I am a third year undergrad in computer science, at a US university. Even before I was an undergrad, I was considering pursuing a PhD in theory after graduation; until the research internship I did this summer (for CS people, it was in quantum comp. complexity). I really enjoy the courses I take, and like thinking about/working on CS theory outside school, too. I also enjoyed idea of doing research as a full time job.

However, after some weeks into the internship, I started to have a quite hard time reading the papers on the topic I was working on; they started to feel like they were just too hard for me to understand. It was taking too long to grasp the idea of even a couple of pages. I had to study late after work for quite some time. But, I don't think that's the real problem. The real problem is that, I did not enjoy the struggle, I felt miserable, tired and stressed. Although I kept pushing and working on it for some more time, after a point, I just lost the energy to continue and just procrastinated for a couple of weeks. And at the end of the internship, I had no result. I feel like I could only learn a little about the topic and the current work on it, let alone coming up with an idea of mine or contributing anything. At the meetings with my advisor, I could only talk a little bit about what I read, I did not have any new ideas; most of the time I was just listening to his ideas. I think that maybe the only reasons I wanted a PhD was that I was doing good in courses or to prove that I am smart to enough to be a researcher. These feelings and loss of energy made me really scared of the ~5 years commitment to a PhD, or maybe the life-long commitment to a career in research. I keep thinking that same could happen during the PhD and I would have wasted many (could-be-)productive years.

On the other hand, I don't think I want to work as an engineer, just coding everyday and developing some apps, following some "best practices" without thinking, using my brain much; although it feels a lot easier to do so (and maybe leads to a more enjoyable life, since I would be actually free after work hours). I feel like that would be underutilizing my capacity.

I know that someone cannot decide for me, or know what I really want. But my question is that, how can I decide which way should I choose? What should I ask myself? What should I try (for example, maybe doing a masters first)?

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    You are unnecessarily being discouraged by what is considered normal. All of us struggle with research papers. I have read papers that I could digest in 10 seconds and whilst there are some that I haven't been able to understand fully for many years :) The good news is that the more you read, the easier it will become. Also reading papers take skills. Search the net or this forum for tips on reading papers. Sep 5, 2018 at 8:41
  • Hi @wisgx, the part of your question that is about learning to understand research papers is a duplicate of this one: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/9899/… The part that deals with the motivation or rationale to do a PhD is to some extent addressed in this post: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/52732/… I suggest you check those out and decide if you want to close this question or to ask more specifically what else you need to know.
    – henning
    Sep 5, 2018 at 9:23
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    Which country are you planning to do a PhD in?
    – user2768
    Sep 5, 2018 at 9:24
  • @user2768 In US
    – wisgx
    Sep 5, 2018 at 9:52
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    @wisgx Don´t judge the job of software developers to fast if you decide not to do a PhD. It really depends on the kind of company you are working at. I am a part time software developer for a company that does customized software applications utilizing all kinds of hardware and doing all kinds of data analysis with measurements from the hardware. This has nothing to do with "writing apps" and "not using your brain much" and often gives me more difficult problems to solve than my own research work at university. (I don´t mean compiler errors. ;-) )
    – asquared
    Sep 7, 2018 at 13:40

2 Answers 2


Tangentially related: How can I make an informed decision on whether to do a PhD in engineering or not?

If you were miserable, tired, stressed, had no results, and procrastinated for weeks, I'd indeed take it as a warning sign that you should not do a PhD (at least in quantum complexity theory). A few things to think about though:

  • You're a 3rd year undergraduate. You're not expected to know research-level material, and in fact are expected to struggle to understand them.
  • You don't have to decide now. You might for example be able to do a 4th year of study (an Honours year) or a Masters degree where you get a second chance at research. If you find it miserable, tiring, stressful, etc, then you can still exit and avoid going to a PhD.
  • It's possible your misery is because of your supervisor. Was your supervisor helpful or approachable? Did she provide close supervision? Did you feel like you were left to fend for yourself? It's somewhat surprising to me that you can procrastinate for 2 weeks and the supervisor not intervene, especially since summer internships are short duration so you can't really afford to waste this much time.
  • You can also ask your supervisor whether she thinks you're suited to PhD study.
  • Don't stereotype what engineers do. Assuming you've never been an engineer before, you know even less about what engineers do than what PhD students do. There's a very good chance that the job will require you to use your brain - one common reason for people changing jobs is that they need a new challenge (read: old job doesn't require them to use their brain enough), and engineering not known as a high-attrition rate job.
  • Thanks for the answer. - The degree is already 4 years, so I have 2 more years. I agree with you about the Masters degree thing, I am actually considering to do so. - I might have exaggareted the two weeks thing, and it was not continous; because we had meetings at least once in most of the weeks. Supervisor was most of the time like "read these, then we'll talk about it" and then I would read the papers, and re-prove it to her. Near the end, she suggested a way for a problem, but I could not reach anything from there. Also, out of curiosity, was I expected to have a result in 2 months?
    – wisgx
    Sep 5, 2018 at 11:45
  • I am not sure about asking the supervisor. Since I did not have a great performance, she will probably try to give motivating response, to be polite and supporting, and not a sincere one. By the way, I also had a long internship in industry; so I am not totally clueless. But your point is still valid.
    – wisgx
    Sep 5, 2018 at 11:48
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    I disagree with the advice "I'd indeed take it as a warning sign that you should not do a PhD". At worst this is a warning sign that you should not pursue a PhD in quantum complexity theory. Theoretical computer science is a big place; try a different topic before giving up entirely!
    – JeffE
    Sep 5, 2018 at 13:35
  • @JeffE good point, will amend.
    – Allure
    Sep 5, 2018 at 23:42
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    @wisgx I think it's common, but not certain, that undergraduate research projects don't end in new results. I wouldn't take that as a bad sign, although it's certainly not a good sign either. You can still ask your supervisor - just make it clear that you need her honest opinion, not her encouragement.
    – Allure
    Sep 5, 2018 at 23:44

On the one hand, the things that you struggled with are common struggles and do not in any way indicate that you aren't capable of doing a PhD or don't belong in a PhD program.

On the other hand, the fact that you were so unhappy in these situations (which are normal when doing research!) might indicate that you would be similarly unhappy in a PhD program.

Now maybe there were aspects of this particular setting that were the problem, and it's worth thinking about what made you unhappy and whether a different approach would be better for you, and it's worth trying another research opportunity to figure out if it was the subject or the advisor or the setting that was the problem. But honestly, most of what you talk about in your question sounds like you are unhappy doing research. Doing research involves butting your head against very difficult and confusing things. To enjoy research you have to to some extent enjoy that struggle. There are lots of interesting paths through life, you don't have to choose one that is going to make you unhappy!

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