialogues up.

Occasionally people engage with my posts in the comments or on social media, and it’s great to have those conversations. But realistically, this blog is a

It’s  not the ideal platform for dialogue that I had hoped, but that’s ok.

I want to be a better reader, writer, and thinker, and this link convinced me that a blog is probably a good way to achieve that goal. In it, Maria Konnikova writes:

“What am I doing but honing my ability to think, research, analyze, and write—the core skills required to complete a dissertation? And I’m doing so, I would argue, in a far more effective fashion than I would ever be able to do were I to keep to a more traditional academia-only route.”

Spot on.

Why I still blog today

When I started blogging, I couldn’t entirely anticipate what my blogging experience would actually be like. Four years later, I may have even more reasons to blog than I did when I started.

My blog is somewhat of a lab. I can try things out – like a vlog, an infographic, or that megaphone graphic above. Do they make my posts more engaging? I don’t know, but I’m testing them out. If they flop, no harm done. I experiment with different topics, and I can use metrics that show me numbers of page views and how those readers got to my site for a rough idea of what resonates with people and how they’re finding my blog.

My blog also acts as an archive. It documents events like conferences and workshops I’ve attended, getting married, and the 2016 Presidential election, all through the lens of language and thought. My past posts help me recommend a book to a friend or find a paper I know I liked but can’t remember why. And it gives me ample opportunities for laughing at my past self. Like did it occur to me that acknowledging my college graduation by writing a post about euthenics at Vassar was maybe a bit perverse??

And I blog because it’s fun. It’s challenging, and it’s creative, and I make the rules. Some of my motivations might be unique, but it turns out I’m not alone in blogging “for the love of words.” In a recent post on her blog, From the Lab Bench, Paige Jarreau compares science bloggers’ reasons for blogging to Orwell’s “four great motives for writing.”

I’m a long-range thinker, but I don’t think I would have predicted when I clicked the “PUBLISH” button for the first time that I’d be clicking it for many of the same reasons four years later.

Hints for Sacks-like Success from On the Move

Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, professor, writer, and role model for many in medicine and other scientific fields. He had a unique ability to view patients in context, a refreshing opposition to the common tendency to treat each symptom in isolation. He wrote prolifically about his patients and what they could teach us about the mind, brain, and body. And his books were widely accessible – no M.D. needed to understand their contents.

When he died recently, many people wrote moving tributes to Dr. Sacks and his life. As I read some of these, I realized that I had read startlingly little of his writing, so I decided to read his memoir, On the Move. Sacks doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda with this book besides to share his life story. We learn about everything that was most important to him – people, places, jobs, and interests. In many ways, this book reminds us that even this revered doctor is still a person like the rest of us. There’s tension in his family, people who criticize his work, and he has his heart broken. At the same time, though, I often found myself thinking, he’s really not just like the rest of us – there’s something special here. I think that many of those unique traits contributed to his success, so I’ve tried to compile a few here.

Oliver Sacks spent a lot of time alone. He writes quite a bit about how much he loved his motorcycles and his time on them. Although this is something he did do with others at times, he refers to himself as a lone rider. Sacks seemed to be at peace with being alone. He writes that “by disposition I am solitary and venture to believe that the best, at least the most creative, part of me is solitary.”

He passionately pursued things that were far from his work. One of these activities was weightlifting. Lifting didn’t seem to be a just hobby for Sacks, but instead became a central part of his life at times. This quote hilariously sums up his commitment: “Rationing myself to five double cheeseburgers and half a dozen milkshakes per evening and training hard, I bulked up swiftly…” He did end up setting a lifting record in the state of California, further proof that this was not a half-hearted diversion for him.

On a related note, he threw himself fully into everything he did – especially his work. When he had a goal, it seems that nothing could stop him from achieving it. “It was the first of September, and I said to myself, ‘If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.’ And under that thread, I started writing.” That’s certainly one approach to getting your writing done on time.

He embraced writing. He explains that “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing.” Although it seems that he was sometimes able to sit down and write prolifically for hours (at one point he refers to an “explosion of writing”), he also shares his lulls. His book A Leg to Stand On gave him prolonged trouble, taking almost 10 years to complete.

These are not necessarily traits that we can force ourselves to have. Oliver Sacks was a truly unique person who produced insightful and inspiring work. But knowing a little more about the person behind this phenomenal physician and writer may help us to embrace our own oddities and see the ways that they contribute to our unique successes as well.


PS: There is a very cool study of science blogs and blog readers going on! To participate, take this survey:

For completing the survey, readers will be entered into a drawing for a $50.00 Amazon gift card and other prizes, and all participants will receive a small thank-you gift

Faith in science

We have a bit of a science problem in America. For some reason, our students aren’t learning it very well, or at least not as well as they are in many other countries. Most people seem to acknowledge this issue and advocate for an improvement in our education.

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And if students aren’t learning it, that probably means that adults, even those who are generally educated and motivated, probably have some conceptual gaps too (for example, when asked whether the earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the earth – a question that gives people a 50% chance of getting it right if they guessed blindly! – only 74% of Americans correctly reported that the earth orbits the sun). Our widespread knowledge gaps are Problem Number 1.

A related problem is that many people tend to distrust science. For one, science is not always right on the first try (eggs are bad for your cholesterol! No wait, eggs are good for you!). Relatedly, some people do actually do crappy science (Problem Number 2), and other times good science gets reported badly (Problem Number 3). The recent “study” that recruited a very small number of participants, gave half of them chocolate, measured a ton of correlations to find a few that would reveal significant results, and published these results in a phony journal highlighted this. This hoax demonstrated both bad science and exaggerated, sensational reporting, and people who were initially fooled into believing that chocolate is the key to weight loss probably feel duped – rightfully so.

Problems 1-3 are a recipe for societal skepticism about science. It’s really difficult to evaluate science even when you’re being trained as a scientist, let alone if all of your training is in an entirely different field. Science can easily seem foreign, unrelatable, and unreliable. Who has the power to do something about this? Prominent scientists could maybe help sway the public’s opinion, but we might need a revolution in our cultural ethos towards science, and old people are rarely behind revolutions. What about wide-eyed and idealistic science grad students?

In a few hours, I’ll be on a plane heading to ComSciCon, a workshop on communicating science for grad students. The goal is to help us become better at communicating our own science as well as other people’s science – hopefully a step towards society’s impending science ethos revolution.

The inseparability of writing and science

Whether you agree with Steven Pinker‘s views on cognition or not, it’s hard to deny that he’s an eloquent writer.  I recently found an interesting clip of Pinker discussing his new writing manual, The Sense of Style, which will be out in September.

I was first captivated by this quote: “There’s no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself.”

Throughout the video, Pinker explains why knowing more about the mind can help us to become better writers, which in turn will facilitate communication about scientific innovations like the mind. One reason Pinker makes this claim is because, in his view, “writing is cognitively unnatural.” In conversations, we can adjust what we’re saying based on feedback we receive from our audience, but we don’t have this privilege when writing. Instead, we must imagine our audience ahead of time in order to convey our message as clearly as possible.

Pinker points out that many writers write with an agenda of proving themselves as a good scientist, lawyer, or other professional. This stance doesn’t give rise to good writing. A writer should instead try to show the writer something that’s cool about the world.

He also points out that to be a good writer, you must first be a good reader, specifically “having absorbed tens or hundreds of thousands of constructions and idioms and irregularities from the printed page.” He uses the verbs “savor” and “reverse-engineer” to describe the process of reading to become a better writer. This echoes a lot of advice I’ve encountered (often in written form) since I first decided to pursue a PhD: read as much as you can. (I have also learned that any amount of reading I do will never feel like enough).


Regarding his style manual, Pinker wants to avoid the prescriptivist (someone who prescribes what constitutes correct language) vs. descriptivist (someone who reports how language is used in practice, regardless of correctness) distinction. Another great quote:

The controversy between ‘prescriptivists’ and ‘descriptivists’ is like the choice in ‘America: Love it or leave it,’ or ‘Nature versus Nurture’—a euphonious dichotomy that prevents you from thinking.

His overall point is that the humanities and sciences should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Instead, science should be used to inform humanities (in this case, writing, but I think his argument generalizes beyond this), and a knowledge of the humanities should inform science as well. To me, this is what cognitive science must necessarily be – an understanding of the human mind and behavior requires rigorous science, no doubt, but I think we need to continue to look outside the three pounds of neural tissue inside our skulls for the most complete understanding.

A B.S.-generating computer program makes a splash

The Turing test is a foundational concept in cognitive science. The idea behind it is that if we want to prove that a machine can think, it needs to be able to convincingly disguise itself as a human. A team of researchers from MIT and Harvard has added an element of recursion to the traditional Turing test. They’ve created a program whose purpose is to expose another machine’s non-humanlike qualities.

The team led by Les Perelman of MIT, opposed to the concept of automatic essay grading algorithms, designed the Basic Automatic B.S. Essay Language (Babel) Generator. When given three keywords or fewer, Babel generates a nonsensical essay. For example, the keyword “privacy” yielded an essay containing these sentences:

“Privateness has not been and undoubtedly never will be lauded, precarious, and decent. Humankind will always subjugate privateness.”


The essay received a score of 5.4 out of 6 from the automatic grader. The Chronicle of Higher Ed describes Babel as “machines fooling machines for the amusement of human skeptics.”

An automatic essay grading algorithm would undoubtedly save teachers a lot of time. But will it benefit students? Will they receive the same quality feedback as they would if a human had read their work? And regardless, will they be able to use the feedback to improve? Will they actually become better and more creative writers, or will they become more robotic, producing essays that fit a template? For these reasons, I’m a little excited to see this unsuccessful attempt for artificial intelligence to replace humans for judging the quality of writing.

A little self-promotion

I’ve written two posts for different blogs this week that I’d like to share, in part because the other blogs themselves are really great and worth checking out.

The first post was for my department’s blog: UCSD Cognitive Science. In two weeks, a handful of applicants who have already impressed the faculty members will arrive for our open-house weekend. There will be lots of catered food and talk about the mind, and it will be so different for me being a current student versus an applicant. I wrote a post with open house weekend in mind, with the goals of introducing a handful of the labs in the department, parodying the process of getting a Ph.D., and offering a little bit of “what-to-expect” for applicants, all through the lens of my favorite topic, metaphor.

The second post was for GradHacker, a blog that provides tidbits of wisdom (hacks) from grad students for grad students. I wrote about time-management, which is a skill that’s always come naturally to me until I started my Ph.D. program. I wasn’t  failing at managing my time, but I also wasn’t content. I did quite a bit of my own research and soul-searching (it sounds dramatic, but actually it was that important to me) to figure out what might help me meet my new demands. One technique I discovered was the Pomodoro method, which structures time by breaking it into 20-minute chunks of intense focus.

Hoping to get more writing opportunities like these in the near future!



Post fellowship app reflections

Yesterday I submitted my first application for external funding. It was for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, and it’s safe to say that almost every first- and second-year PhD student in any STEM field (as well as many fourth-year undergrads) in America applied for the award. When I began to seriously think about my application about 2 months ago, it seemed like a relatively small, reasonable task. Last winter I applied to about 8 grad schools, each with different essays and application requirements, so this seemed small in comparison. As the deadline kept getting closer, the magnitude of the project seemed to increase. The main components of the application are a personal statement (your past, current interests, and future goals), and a research proposal for a project you’ve designed yourself. Now that I’ve hit the Submit button, I have a moment to reflect on just how valuable this process was, regardless of the success of my application.

I had been working on the essays with my advisor throughout the process, but the day before the deadline, I met with her to work out the concerns I still had. We scrutinized every word in my application. We questioned the value of every sentence. We simplified, clarified, and, sometimes, we agonized. Four hours later, I could confidently say that the application as a whole accurately reflected the applicant I believe I am. 

I’ve recently started deciding how long a task should take and setting a stopwatch for that time. When it’s up, I’m done. While it works pretty well for tasks like readings in which absorbing every word isn’t crucial, this final editing experience was a perfect example of a pitfall of the stopwatch method. I’m incredibly thankful that my advisor didn’t set a stopwatch when I walked in. She was fully on board with the fact that we’d work together until the task was truly complete. By the time we had shaved the last bit of a sentence, bringing my essay to the required length, it was dark and cold (by San Diego standards). But those facts were irrelevant in light of the state of the finished products. They’re a great mix of art and science: creative and melodious in places, while simultaneously logical, thorough, and articulate.

And now we wait.

Why learn to write cursive?

When I was in elementary school, printing was difficult enough for me. Or, more accurately, being patient enough to neatly form each letter was difficult. I just wanted to get my thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. When I started to learn cursive, it was an exciting and novel activity for the first day, but it quickly became tedious. Why would I want to sit and write the same letter over and over when I had so many stories and observations that were begging to be written instead? Because I thought cursive writing was a waste of time (and isn’t it usually more difficult to read too?), as soon as my teachers stopped caring, I stopped using it. This article in Psychology Today now has me wondering if that was such a great idea.

The article by William Klemm discusses the cognitive benefits of learning cursive. He writes that, during the process of learning cursive, “the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking.” When we write in cursive, we have to exercise fine motor control over our fingers and pay attention to how we’re forming letters, recruiting brain areas that aren’t used when we keyboard.


A lot of the benefits of writing cursive also extend to printing: strokes must be located relative to each other, the sizes, form, and features of each letter must be remembered, and categorization skills are developed. However, cursive writing brings some additional benefits because “the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation.”

These observations about the benefits of cursive are really interesting in the context of enactivism – the idea that one’s mind is organized by his interactions with the environment. (To me, this is almost the same thing as embodied cognition, except that where embodied cognition emphasizes the body with which we act, enactivism emphasizes the actual acting.) The physical act of writing seems to play a facilitatory role in coming up with ideas. In a study of children from grades 2-6, Virginia Bernignger at the University of Washington found that they wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand than with a keyboard. While this could be taken as a sign that children are bad typists, the argument is that the ideas emerged via motor movements.


The study of haptics examines the interactions of touch, hand movements, and brain functions. If researchers are right that the act of writing helps form representations of letters when children are learning to read and write, I wonder if our letter representations are somehow altered or degraded if we later elect to replace handwriting with typing?

Another sort of tangential connection is the suggestion I’ve heard by many educators to physically rewrite notes when trying to memorize them, as opposed to typing them. Somehow, the tedious act of forming the letters facilitates stronger memories of the materials. Aside from the fact that, if true, these are helpful hints for education, the apparent cognitive impacts of handwriting also speak to the inseparability of our bodies and our minds, even in seemingly mundane cases such as handwriting vs. typing.

Healing words

One of my favorite recurring themes is the power that language has over our cognition. Lots of research has been devoted to words’ healing powers, and today I’m thinking about that because I turned to writing, as I often do, as a way to cope with my own inner turmoil.

In empirical studies, participants who write about negative events tend to have fewer negative feelings after the event than those who don’t write or who write about something irrelevant. And when I think about the most stereotypical demographic of diary writers, I think about middle school girls, who are often bursting with angst and turn to writing as an outlet.

Even when I look back on my own journals, which I’ve been keeping since I learned to write (though the spelling in my first few may suggest that I hadn’t quite learned yet), it sort of seems like my life has been one drama-filled roller coaster ride. On the contrary, my life is quite steady. If it were a roller coaster, it would be one of those for kids ages 5 and under, whose hills and valleys are barely existent. But at the end of a fine day in which I went about my routine and nothing notable happened, I don’t have the desire to write. I’m drawn to my journal during times of stress, times in which I’m trying to make sense of what’s going on in my world, ameliorate some situation, or put an event behind me. Subconsciously, it seems, journal-keepers must know the therapeutic power of their words.

A page from my second grade journal. On this day, I was very excited because my teacher, whom I adored, had been sick and absent for a few weeks, and this was the day she came back.
A page from my second grade journal. On this day, I was very excited because my teacher, whom I adored, had been sick and absent for a few weeks, and this was the day she came back.

Recently, one study reported that writing about traumatic events may also have a physically therapeutic effect. All participants gave small skin biopsies that left a wound on their arm, and their wounds were photographed every 3-5 days until they were healed, and all had a writing task that they completed daily. Seventy-six percent of the participants who wrote about traumatic events were completely healed after 11 days, while only 42% of the participants who wrote about their plans for the next day were healed. While it’s only one of many studies that shows a link between state of mind and physical health, the fact that writing can produce such a measurable healing effect is pretty neat.

This is also interesting in the context of another article that talks about the use of diaries in European ICUs. Many patients, especially in England, are given diaries to keep while in the hospital, and those who are unable to do so often have family members who keep it for them. Not only do these diaries help people piece together their often blurred hospital experiences after the fact, but they also seem to help reduce the emotional stress that might linger after an experience in the ICU.

Since so many studies focus writing’s potential to help purge negative emotions, I wonder what the possible effects of writing about positive events and feelings might be…