The Ph.D. Grind: Doing Nothing Is the Hardest Thing

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Seriously, Read The Ph.D. Grind

Everyone doing a Ph.D. or considering doing one should read The Ph.D. Grind. Don’t wait — you’ll learn the much-needed “rational optimism” for this crazy ride.

I only came across this gem in my final semester year of Ph.D. but Dr. Philip Guo’s reflections of his first year in grad school immediately resonated with my own. I, too, procrastinated heavily for the first time in my life and felt I somehow lost my sense of direction. As he put, “Having full intellectual freedom was actually a curse, since I was not yet prepared to handle it.”

For years on end, I thought I was the only one. I’ve kept it a secret out of shame: I don’t recall how my early days of grad school went, because I was, more often than not, doing nothing than pushing my research program forward. In my mind, that was infinitely worse than trying one’s best but failing. Since I couldn’t put words to my struggle, I thought I wasn’t worth the help.

Doing Nothing Is A Valid Struggle

Why wasn’t I doing something? I don’t know: It’s a mystery to me as well. Back in China, I’d always been outspoken and hard-working. Cliché as it may sound, doing computational cognitive science had been my dream job since I was a kid, even before I knew any of the three words. I was enamored with von Neumann’s vision that if only we know what thinking entails, we can build machines that think like us:

“You insist that there is something a machine cannot do. If you will tell me precisely what it is that a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do just that!" — von Neumann (1948)

It was strange that the moment I arrived at Berkeley, I felt lost. All of a sudden, I became quiet and unmotivated. I went to classes and rushed home. I watched more movies a month than I read papers. Research felt more like a chore than fun.

Was it because I moved to a foreign country and had to read, write, and joke in a second language? Was it because I’d never worked with infants and inherited a complex infant study right from the start? Was it because of the casual racism here and there (e.g., being asked to come up with an “English name”, being told my answer didn’t matter in a trivia game with American students when it turned out to be correct…) that made me feel small? Was it because I felt intimidated by legends who graduated from Berkeley psych and figured I was too far behind?…

I had no idea. None of those reasons? All of them combined? Now I have no trouble speaking up and know what I’m good at (e.g., I’m a much better and happier modeler than I am an experimenter). But it took me four years. It took that long because I didn’t realize doing nothing is a common response to stress or acknowledge it as a valid struggle, just like trying and failing. I didn’t seek help earlier because I thought my pain was an absurd abnormality that no one could empathize with.

To anyone reading this: If you need help from friends, family, fellow students, advisors, other professors, colleagues, therapists, or strangers, please, please ask — you don’t have to justify your reactions to challenges or adversities to feel you’re worth their help. As a non-clinical psychologist, I have this wild theory that anything we do makes sense, whether we can articulate it or not: Billions of neurons have coordinated to do what you did, after all. Whether it helps you achieve your goals or makes you happy is a different story. First, acknowledge your natural responses and then you can work towards more adaptive solutions.

1% Is Infinitely Better Than 0%

2020 was the last year I did nothing. The day before the COVID-19 lockdown (I didn’t know there was gonna be one…), I moved out from my ex-girlfriend’s place. A day later, I got an interview from The Data Incubator (TDI), a fellowship program that helps Ph.D. students look for data science jobs. I felt grateful for the timing and was, in Dr. Guo’s words, “relentlessly focused” on the interview preparation (I learned to deploy a fairly simple model for my presentation). I got in, did the thing, added lines on my résumé, learned a few tricks, and made some friends.

What I did at TDI was far less important than the momentum it generated: For the first time in years, I worked daily towards a goal. By contrast, I had the bad habit of only working on projects right before deadlines in my first 3 years. After TDI ended in September 2020, I applied the newly acquired consistency to research.

Apart from a few close friends, I’ve never told anyone what happened next (till now): In November 2020, I was informed that my dad was diagnosed with a rare disease; a few days later, my advisor suggested that I quit my Ph.D. because she didn’t think I could possibly collect data during the pandemic (I used to work with kids in the lab or museums). To convince her otherwise, I converted my dissertation study from a physical game to a browser game (nothing fancy, but I had to learn JavaScript from scratch) in about a week. Then from December 2020 to February 2021, I tested about 30 kids over Zoom, which was actually more than I could before the pandemic. After demonstrating Zoom data collection was feasible and having three-way meetings with my advisor and the Head Graduate Advisor, I was allowed to stay.

When my graduation crisis was sort of over in late February 2021, I started looking for summer internships. As context: Major tech companies usually interview students from late August to December for internships that take place next year; interviewing in February for internships the same year is truly in the eleventh hour. I’ll spare you the interview details — maybe I’ll write another post just about that. From March to May, I applied to any and every internship opening that had the word “data” or “machine” in it. During the same period, I was also teaching (missed the deadline for the dissertation 💰) and running experiments. I didn’t know how to interview and bombed several great opportunities. I got my first offer in April from a stealth mode startup, which I turned down because of the alarmingly weird vibe. I then got my first legit offer in May. Just to show you how clueless I was: I had my last “chat” with the VP of Data Science while hiking in the Rocky Mountains, only to realize that was called a “behavior interview”. It was a miracle I got the job.

From June to August 2021, I had an awesome internship experience: Warm colleagues, a helpful mentor, and a cool project. (I also played more sports than I probably got time for that summer…) On my last day, a machine learning engineer on my team commented, “Yuan, only you can get that much done." Was that true? I don’t know, but I do feel proud for my project. To get it done in time, I planed out each week, did a fair amount each day, and asked for help as soon as I realized I needed it.

In September 2021, I started interviewing for full-time jobs and got my first offer that October. After getting several offers, I started to get questions about how I managed — after all, the final year of Ph.D. felt like two full-time jobs and the job search was another one top. The truth is, I still waste time all the time; I’m just no longer that 22-year-old kid who’d do nothing at all if they couldn’t do their best. I’ve learned that doing 1% is infinitely better than doing nothing.

That’s the laundry list. Here’s the TL;DR: Doing nothing is the hardest thing — you feel you got nothing to say about your struggles and that you’re beyond salvation for not trying. You know what, you’re hella brave to admit that. Don’t be ashamed. Ask for help. Do something, anything, and keep building. Better days are ahead.

Don’t Do It Alone

I want to emphasize that I didn’t do it alone. I want to thank many friends who lent their hands and ears (and almost money, which I turned down every time). I remember everything — like when a Texan friend who got an offer ages ago mocked interviewed me past 11 P.M. her time, a Christian friend asked if she could add my dad in her prayers, two DS friends who said I’d make a good data scientist long before I got my first internship, and so many more. Make no mistake: I don’t think you should lean on anyone to solve your problems or process your emotions — that is your own work, but you also don’t have to keep it all to yourself.

I also thank my therapist from December 2020 to June 2021: By articulating my darkest emotions and internalizing her appreciation of me, I learned not to ridicule but to understand myself. Since then, I suggested therapy to friends who struggled for various reasons. Some said they feel therapists don’t care since “it’s just a profession” or they can anticipate what therapists are gonna say. When I mentioned these reasons to a clinical psychology Ph.D. friend, she cleverly responded, “When you have a flu, do you care if the doctor treats you out of kindness or professionalism? All that matters is that it works." Your friends are not mental health professionals and can’t teach you emotional/social/cognitive coping skills — you deserve the professional help you need.