The only research topic you will ever pursue
Many students make the mistake of viewing their Ph.D. topic as a research
area for life. They assume each researcher only works in one area, always
pursues the same topic within that area, and always uses the same tools and
approaches. Experienced researchers know that new questions arise constantly,
and that old questions can become less interesting as time passes or new facts
are discovered. The best people change topics and areas. It keeps them fresh
and stimulates thinking. Plan to move on; prepare for change.
Easier than entering the work force
You will find that the path to successful completion of a Ph.D. becomes
much steeper after you begin. The faculty impose constraints on your study,
and do not permit unproductive students to remain in the program.
Better than the alternatives
For many students, a Ph.D. can be a curse. They must choose between being
at the top among people who hold a Masters degree or being a mediocre
researcher. The faculty sometimes advise students that they must choose
between being ``captain of the B team'' or a ``benchwarmer'' on the A team.
Everyone must decide what they want, and which profession will stimulate them
most. But students should be realistic about their capabilities. If you really
cannot determine where you stand, ask faculty members.
A way to make more money
While we haven't heard any statistics for the past couple of years,
graduate students used to estimate the ``payoff'' using the starting salaries
of Ph.D. and M.S. positions, the average time required to obtain a Ph.D., the
value of stock options, and current return on investments. For a period of at
least five years that we know, the payoff was clearly negative. Suffice it to
say that one must choose research because one loves it; a Ph.D. is not the
optimum road to wealth.
The good news:
Despite all our warnings, we are proud that we earned Ph.D. degrees and proud
of our research accomplishments. If you have the capability and interest, a
research career can bring rewards unequaled in any other profession. You will
meet and work with some of the brightest people on the planet. You will reach
for ideas beyond your grasp, and in so doing extend your intellectual
capabilities. You will solve problems that have not been solved before. You
will explore concepts that have not been explored. You will uncover principles
that change the way people use computers.
The joy of research:
A colleague summed up the way many researchers feel about their profession.
When asked why he spent so many hours in the lab, he noted that the
alternatives were to go home, where he would do the same things that millions
of others were doing, or to work in his lab, where he could discover things
that no other human had ever discovered. The smile on his face told the story:
for him, working on research was sheer joy.