Let me start this post by stating why I wanted a PhD degree in the first place. Actually let me rephrase that to why I wanted to get into PhD studies. Here are my reasons for opting in to doctoral research:
1) I wanted to study more. What school teaches you is a working knowledge of the world. After school, you know that the world is round, you know why an apple falls downward and you know English well enough. Then came college. In other words, undergraduate studies. They teach you the essentials of electrical engineering. After graduating, you know how to take the Laplace transform of a signal, how to use a breadboard and the basic equations governing transistors. But, let’s face it, even after 22 years of your life have passed and you are a proud graduate of an elite technical institution in India, you know very little about the real workings of electrical engineering. Yes, you understand stuff. But what you have been taught is a simplification of things which took some of the most intelligent human beings centuries to grasp. You don’t really know circuit design, do you?
And that’s why I wanted to get into PhD studies. I wanted to know more and more, get into circuit design good and proper, explore stuff and potentially conceive and realize new, game-changing ideas.
2) I did not want to do a job. Ironically, my final wish is to do a job. I don’t want to stay in academics and become a professor1. But just after graduating from IIT Kharagpur and realizing that what I know about electrical engineering is quite little (see above para), I did not want to start working and have people paying me for my skill in electrical engineering. In other words, I felt I was not ready to provide professional services.
Of course, I am only talking about jobs which require electrical engineering knowledge. In other words, I am talking about ‘core sector’ jobs. Yes, there were a lot of other juicy fruit to pick during placement season, such as analytics, finance, IT and so on. But I did not want to. Period.
3) I wanted to see the rest of the world. ‘See’ isn’t really the correct term. I wanted to experience the rest of the world. I wanted to get out of India and check out what other countries have to offer. How do those people live? Do they also eat, talk and behave the way Indians do? What are their mentalities and aspirations like? What are the things which are common to all humans and transcend international barriers? I wanted answers to all these. In that sense, I am glad I came to the US. The international mix and melting pot of cultures on offer here is, I believe, greater than any other country. Agreed, it isn’t truly as international as I expected, most of the Los Angeles that I’ve experienced can be summed up as Americans + Mexicans + Chinese + Koreans + Indians + Iranians + splashes of Brazilians, Japanese and Europeans. But that’s still quite a lot of variety and, I am quite sure, represent a bigger geographical and cultural spread than I could have hoped for in the other countries to which Indians apply for higher studies, viz. Canada, England, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Singapore, etc.
Let me now move on to what doing a PhD actually is like. The following is purely based on my single year of experience so far. If I write a similar post later, my expressed views might be very different2. So here goes:
You don’t actually change anything. You don’t actually do anything brand new. You don’t really discover stuff. Well yes, you do experience the “Oh, so that’s how you do it” discovery, but not the “Hey, I just found something new” discovery. In short, you don’t change the world. So what do you do?
To answer this question, let me draw an analogy. Imagine an ocean. The water in the ocean represents all the accumulated knowledge of electrical engineering. If there was a similar ocean for physics, you can think of people like Einstein and Newton having added entire seas worth of water to that ocean. Similarly, people like Tesla, Gauss, Maxwell and Kilby and their associates added gigantic pools of water to that ocean. Now what you do during your PhD is start from the bottom of this ocean. Your mission is to move upwards through the water and try to reach the surface. There are multiple paths to do so, but none of them are clear. There are weeds to impede you and mighty fish which can strike you on the head and send you plummeting downwards. And once or twice during your journey you’ll face the giant squid which grabs you and takes you all the way down to the bottom (not where you started from, but a place at a similar depth). Ultimately, after several years you should reach the surface. When you do that, you will find that a small drop of water has formed in a watertight bag in your pocket. This drop did not come from the ocean, you created it as you moved up to the water (I was thinking of making this more realistic by talking about body fluids, but decided against it). Then what you do is open this bag and release this small drop of water into the ocean. You’re done.
Essentially what you do during your PhD is find out how others have done things. Explore all that’s already there. And finally do something which has already been done. Ya ya, you may do it in a different way (often a worse way), but it’s not really something unknown or unseen. If you are thinking you’ll discover cool, new stuff during your PhD, well, think again. You see, all the human beings before you were not fools. You are not more intelligent or of a different buildup than them. If you think you can really come up with some brand new stuff which is better than the existing stuff out there, I am sorry but you’re mistaken. That’s not to say that innovations don’t happen. Obviously they do, otherwise we would still be stuck with landline telephones and grayscale televisions. Which brings me to an important point.
You see, the world of today is not based on individual brilliance. Before I expound this, let me say that ironically, the world of today recognizes individuality more than any other time in the past. A human being can live totally by himself without having to worry about being a social person and always conforming to accepted standards. Each person is all-powerful. This is contrary to ancient societies where there was a structure in society and you needed to adhere to a set of norms. That thing has diminished, which is great!
But, individual brilliance has followed the opposite path. New technologies and discoveries are not based on individual brilliance any more. That has been replaced by collective brainpower. Huge corporations tap on the combined potential of a lot of minds (some of which may be close to Einstein’s) to realize new and groundbreaking stuff. In other words, unless you are a true genius (like the rare 16 year old mathematics doctorate featured in the papers), you alone are not going to make any substantial impact. You’ll be a drop in the ocean, another brick in the wall.
If that’s true, then what’s the joy in doing a PhD? Well, you can think of it as working for a company, only, the pressure to deliver products is less and the pressure to investigate different approaches is more. That’s what a PhD is. Tons of simulations and trying to find out differences between approaches. And also learning a lot of existing stuff. That can be cool too, you know. Part of the ‘fun’ of a PhD is reading a paper by Ying Xue, Krishnan Balasubramanian, Matt Parker and Fayed Mirazvi on an analog-to-digital converter which does some things differently than another, and achieves 5% better signal resolution (and 5% less power efficiency, which they won’t tell you) than the other. Then trying to build your own analog-to-digital converter which achieves 2% better power efficiency (wow, a whole 2%, you are so cool) and 2% less signal resolution (but hey, it’s just 2%, that’s negligible) than existing structures. Ya, good stuff. Keep at it and you’ll eventually get a PhD.
After all this, if I have turned you away from pursuing a PhD, get back here. Would you rather do some 9 to 5 software design shit (sorry, I meant shift) in Bangalore3 or experience that moment once in a blue moon when you feel you have contributed to the research community by introducing your drop of water. Not to mention that the amount you get to learn during a PhD (including discipline and time management skills) is unparalleled. If you like learning about new stuff, checking out different approaches to a problem and ultimately, really, really, really deeply getting to know the field which you studied in college, you should totally do a PhD.
1This has changed. I am now seriously considering becoming a professor.
2Yes they are, now that I have finished 3 years.
3Most tech companies in India have offices here.