“Failure” is an option

This is about the hard choices that graduate students must make.

The cultural definition of success in academic research is to:

  1. Produce good research which many other people appreciate.
  2. Produce many students who go on to do the same.

There are fundamental reasons why this is success in the local culture. Good research appreciated by others means access to jobs. Many students succesful in the same way implies that there are a number of people who think in a similar way and appreciate your work.

In order to graduate, a phd student must live in an academic culture for a period of several years. It is common to adopt the culture’s definition of success during this time. It’s also common for many phd students discover they are not suited to an academic research lifestyle. This collision of values and abilities naturally results in depression.

The most fundamental advice when this happens is: change something. Pick a new advisor. Pick a new research topic. Or leave the program (and do something else with your life).

The first two are relatively easy, but “Do something else with your life” is a hard choice for a phd student to make because they are immersed in and adopt a value system that does not value that choice. Remember here that the academic value system is not a universal value system. For example, many people want to do something that is immediately constructive and find this at odds with academic research (which is almost defined by “not immediate”). The world is big enough and diverse enough to support multiple value systems. Realizing this may be the key to making very good decisions in your life. A number of my friends made this decision and went to google or investment banking places where they are deliriously happier (and more productive) than in their former lives.

2 Replies to ““Failure” is an option”

  1. I don’t know who started this joke:

    Each time you participate the submission a NSF grant proposal as a grad student, your desire to go with the academic track goes down by a constant factor.

    And in my experience, this is very true.

  2. There’s a similar culture clash upon finishing grad school and entering a large industry research lab, which has its own value system. It was difficult realizing that the success metrics for academia are not the only ways to achieve happiness in one’s life.

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