Why pursue grad school?


This thought has been plaguing me for the past few months. I need to question why I’m choosing to study and do research for 5 years when in reality, there’s several other things that one can do. One of which, definitely, is to get a job.

But I have heard so many complaints against being in a white collar job – it gets too monotonous, it can be repetitive, you aren’t creative, your boss sucks, the timings suck, there’s no freedom, it’s just not worth it, you aren’t doing anything worthwhile, there’s no accountability or attachment; all of which sounded rather sensible and turned me off from a job So I started looking for other opportunities, other things to do with my life (as yet I hadn’t questioned why there was a necessity to do something with my life) – start a company, do research, or juggle (?).

Starting a company felt terribly romantic, you have an idea that becomes reality and effectively you’ve left behind a legacy. After a slight brush with entrepreneurship, I felt that the grunt work far outweighs the true mental work that I wanted to be occupied by (or so I still believe since the grunt work just wasn’t that satisfying). You can do it, and good stuff can obviously happen but in a day-to-day setting you may not be involved in working on anything truly worthwhile and thought provoking, and I wanted my thoughts provoked.

One thing I did through all this was to check out what psychology was about and what ideas it comprised of. It had some interesting and (seemingly) good ideas. I liked what it showed me. Apparently, it was a way to understand human behaviour. I was interested in that in the way most people are interested in understanding one another, it makes for smoother social interactions, and can, on occasion, give you the upper hand in life.. If I could make that happen, I would feel happy with myself, but in the process of going down that rabbit hole (why not mole hill? or termite mound? or tailor bird’s nest? Lewis Carroll and his need to tell his daughter a story before she slept) I got rather lost. I forgot why I was interested in it and started learning about this for it’s own sake, the brain started to look beautiful, and magical and wondrous and I was hooked. It was like love, not at first sight, but something that was built slowly over time, as with so many experiences. Once that happened, I haven’t actually looked back and questioned my actions at all, I’ve always felt quite sure of where I was going; I wanted to study the brain, How? was the only question I needed to answer. Answering that was tough and irritating, and still is really. There’s these random bits of information that just make me gasp in wonder and then, there’s all these bits which are worth knowing but reading through them and understanding them is such tedium that I almost wish I wasn’t doing any of it. The people who manage to get through life without having to face any of this, I truly wonder what their experiential understanding of the world is like, are they joyous happy people because they have it all, or grumpy sadistic bums who just want more? Dealing with polar opposites is something I’m slowing learning to cope with and accept as being part of any business, regardless of its nature; the smart thing to do is to find a field where the highs let you feel good enough that you’re willing to tolerate the lows. Neuroscience research felt like, and still feels like, it fits that bill. One thing that bothers me terribly about the way I live, and something I will really need to justify over the next five years, is how every action I make seems to need to fulfill a purpose. It isn’t really smart because I am rather nihilistic in my world view, I don’t believe in purpose at all. Yet, I can’t help feeling like I should be doing something that is ‘worth’ doing. I don’t have an answer for that yet, but it doesn’t feel intractable. And five years is the perfect time to reason it out.

Something I read (Daniel Lemire – http://lemire.me/blog/archives/2014/03/17/should-you-get-a-phd/) is that doing a PhD keeps you out of the real world for 5 more years. That’s appropriate for Computer Science for sure, but I’m not sure how appropriate it is for neuroscience. If it does, it does, and I’ll get to use those 5 years reading up on and developing thoughts that are important to me. And really, I couldn’t ask for more than that.

Also, another blog post I found, on similar lines, and a little more practical: http://jxyzabc.blogspot.com/2011/12/reasons-to-pursue-phd.html

I feel like many grad students have had this conversation belched out onto a blog at one time or another,and I might make a compilation of them in the comments.

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