As I've told people over the past few months that I'm planning on going to grad school in the fall, I've gotten a number of quizzical looks: "Do you want to be a professor? Go get your Ph.D. If not, it's a waste of time. Go get a job, and you'll be ready to start a company in a few years." I've heard the same thing from a ton people -- software engineers in the Valley, VCs, and even former Ph.D.s who are now in industry. Even my dad, who'd been telling me that I should go to grad school for as long as I can remember has said that he's not sure if it's worth it.
That said, I'm starting my Ph.D. at Berkeley this coming fall, and I couldn't be more excited. I’m writing this to talk about why I’m excited despite other peoples’ misgivings.
I've spent the last month or so talking to grad students and professors at visit days. From what I've gathered, success & fulfillment in grad school are the combination of three things. First (in order of the things I've been told the most emphatically) is a good relationship with your advisor. I've had the phenomenal opportunity to work with my advisor for the past year, and I'm confident that our research interests align well and that we work well together.
The second thing that's come up a lot is your motivation for going grad school. From what I've been told, going to grad school without being excited about doing research and exploring a new (sub-sub-)field often proves to be a recipe for disaster. My motivation for going to grad school is to build interesting & ground-breaking systems. I hope that, by definition, that means that I'll be exploring a new space in computer science.1
The last thing that I've heard is that it's important to pick the right group with the right set of research interests. I can honestly say that every project in the Berkeley database group is something that I'd be interested in working on and that's incredibly reassuring for me. I also think that the DB group here has some of the smartest and coolest people that I've met, and I'm excited to be able to pick their brains for the next few years.
In no particular order:
The funny part of all of this is that I had absolutely no interest in going to grad school until my final year of college. I happened to take a seminar on databases and remember thinking to myself, "There's all this innovative, valuable software built in academia. Why didn't I consider it before?" What really drew me in though was understanding that there are many pieces of software that are technically challenging and valuable to tons of users that can't be monetized in any way. For me, that's really important: I want to build things that I know people are going to use and will find valuable. In academia, I don't have to worry about whether or not there's a business model that suits that software. For the kind of databases & systems research that I'm interested in, the focus is on building something well, making sure that it has value, and making sure that it's cutting-edge.a
That's why I'm looking forward to grad school. I'm looking forward to spending the next few years learning from some of the smartest people in the world at Berkeley, working on interesting and useful problems, and learning how to be a better researcher. I'm very much looking forward to learning how to pick & scope an interesting problem and how to present my ideas well. Most importantly for me, I'm excited to learn from the thought leaders in my field.