A Review of Phil Guo's "The PhD Grind"


I first came across Phil Guo’s writing when I was looking at applying to fellowships – specifically, the NDSEG, which I got. Since then, I’ve followed his writing, as it’s sufficiently close to my own goals right now to really shed some light on how to best move forward.

A theme that permeates Phil’s writing is that graduate school – the technical, nitty-gritty, make-a-dent-in-world sort of Ph.D. – can be rough, and rough in a way that’s orthogonal to the experiences most folks straight out of undergrad have had. A technical Ph.D. marks the delineation between how well one answers questions and how well one poses questions, and this gets readily lost on even the experienced, not to mention folks thick in the fray of exams and classes and getting nascent projects to work.

Phil, who’s eminently good at what he does, enough so to secure a competitive tenure-track job, documents his own coming to grips with this in a well-written look back on his Stanford years: “The Ph.D. Grind.” Here’s his memoir. I read it now as a second-year Ph.D. student, albeit with a different trajectory to Phil’s – I finished a research master’s, wrote up my work in a few papers, and worked at a startup for a few years before returning to finish a Ph.D. As such, some of the material covered in “Grind” was pretty clear – albeit coming from a different scientific community! – while some was novel.

I found “The Ph.D. Grind” a spectacularly honest exploration of how a Ph.D. may play out, and highly recommend it to anybody in a technical graduate position. It may read well to folks in the humanities as well – some of the specifics may be senseless, but the themes emerging from reading about someone else facing down their early troubles can bolster anybody who’s in the thick of a tedious slog, and wondering what getting a Ph.D. is all about.

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