Why do I want to do a PhD?

In a couple of months, I'll be starting my PhD at UC Berkeley School of Information. The whole grad school application process was a wild ride, and something I'd like to write more about in the future, but for now, I'd like to write a bit about my motivations for deciding to do a PhD in the first place.

Hedges (and acknowledging the audience (that's you!))

If you're considering applying to grad schools, please don't take this post as anything other than my own thoughts as I navigated this decision. If you relate to them, that's great! Maybe you should do a PhD. Maybe neither of us should (whoops).

If you are someone who has done a PhD in the past (or are in the middle of one right now), I'm not sure why you're reading this, but if it reminds you of your own motivations, that's great! If it doesn't... Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

If you are me from the future, hi! I hope things are going well, and if they're not and you're really doubting me for signing you up for this, here is why I (you (we)) decided to do it in the first place.

Anyway, I decided to do a PhD because...

...I'd like to satisfy my curiosity.

I became interested in doing research in undergrad because I read a paper I really liked. It was the first time I enjoyed reading a research paper, and that made me realize that there's scientific research happening that I'm actually interested in.

I would like to read more of those types of papers. I would like to read more papers full of other people's interesting ideas, but there are also papers I would like to read that test my personal hypotheses about the world. Because I don't have the resources to fund my own research lab and tell people to write those papers, it seems the next easiest thing to do is to tell myself to write those papers. So that then I can read them.

...I want to get better at research.

The flaw in the above plan is that I'm not very good at writing papers right now, so I need to get some practice operationalizing research ideas, writing code, synthesizing literature, (and writing papers). If only there were some kind of educational institution in which I could practice conducting research.

...the alternatives weren't as appealing.

I've also done software engineering and data journalism internships.

I wasn't that thrilled with my SWE experience: the work was sometimes interesting, but I missed having a sense of ownership over what I was doing. In my research experience, I owned my work, and I liked that feeling. The flip side is that there's less of a mental safety net -- failures feel more personal. There's a constant pressure to be productive because if you're not working on your project, it's not like someone else in the org will be. But to experience higher highs, it makes sense you have to also take the lower lows, and it was a great feeling to see my name on a published paper.

I'll write more about data journalism in the future probably -- I worked on the data graphics at NBC News Digital for a semester. It was a generally fantastic experience, but I felt two frustrations: 1) you have to work on the news, which isn't always necessarily what you're interested in and 2) it's a bigger ask to use some more advanced methodologies because it'll both take more time and be harder to explain to readers.

...why not?

Finally, it's just something I'd like to do. Why do we climb mountains or run marathons or set out to do anything at all? There are moments where you'll feel great, for sure, but also plenty of pretty terrible moments. But I think any meaningful experience has good parts and bad parts. On balance, having done a PhD will probably make me a more improved person, so it seems like there's not much reason not to do one if I, for whatever arbitrary reason, just want to.

If life is just a collection of experiences, then this is an experience I'd like to collect.


I did the nested parentheticals a couple of times in this post. I think I like it. I hope it didn't bother you too much.