Why I Decided to Pursue a PhD

Neerja Thakkar graduated from Dartmouth in 2019 with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics. For the past year, she was doing computational photography research in Spain on a Fulbright research scholarship, and in Fall 2020 she will be starting her PhD in EECS at UC Berkeley.

It’s one thing to figure out how to position yourself and apply for a PhD program, but actually deciding that you want a PhD is an entirely different process. In this post, I’m going to walk through the aspects of my academic journey in college that made me feel confident in my decision to pursue a PhD in computer science. Before I dive in, I want to make it clear that a PhD is at its core about research. Therefore, this post will center on why I decided to go after a research career.

My Journey

As a freshman, I discovered computer science for the first time. I knew the field existed and it sounded vaguely interesting to me, but it wasn’t until I took CS1 and went through the process of solving problems with code that I realized I really liked it. I was vaguely pre-med throughout my first year, and stuck with it even though I liked CS more because I felt like I was excelling in my pre-med classes but didn’t have faith in my CS abilities.

My freshman summer both gave me some self-confidence and made me truly think about the concept of a PhD for the first time. I interned as a software engineer in a data science lab along with 3 math and computer science PhD students. My project on parsing data made me see that I was capable of accomplishing a coding task I was given in the real world, but I also realized that it wasn’t very interesting to me compared to the research projects my fellow interns were working on. Trying to solve research problems as opposed to engineering problems was much more exciting to me. I also talked to some other teams in the company who were working on exciting technologies such as those that enable self-driving cars, and I realized there was so much cool stuff I could do within computer science besides just parsing data. However, I realized I would need a PhD to tackle most of the questions I wanted to. PhD or no PhD, my coworkers biggest piece of advice was to take a lot of math.

Being me, I decided to map out an 11 year plan - basically, what my 4 years of college, a gap year, a 5 year PhD, and then options after could look like. Everything after college and my gap year was very vague, but it’s funny that a lot of things I wrote and started to map out in my plan - “add a double major in math”, “do a Fulbright or something like it after college”, “TA more CS classes”, “get an internship at a good tech company that has strong software engineering and research divisions” - ended up happening.

As I went through the rest of college, I didn’t closely follow or even revise my 11 year plan much, but I used it as a framework to explore if a PhD was right for me. I prioritized taking important CS and math courses, going after opportunities that would allow me to explore academia and work closely with professors, and checking in with myself to see how I felt about different experiences. A lot of opportunities that I could never have planned for came up - research positions, working on the CLRS Algorithms textbook with Professor Cormen, being a teaching assistant for a brand new class, and studying abroad in Budapest. Having all these wonderful experiences not only strengthened my application, but also showed me that more time in academia was right for me. I loved many aspects of all of these experiences - getting to work closely with professors on interesting problems, doing work that would be published and put out for others to use, walking students through problems, taking courses at an institution other than my own - and realized that the process of a PhD would probably be enjoyable to me.

I also thought more carefully about what my future would look like with a PhD versus without one. Interning at a tech company where I could see firsthand the differences between software engineers and research scientists with PhDs, and also getting to know some professors well was extremely helpful for this. I realized that with a PhD, I could either get a cool industry research position or go into academia and make a huge impact. I respect software engineering, but it just wasn’t for me or aligned with the kind of problems I want to spend my life solving. While a PhD might result in less money earned over my lifetime, especially if I end up in academia, the lifestyle was more appealing to me, because I would get to be creative, solve problems I think are important, travel to conferences, and hopefully be a positive influence on future generations of students.

Given that a PhD seemed to align well with my long-term life goals, and that it also seemed like it would be an enjoyable and valuable experience in and of itself, I decided to apply to PhD programs. I ended up doing a Fulbright research scholarship in Spain first, which ended up being a much more valuable experience than I expected it to be. I had a lot of space and time to think, and I also got to do research full-time for the first time in my life. This was a frustrating experience at times (more on this in a future blog post), but it also gave me a taste of life as a PhD student and made me feel even more confident in my decision and excited to start my PhD in the fall!

Other considerations

If you’re maybe considering doing a PhD, but not sure if you want to, here is some advice that I’ve taken away from my experiences:

  • Be informed about exactly what a PhD is, what your 4-6+ years in grad school will entail, and what kind of opportunities you will have after your PhD. You can do this by reading pages that colleges have put up (like this one by the Dartmouth CS department), talking to professors, talking to students going to graduate school, and reading blogs like this.
    • A great way to get to know older students is through an identity-centered group for your field, such as Women in Computer Science. Dartmouth WiCS has hosted several panels about topics such as this one.
  • Figure out what kinds of undergrad activities will prepare you for grad school, and as importantly along the way let you explore if grad school is for you. Research is the most important activity in this category, but other opportunities such as being a TA, taking hard classes, and other projects with professors are great too. Also, if you’re considering an alternate career path (like how I was potentially considering software engineering), try to gain some experience in that area to see if you like it as much.
  • After every experience, be honest with yourself and reflect on what you liked and didn’t like about it. As I went through undergrad, I learned a lot about my strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and interests. Out of the options that were available to me, a PhD seemed like the most exciting and best-fitting one, so I decided to go for it.
    • Consider both the possibilities of what your career/life will look like after your PhD, but also what the process of actually doing a PhD will feel like.
  • Take time after undergrad, especially if you’re not sure. Undergrad was crazy and busy, which made it hard to have the time and space to properly reflect and think about my ambitions, while being away from Dartmouth gave me a new and clearer perspective. Getting to do research for a year in Spain also really helped me see that a PhD was right for me, but it could have gone the other way too. In this post, I talk about pre-PhD gap year options, which might be especially helpful to consider if you are done with college and want to pursue an opportunity that could strengthen your PhD application and/or decide if a PhD is right for you.
Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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