I am 3 years into a PhD program at a top North American university in STEM. My daily routine includes working on my research and preparing for courses I am assisting. In general, I would say that there is always work to keep me motivated. I have a good relationship with my supervisor. However, I don't feel valued by my department.
Recently an undergrad in one of my class had a chat with me about deciding on pursuing grad school. He asked me about my research and the courses that I took. I felt that he wasn't very impressed, as he was more industry-oriented and failed to see how real analysis can help anyone.
He then asked me couple things which left me even more self-conscious
- I wish to go to graduate school, but I also fear that I will miss out opportunities to make hundreds of thousands of dollar per year working in industry. I also wish to be financially independent and have an early retirement. Can doing a PhD for five years offer this reality?
I had really no answer to this question, as I am in constant doubts myself over the rising opportunity cost of doing a PhD. There is a part of me that beckons me to leave academia immediately. It tells me that I could do so much better, be more free only if I had made the choice after I graduated with my Bachelors. Only if I knew how little I would be paid compared to my peers.
- Programming and software development are highly valued skills in industry. Almost all jobs nowadays requires some form of it. Do you think your degree has prepared you to be competent in these areas?
I cannot say yes to this question either. I do use programming every now and then, but I am in no way comparable to a person who works solely in this field. It does seem that programming skill seems to be the only skill that employers value, a litmus or IQ test for a world of graduate students with questionable credentials. Even newly minted PhDs are directly sent to software developments, albeit more specialized. No, a graduate degree has not prepared me to be a competent coder, the one skill that would make transition from academia to industry so much more smoother.
- Do you believe in the theory and methodology you are developing? How do you know that your model can be used by actual people, like the products people develop in industry?
I cannot answer this question either. All the techniques, theories I developed seemed to only produce more techniques and theories. None of which I can see or use to directly benefit anyone. That is not to say they are bad for publishing paper. In fact I feel that they might be too good for this narrow purpose, and I have lost sight in what excited me about research in the first place: the potential to have real-life impact on real actual people. No, I do not believe in my own research, or that of anyone else who are working in my department, aside from the few people who are doing it along with industry.
- What do you do when you are not working on your research?
I paused for a second. I don't know what I am doing besides research and teaching assistance duties. While my peers on instagram or facebook are traveling all around the world, visiting new places, I am bound to my institution. I cannot leave it for there is always more work. It is like a full-time job except that it is from 9 in the morning to 9 in the evening, occupying weekends, holidays, and all the moments I could have spent with my loved ones. Have I made the wrong decision?
This conversation compounded on a few more I had in the past few weeks with fellow graduate students after the semester started to wind down. Each of them displayed pessimism over the rising cost of living, and missed opportunities. Yet they still have faith in their (however abstract) research, which I feel like act as more of a distraction than anything else.
I wonder if this is the start of a long descent towards regretting my PhD all together. I am really starting to feel that a PhD is a punishment towards my lack of conviction in my studies, or me being unable to develop a passion for something. "If only I was solely interested in anti-jamming self-packing oscillators! maybe I could have been working for the oscillator company and making bank! How do these people get interested in this esoteric thing?"
Am I even better than an undergrad student in any way?
Every day I wake up telling myself that the grass only looks greener on the other side, and I can't really tell if I could have been happier in industry. But there is always the lingering thought of what could have been.
Has anyone ever had these thoughts at some stage of their PhD career?
Is there any way to renew my faith in my PhD degree?