On Finishing My PhD

I recently finished my PhD in Computer Science at the University of California, San Diego, which feels incredibly weird to type out. It was a long time coming, and even now saying “I recently defended my PhD” versus “I am working on my PhD” seems strange and a lie [1]. So I wanted to reflect on the last 7 years of my life and the biggest lesson I learned. This piece isn’t about whether to do a PhD or not – there are a lot of great articles in the world on this – but rather my thoughts on my own individual journey of growth.

A PhD is a degree that signifies expertise in a specific area[2], but it was also a huge time of growth and change for me personally[3]. I worked on my PhD in the period from my early 20s to my late 20s, so it’s a little hard to disentangle the growth during my PhD from the fact that this is a period of time where a lot of people experience massive personal growth. In fact, for me they are actually very deeply entwined, because a lot of what I experienced was because of my PhD and the challenges I faced during it.

What do I mean by personal growth though? Well, when I joined, my biggest goal in life was to be a well-known researcher. That was a lot of my focus and when I think about the first four years of my PhD, they feel distinctly different from the last three in that all I remember was running from one place to the next[4]. I was desperately trying to maximize the number of checkboxes I could complete while constantly comparing myself to those around me. I wasn’t really cherishing any of the victories, large or small, and was wearing myself way too thin.

My goals in life changed pretty abruptly when my dad died in late 2020, which I’ve talked about . To say it was world-stopping is an understatement – I thought my dad and I had at least another decade of bickering and laughter together, and when he passed it felt like the world stopped spinning and I was shot into space with no preparation. There’s a lot more to say on this[5], but I started to wonder what all this running was for if I felt so much regret at lost time.

So, I slowly reprioritized. After many months of thinking, reading resources, and finding comfort from others, I realized the thing that matters the most to me is the people in my life[6]. I had originally come into this PhD wanting to get a “free” master’s and then leave[7]. Even when I thought about why I wanted to stick around after that first year, the largest part wasn’t the research itself, but the people and community I was a part of: my fantastic advisors who encouraged me to try things, while providing a safety net to let me land gently when I inevitably fell; my labmates and department-mates who were excited about their work, but also excited about their hobbies and things around them; the people I met outside of the department who found beauty in the world and shared it with me in their own ways. And the conclusion I came to is that people are what matter most. I love stimulating work and getting paid for it, and the city where I did my PhD is fantastic. But every time I looked back to my past, I saw that it was the people who kept me going, even in the dark moments when I didn’t think I could[8].

This was a stunning change of perspective for me, even though I am a massive extrovert. That my biggest goal in life changed from being a well-known researcher, to cultivating deep relationships with the people around me, and nurturing love and connection at every step of the way. Doing good work that I think could have an impact on security became a secondary goal pretty quickly.

I think this was so monumental to experience during my PhD, because research[9], especially in an academic setting, encourages you to put it first. That the work speaks for itself and if you don’t dedicate every ounce of your being, then you won’t achieve. I truly believe that because of my PhD, this reprioritization from work to connection hit so much harder. There will always be another paper, another deadline, another promotion. There won’t be another life, or another dad. Perhaps for some people their takeaway would have been to maximize productivity and output. For me the outcome was to maximize my happiness, which at the end of the day is being with people I love to be around. I still want to do good work and good research, because I find it oh so fun, but by prioritizing the people I’m not only happier in doing so, but I also produce better research[10] , a win-win all around.

I loved my time at the PhD. I loved being able to explore the unknown, and try to make security better across different populations and domains. In retrospect, doing this with people who were compassionate, humble, and ready to laugh made it so much easier. I’m not sure I would have made it through a PhD if that hadn't been my case. I BELONGED somewhere, and that comfort was a cornerstone in my experience of the last 7 years. I don’t think I really understood until the last three years how much the people matter.

As with all transitions, there’s a bit of bittersweetness involved. I was so fortunate to cross paths with so many terrific folks. To add to this bittersweetness is the fact that we will never have these moments again in this time. We are all constantly changing and growing, so this moment will never exist again in its current form. It’s beautiful and amazingly dispiriting.

Do I know what’s next? A bout of rest and relaxation to enjoy this moment of triumph. I am looking forward to some time to breathe, write, and finish manuscripts that are on the precipice of completeness. For now I’m embracing this moment and the joy, connection, and love that comes with it, even if the unknown of what’s next is terrifying.

What I do know is th🍒at as I start to figure out next steps, I know what to prioritize – the people around me, and enjoying the time I have in this terrifically short 🉐life.