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Interested in Lifestyle Design? Get a PhD.

August 17th, 2011 · 34 comments

David had his epiphany not long after hiking an erupting volcano in the Fimmvörðuháls pass of southern Iceland. (Pictured above.)

At the time, he was a masters student spending a semester working with a team of seismologists.

He was also trying to figure out what to do with his life.

“I came full-circle on this issue of building an exciting life,” he told me. “I ultimately rejected the low-cost, Internet-based cash-flow business model that Tim Ferriss and others advocate as the silver bullet.”

To understand what he meant, you must first understand that David loved his time in Iceland. He developed a close group of friends and “spent evenings socializing, partying, exploring, and weekends hiking.” He climbed volcanoes and bathed in hot springs. He got to work with world class researchers solving interesting problems in beautiful locations.

“It broke my heart to leave,” he said.

David realized that an academic path could offer the exotic travel and flexibility promoted by lifestyle design gurus such as Ferriss, while also providing a sense of engagement and intellectual stimulation that would be hard to match on one’s own.

So on returning to the States, he decided to continue into his school’s PhD program. His first step, true to his desire to create an interesting life, was to “apply to every fellowship under the sun.” He won an NSF award to research in Japan, where his work on earthquake prediction had suddenly taken on a renewed sense of importance.

“My long-term goals aren’t clear yet,” he told me.  “But I hope to place myself in a position where I can choose a nice place to live after the doctorate.  Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, New York, and California are all on the list.”

The Lessons of David

What interests me about David’s story is that it’s relevant to both my student and my career advice.

On the student side, he’s a perfect example of my Romantic Scholar approach, in which you construct an uncluttered schedule, and then immerse yourself in a single academic subject, allowing it to become a source of wonder and engagement.

The motto for this approach (which, officially speaking, is “one set of strategies for realizing my Zen Valedictorian philosophy“), is to “transform school into the foundation for a life well lived.” David has done exactly this with his graduate student experience. He works hard, but by keeping his focus tight and seeking exotic projects, he also finds moments of sublimity in his efforts.

On the career side, he’s a perfect example of my Career Craftsman philosophy, which says that you don’t discover work you love, but instead craft it by becoming good at something rare and valuable and then cashing this in for the traits you care about. David embodies this idea. Instead of dropping out of his academic program to try to remake his career from scratch, he got good enough at what he was already doing that he could leverage this value to move his life in interesting directions.

(It’s this last bit, of course, that’s key — most people who get good at something don’t leverage this to make their life more interesting. I’ve spent enough time around burnt out — but brilliant — MIT students and their IHTFP culture to understand this reality.)

“These good things are the result of plain hard work: by busting my ass and distinguishing myself from me peers, good opportunities started to roll in.” David concluded.  “Working hard is not as sexy as dropping everything to start an Internet business, but I’m convinced.”

To summarize: If you’re a graduate student, let David’s story inspire you that your life can be exotic and engaging, not downtrodden and grinding — if you’re willing to do less, do what you do well, and approach your work with a sense of wonder. And if you’re out of school, let his story broaden your thinking on how people end up with work they love. Obviously, I don’t think that joining a doctoral program is a good lifestyle design strategy for most people, but what David demonstrates is that value is value — be it value to your research advisor or the value of your online business — and as such, it can be cashed in for the types of traits that define a remarkable life. Focus on leveraging value, not where it comes from.

(Photo by sturla)

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A pair of housekeeping notes:

34 thoughts on “Interested in Lifestyle Design? Get a PhD.

  1. What caught my eye about this post is David’s rejection of the make-money-fast online-business model—and the connection to your Career Craftsman philosophy, which I think is the perfect antidote to that hollow approach to amassing wealth.

    As I finished my PhD, I was already running an editing practice, the operations of which would be nothing without the Internet. The entrepreneurial advice that seems to be out there (on the Internet, not shockingly) is all about working less and making income as passively as possible. It’s about taking skills you didn’t even know you had from experiences you’ve never really experienced and leveraging it all into e-books, e-courses, and high-cost consulting services.

    It’s rewarding to share our hard-earned expertise with others, and online media and consulting are respectable avenues for doing that. I have certainly created value through the content I release (for free) online.

    But, as David did, I reject that passive-income, virtual-business model. It doesn’t satisfy my hunger for integrity and hard work, which your Career Craftsman idea represents, too.

    We have to find ways to be actually useful to this world, and a PhD program is certainly one way of identifying what we have to contribute. It seems as though what we hear most often (in the news and blogs) is that graduate work is a way of avoiding the question of our own usefulness. So thank you for the counternarrative.

  2. Patrick S. says:

    As a rising senior going through the grad school application process, the idea of a PhD giving you more control over lifestyle design seems to contradict what I’ve been told again and again by professors both at my small liberal arts college and at the large research university where I’ve interned over the summers. Instead, the message I keep hearing is that getting a PhD forces you to work long, stressful hours (albeit usually doing interesting and stimulating work), and once you are out of grad school, gives you little to no choice regarding where you live (since jobs in research are competitive, and most PhDs end up taking what they can get).

    Has anyone else heard similar warnings from people with PhDs, either in biology or in other fields? If so, how might one reconcile lifestyle design philosophy with earning a PhD? For those with experience in the area, to what degree would you agree or disagree with this idea?

    (Note: That’s not to say that the professors I’ve talked to don’t have rewarding lives; for example, my research advisor decided she wanted to visit the tropics regularly, so she and her husband (also a professor) arranged to take a cohort of students to Mexico every other spring and to Costa Rica every other winter to teach classes and do field research, a perfect example of leveraging skills and knowledge to do exciting things. I’ve simply heard the same warning often enough to wonder a little bit at it…)

  3. Kyle Mox says:

    All I can say is ‘thank you.’ With the Chron running “the humanities are dead” stories every other week, this article is just what I needed to finish my dissertation…

  4. Jen says:

    Great last two posts! Now I finally really get what you mean with the Craftsman approach.
    I’m currently trying to get into a PhD Program in the US and the whole stuff about grads avoiding their calling or don’t know what the want annoys me. I know exactly what I want – the knowledge and experience I can gain during grad school. I see it as an apprenticeship before becoming a Craftsman.
    I’m very focused on corruption and I think this helps me with my applications as I can show very well how dedicated I am to this topic. And that I already did a lot of work on it (studied it, worked on it, even took part in an UN evaluation,…).
    A PhD is probably not right for everyone, but I know that I would go crazy with a passive-income, virtual-business model. Feels wrong. I agree with Katie on this – integrity, hard work as well as hard ideas keeps me going.

  5. One place where I think you might push this further is: why does the burnt-out culture persist? What is it about the pursuit of the skills that could be leveraged that makes brilliant people unlikely to leverage them for a happy lifestyle once they have them? Or is that the wrong way to pose the question?

    (If it’s not clear, this is in reaction to the bit about how most people won’t leverage their skills, the culture among brilliant burnt-out MIT grads, etc.)

  6. Jon Guerrera says:

    Great article. I love reading the case studies of people who have successfully used your philosophy to develop interesting lives.

    It’s worth noting, however, that Tim Ferriss DOES advocate a strategy similar to that of the Career Craftsman. A huge chunk of the 4HWW is dedicated to teaching you how to rapidly excel at your job through higher productivity and higher value added, and then cashing in on that consistent high performance by negotiating a virtual work agreement, which would allow you to travel and do more interesting things with your life.

    But I do agree that the whole Internet entrepreneurship route is a very risky one indeed, and going for career excellence is a much more realistic (though, not as sexy) strategy for crafting an interesting and fulfilling life.

    Great stuff, as a recent college grad who just entered the workforce in NYC, I love where this blog has been going lately.

  7. Diane says:

    “These good things are the result of plain hard work: by busting my ass and distinguishing myself from me peers, good opportunities started to roll in.”

    So incredibly true. By spending the effort it took to learning my material in undergrad, I got to spend a year travelling to 20 countries on the federal government’s dime. Now in med school, distinguishing myself has made it possible to continue working and travelling in Europe, Asia, and Latin America – all paid by my school or the government. Plus, when I work for extended periods of time in the capacity of a soon-to-be doctor, I get to experience something much more meaningful – interacting with real people on a level that simple tourism doesn’t allow.

    In medicine at least, paying your dues is definitely the necessary first step to having the competency to call the shots. Cal, I don’t think you should feel like you don’t have good answers for professional students, because I think this advice rings true for everyone.

  8. Dexter M says:

    I occasionally drop by your website to get motivation – motivation for studying that is and the fact that you don’t push any get-rich-quick type of study schemes. Plain ass-busting hardwork as David rightly said. A good post.

    Not all fields though can be similarly engaging. Can they ? For example, I am an engineer pursuing an MBA and I am not sure how to approach Accounting with a sense of wonder. Science is science – empirical and provable. The same cannot be said for accounts which is all about manipulating the books. I can’t seem to find that fascination. What do you think ?

  9. Declan says:

    boring

  10. HFM says:

    @ Patrick:

    I’m starting grad school (bioinformatics) in a couple of weeks, and I’ve heard/seen the same as you. One pitfall of academia is the *rare* part of the rare and valuable. If you’ve written the thousandth dissertation on p53, or the ten-thousandth dissertation on Macbeth, well…good luck. It’s not that your work isn’t valuable, it’s that there may be literally thousands of people who can do the same things you can. I’ve seen many a pissed-off postdoc who realized this too late.

    To get around this, I’m thinking as strategically as I can. I have, and am improving on, an unusual interdisciplinary combination; I think it’s going to be useful in solving some important problems, but ask me in ten years how that one turned out. And if this doesn’t work out, I can bail fairly easily into a field with good, acceptably interesting job options.

    I’ve also considered what makes for a happy trainee. I realize that it takes a lot of hard work, and hard focus, for an apprentice to become a craftsman, and I am fine with that. But I’d still rather not be miserable for the next decade.

    For me, that means setting boundaries now (you want more than 60 hours, pay me overtime), moving sanity and organizational skills to the top of my PI-selection checklist, and trying to aim for projects with skill-building potential and away from those with all-or-nothing, effort-independent outcomes. And trying to keep some perspective, of course; if this doesn’t work out, I suppose I could sell e-books about it?

  11. James says:

    @Diane, I’d love to hear about your traveling experience! My goal is to study and do research abroad. Currently I’m in undergrad pre-med/bio. How did you get such an opportunity?

  12. Daniel says:

    You (and the commenters) appear to have missed the point that people like Ferriss are making – I would recommend taking a step back and really thinking about this post, because its message is far weaker than usual. You appear to have identified with David solely because he rejected Ferriss’ particular approach to life, and the rest of the points you bring up are weak at best.

    Doing a study abroad someplace in a field you like does not make you a romantic scholar, and David decided he liked what he did when he was abroad and moved to pursue it – something that is not all that special or unusual, and doesn’t really fit into the Craftsman mold you’re developing.

    With regards to Ferriss: the “Lifestyle Design” method he writes about – and, I thought, was fairly clear about – is about developing alternative income sources such that one can be free to dedicate the rest of one’s time toward enriching, and perhaps otherwise impossible, goals. He advocates the use of muses, but that is just a means to an end. By his philosophy, you’ve already achieved his goal in a way through the use of this website and the various books you’ve written – independent income sources to allow the freedom to pursue what one wants to do.

    Arguing that Ferriss’ goals are shallow, or that people should reject his muse idea in favor of (insert something better here), misses the point he’s going for entirely. What if David hadn’t gotten the NSF funding, but had written a book using his earthquake prevention expertise, and sold it through Amazon’s Kindle Store? Then used the money from that sale to fund his studies in Japan or elsewhere? That’s what Ferriss’ goal is with regards to lifestyle design.

    Please spend some time rethinking about those methods before you joyfully condemn another person’s methods, even if in that condemnation you gain reader support. You’re better than that.

  13. Study Hacks says:
    Arguing that Ferriss’ goals are shallow, or that people should reject his muse idea in favor of (insert something better here), misses the point he’s going for entirely.

    Addressing the Tim Ferriss issue…

    Several commentors, such as the one quoted above, have complained this this post doesn’t give a fair shake to the reality of Tim Ferriss’ philosophy.

    I should clarify:

    * I like Tim’s philosophy and I agree with the commentors that it is much more general than starting an Internet business. In fact, in many ways, the Career Craftsman philosophy can be seen as a specific set of strategies — one among many — for implementing lifestyle design.

    * When David mentioned Tim Ferriss in his quote, I think he was referencing the large wave of Ferriss readers who took to the web to try to make a living selling ebooks about making a living selling ebooks — not Ferriss’ general philosophy, which is much broader.

    It’s this large community of blogs that has, for better or for worse, become the most visible face of 4HWW online.

  14. Study Hacks says:
    Has anyone else heard similar warnings from people with PhDs, either in biology or in other fields? If so, how might one reconcile lifestyle design philosophy with earning a PhD? For those with experience in the area, to what degree would you agree or disagree with this idea?


    My thoughts on PhD programs:

    (1) There’s this weird culture of overwork and stress built around what is really a fantastic, varied, stimulating, and flexible job. If you can get good at what you do fast, and have the confidence to ignore the lifestyle of your classmates, it can be a great experience.

    (2) At the same time, I don’t think a PhD program is a good fit for most people. If you want to be a tenure-track research institution professor, and can get into a top program, and have the confidence to go after new ideas and create new value, it’s a great track. If you’re in a field where a PhD is rewarded in industry — i.e., you get access to positions you couldn’t have otherwise, and/or come in and at a higher salary point than if you had spent those years working, then it also a great track.

    (3) I guess the way I would summarize the above is that PhD programs reward those who come into them with a specific plan of what they want to do next and how they are going to leverage the shit out of the program to get it.

    Those who show up because it’s something to do, and then complain about how hard it is and how everything is unfair — they provide useful cheap labor to the professors, but are wasting their own time.

  15. Study Hacks says:
    I’m very focused on corruption and I think this helps me with my applications as I can show very well how dedicated I am to this topic. And that I already did a lot of work on it (studied it, worked on it, even took part in an UN evaluation,…).

    This is a great example of a PhD program used properly. The commentor here has a clear vision of what he wants to work on, and is using the PhD program as a platform for making a name for himself doing something interesting.

    By spending the effort it took to learning my material in undergrad, I got to spend a year travelling to 20 countries on the federal government’s dime. Now in med school, distinguishing myself has made it possible to continue working and travelling in Europe, Asia, and Latin America – all paid by my school or the government. Plus, when I work for extended periods of time in the capacity of a soon-to-be doctor

    Another great example, but this time applied to medical school. I think the Career Craftsman theme here is that if you don’t aggressively direct your life somewhere interesting, it will drift somewhere boring. Anyone in a professional or graduate school program should take this lesson to heart. You have all the potential to do something cool, but no one will hand that to you.

    Not all fields though can be similarly engaging. Can they ? For example, I am an engineer pursuing an MBA and I am not sure how to approach Accounting with a sense of wonder.

    Certain fields are probably more conducive to crafting interesting careers than others. I don’t know that there’s a magic formula though that says which is which.

    One pitfall of academia is the *rare* part of the rare and valuable. If you’ve written the thousandth dissertation on p53, or the ten-thousandth dissertation on Macbeth, well…good luck. It’s not that your work isn’t valuable, it’s that there may be literally thousands of people who can do the same things you can. I’ve seen many a pissed-off postdoc who realized this too late.

    Amen. I think it’s a tragedy that they don’t sit down every new PhD student and drill this reality into their heads. I wish someone had for me.

  16. David says:

    David here. @Daniel, Cal hit on key points in my story very well, but perhaps some of the underlying motivations and circumstances weren’t clear. Clarifying these might put things a bit more in perspective in the vein of the “romantic scholar” concept.

    Doing a study abroad someplace in a field you like does not make you a romantic scholar, and David decided he liked what he did when he was abroad and moved to pursue it – something that is not all that special or unusual, and doesn’t really fit into the Craftsman mold you’re developing.

    I began graduate school on a terminal MS track, intending to return immediately to work with the firm I’d been before. It’s worth noting that my field is civil engineering, and I had no experience (or to use the term Cal discourages, “intrinsic interest”) in earthquakes before the Iceland research.

    The academic environment at an excellent research institute (in America) was the beginning of my transformative grad school experience. The “study abroad” was an opportunity that came up when a faculty member took notice of my hard work and engagement in the MS coursework. He asked me at the end of my first semester if I’d like to apply for a fellowship to spend a year in Iceland working with an engineering seismologist. The catch was delaying graduation by six months and delivering an MS thesis in a field that was completely new to me. The benefit, of course, was the opportunity to spend a year in an exotic location. My decision to go for it was not difficult, but what made it enjoyable was my willingness to embrace a completely new field and see where it took me. Furthermore, such an opportunity would not likely have arisen in industry, and it wouldn’t have arisen had I not been an engaged student.

    The trip was dependent on my winning funding; this was not a trust-fund study abroad. I applied for and won $25,000 to support myself in Iceland for one year and perform research full-time. Once in Iceland, I was treated to a truly uncluttered research experience. For the first time in my academic life, my full-time job was research. No coursework. The setting was especially ideal considering that I needed to master a new skillset. It was in this environment that I was able to see the potential rewards that were out there if I pursued a Ph.D.

    So in summary, the serendipity of the opportunity and the fact that I enjoyed it are self-evident. But Cal’s deeper points—that good things happen as a result of hard focus, and that an uncluttered work- and lifestyle pave the way for enjoyment and true mastery of skills—are surely applicable. I wouldn’t have had the experience in Iceland without working very hard in an academic program, or without the support of my advisor. This probably wasn’t clear in Cal’s post, but it’s an important item.

    It wasn’t my intent to bash Tim Ferriss; I read his book and garnered a great deal of value from it. Cal’s point above—that there are too many folks out there trying to sell e-books about selling e-books—is on point. I don’t mean to attack your point, as it is valid in general, but I haven’t yet achieved the mastery needed to sell a technical e-book about earthquake engineering. That takes a Ph.D.

  17. Tom says:

    I think this is a great story about how to create a fulfilling and engaged life, within academia, in a way that might not seem possible to most people. However, the warnings raised by other responders are legitimate and should be kept in mind, especially considering the funding crisis that is taking place in most public university systems (such as California’s, especially), a crisis that will inevitably limit the options of Ph.D. holders, at least in humanities fields. I am certain that practically every student in literary studies has it drilled into their heads that they have to do something new and original and interesting, but almost all will wind up working in places that are much less desirable than “Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, New York, and California.” A very small percentage of scholars get to write their own ticket, so if don’t get your fulfillment out of the work itself, and don’t mind living in a small town in a state you didn’t choose for yourself, you will probably be disappointed.

    The experience of graduate school itself can offer a lot of freedom–I myself am writing my dissertation while living in France–but it’s sad for me to see so many of my colleagues, hardly any of whom are bitter or uninteresting and simply adrift, faced with options that are so limited.
    I appreciate this post as an example of the best of what academic life can offer and why it is worth fighting for.

    Tom

  18. Anonymous says:

    @StudyHacks
    [quote]Amen. I think it’s a tragedy that they don’t sit down every new PhD student and drill this reality into their heads. I wish someone had for me.[/quote]
    Could you talk about this in more detail?

  19. John says:

    He won an NSF (error)

  20. 60naranja says:

    I have to agree with Tom – this extract seemed a little unrealistic to me, though I wish it weren’t:

    “My long-term goals aren’t clear yet,” he told me. “But I hope to place myself in a position where I can choose a nice place to live after the doctorate. Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, New York, and California are all on the list.”

    My impression (as someone currently finishing their PhD) is that, at least for the academic track, it is simply not possible to choose where you will eventually live. Most universities, as Tom stressed, are not on the coasts or in even minor cities, and the competition for openings in more desired regions, like New York or California, is ridiculously high. I can’t speak specifically to industrial positions (I don’t know what that path entails in David’s field) but if he’s staying in academia it might be a good idea to expand his list to include Montana, Alabama, New Jersey, Texas, Minnesota, etc.

  21. Jun says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I have to add though, I really do think the glamour of Tim Ferriss’s lifestyle design strategy isn’t all that it seems: you still have to work hours upon end to get the business up and running. The reason Ferriss had it relatively easy was because he was innovative. When everyone else started following his methods, there was increased competition.

    I think that David’s hard work and dedication are what separated him from other wanna-be lifestyle designers, and these two traits will continue to define those who live great lives and those who don’t. Essentially, there’s no real easy path in life.

  22. Aaron Fung says:

    @Cal Newport,

    I really like this post, especially how David leveraged his value to not only design a lifestyle, but do this within the academic system. More than this, he leveraged the academic system to bring him opportunities that would have been unavailable to him otherwise.

    Also, I found your above responses to commenters almost more insightful than the post itself, especially your analysis of Ph.D programs.

    I’d actually like to hear more about these brilliant MIT burn outs you mentioned above; based on what you said I infer they have skills that are both rare and valuable; the only thing missing is the effective leveraging of these skills.

    Not that I’d want to linger on the negative, but I think these could be insightful posts about the effective leveraging of valuable skills and time, as well as addressing the ethic of overwork: these are themes that are in line with your blog’s minimalist approach to living a remarkable life.

    Thank you for an inspirational post.

    Respectfully yours,
    Aaron Fung

  23. Amy C. says:

    Great post. Thanks! In response to Patrick S. above… if you had already been out in the world working in a variety of non-profit and corporate jobs, the idea of reading books and writing and grading papers for four years would sound like an awesome chance to catch up on life–figure out who you are, and where your life is headed once again, or how it culminates into something only you can do. But not everybody can do the work. If you can do the work, a PhD is a great lifestyle design option. I tend to be a bit arrogant with the lifestyle design folks, thinking that our way is much more intelligent and grounded. How many blog posts with “three. little. words. separated. by. periods.” can one academic handle after all? 😉

  24. Tod says:

    (2) At the same time, I don’t think a PhD program is a good fit for most people. If you want to be a tenure-track research institution professor, and can get into a top program, and have the confidence to go after new ideas and create new value, it’s a great track. If you’re in a field where a PhD is rewarded in industry — i.e., you get access to positions you couldn’t have otherwise, and/or come in and at a higher salary point than if you had spent those years working, then it also a great track.

    Cal, I agree with you on how PhD isn’t for everyone. But what’s with the title of this article? From the title alone, I thought you were saying that getting a PhD is one of the great ways of doing a lifestyle design. Just my two cents.

  25. HFM says:

    @StudyHacks
    [quote]Amen. I think it’s a tragedy that they don’t sit down every new PhD student and drill this reality into their heads. I wish someone had for me.[/quote]
    Could you talk about this in more detail?

    I’m not Cal, but I can take a whack.

    I am certain that practically every student in literary studies has it drilled into their heads that they have to do something new and original and interesting…

    It’s the same in science, and I imagine everywhere else. But it’s important to define your terms – what do your professors mean when they tell you something is “interesting”?

    The best definition I’ve seen was in an essay by an established physics professor. As a young student, he was asked about his ‘most interesting result’, and gave a weak answer. After thinking about it, he realized that ‘it was not enough simply to do cosmology; one had to do work that was interesting to other cosmologists’. And so he did, and he made it.

    That’s why, in academia, the highest praise is “a high-impact paper”, “redefines the conversation”, and so on. These are the works that are useful to other academics. You forget this at your peril – but remember, it’s only academia that works this way.

    If you’re in grad school, your professors probably got their jobs on the strength of their academic reputation. The universities make their money (in the form of students, grants, etc) by trading on their own reputation, which is largely based on how their professors’ scholarship is received in the academic community. If you’re famous, they will pay (well) for the privilege of putting their institution’s name on your conference badge. If you aren’t, you had better at least be known and respected in your circles; the competition is such that even universities well down the ladder can demand this.

    But most people aren’t going to be their grad school professors when they grow up. It’s statistically impossible; at replacement rates, each professor would train no more than a handful of students, and that’s clearly not the case. Many students end up with replacement-level skills – good results that don’t quite set the world on fire, good knowledge of standard techniques, good letters, and so on. They wind up competing for jobs with a mob of people with almost identical CVs. They take what they can get, at the conditions they can get, because if they don’t like it there are another fifty people who could do the job just as well.

    In the real world, even quasi-academic jobs like postdoc, adjunct, or teaching professor, you’re judged on what you can do for the people signing your paycheck. They may not care about your fascinating insights on Macbeth; they want you to teach the remedial English students to use paragraphs and spellcheck their essays. After years of being trained to value themselves by academic standards, many new grads are horrified by the “bait and switch”. But this is how it’s always been, the GI bill/baby boomer bubble notwithstanding. If you don’t have unique skills, you get to compete on your common skills.

    Myself, I’ve been around, and am not particularly stuck on the “life of the mind” nonsense. I want to think for a living – I’m good at it, it’s my only real talent, and I don’t have a trust fund, so it’s either that or get busy in a cubicle somewhere. But I’m not the least bit embarrassed about wanting a skillset that somebody will pay me for (rare, valuable, etc). I do think academics is my Plan A, but not at the cost of becoming a perma-postdoc.

  26. HFM says:

    @Aaron Fung:

    I was once a brilliant MIT burnout, so I can take a whack at that too. (I’ve got the Olympiad medals – and a fairly impressive crater on my transcript – to back up that statement.)

    Everybody’s got a story. I suspect that a lot of it is simply not realizing there’s an alternative to the “hardcore”, I-sleep-less-than-you method of being a serious geek. That’s how you know how good you are – you make the impossible happen. Working 9-5 for a week? No style points. Playing Warcraft all week, then pounding out a week’s worth of work the night before? Style points!

    This works well when the tasks you’ve been given are too easy – then style points are the only points worth mentioning. It works very, very badly when you’ve got a task (like research) that requires long-term commitment and patience. I had no concept of what to do with a problem on that scale, something that might require a lifetime of focused work to even gnaw off a corner of. Honestly, it took me about a year to stop being terrified, never mind coming up with rational strategies to tackle the problem.

  27. Kyle says:

    Now in med school, distinguishing myself has made it possible to continue working and travelling in Europe, Asia, and Latin America – all paid by my school or the government.

    @Diane, can you expand a little on this? I’m a first year med student and very interested to hear about what kind of working/travelling you’ve been able to do.

  28. Thomas Frank says:

    I really like your Romantic Scholar idea, and I wish I could allow myself to do it. I’m just starting my junior year, and it seems that every time I get a free block in my schedule, I go and fill it with something. An RA position, a second job, clubs, committees, side projects… they all take time and keep me distracted and tired. This summer, I think I’ll try your approach and just work on one single thing.

  29. Anonymous says:

    @HFM
    Interesting, thanks for your sharing your insights.

  30. Andrew says:

    @thomas: Not to answer for Cal, but I think the philosophy here can allow for you to do multiple things, but what you should do is have those multiple things highly related and layered. E.g. you could make the RA position (residential advisor, I assume, rather than research assistant) your “focus”–have the committee you get involved in be a committee drawn from the RA pool, have a side project be something to do with the residential community or working with the university housing department to develop a specific solution to a specific problem you see in the housing community there, have your club experience again be doing something specifically with the RA position–a club for the RAs perhaps. Thus everything you are doing can be highly interrelated and, if you focus on it sufficiently, you could in the next two years be coming out as somebody with extensive practical experience handling housing issues. You thus could be developing an expertise that could be leveraged to go to a grad program in pubic policy and development (or even sociology) or to work for real estate management corporations or work for a university housing program or start your own project. That’s what this site seems to encourage–not necessarily doing nothing but in focusing on one major ‘project’ and figuring out a way to create an experience that adds something unique and special to your resume that gives you an ability to separate yourself and leverage yourself.

  31. Study Hacks says:
    I’d actually like to hear more about these brilliant MIT burn outs you mentioned above; based on what you said I infer they have skills that are both rare and valuable; the only thing missing is the effective leveraging of these skills.

    PhD programs are unstructured. It is up to you to decide how to fill your day, how many hours to work, what to focus on, and, most importantly, how to value what you do.

    A lot of people, faced with this uncertainty, default to a cult of overwork. Because they are guilty about whether they’re doing the right thing with their time, they figure that if they are completely exhausted with long working hours, no one can accuse them of not trying.

    See HFM’s comment for another take on the same issue (from someone who lived it first hand).

    I really like your Romantic Scholar idea, and I wish I could allow myself to do it. I’m just starting my junior year, and it seems that every time I get a free block in my schedule, I go and fill it with something.

    Start unfilling! The focused life is so much better.

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