Why I'm Excited About Grad School


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.

What people have told me

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.

Other Things I'm excited about

In no particular order:

  • Cutting-edge research: Recently, at CMU's grad visit day, in a conversation with Peter Steenkiste, we happened upon the topic of Ph.D.s oriented towards academia as opposed to those oriented towards industry and industrial research labs. His point (paraphrased, of course) was that whether you go into industry, academia, or something else, getting a Ph.D. trains you to pick out interesting problems and to become a leader in your field by solving or attempting to solve those problems. Of course, those are skills you can get elsewhere and can cultivate with sufficient exposure and effort. But to me, it seems immensely valuable to be in a place where the goal is to learn how to become a good researcher and how to find and solve cutting-edge problems.
  • Berkeley's open-source tradition: Some of the most influential open source projects, both historically (Ingres, Postgres, BSD) and in the last few years (Mesos, Spark, Jupyter Notebooks) have come out of Berkeley. I'd love to be able to contribute to that. (A lofty goal, I know.)
  • My current work: For the past year, I've been working on a project called Ground (see our most recent Strata talk). There's a ton of really awesome work that we're hoping to do and a really interesting system that we need to finish building. I'm really excited to see where the future of this work leads us.
  • Having access to Silicon Valley: I'm really passionate about doing research that people somehow benefit from. Being in the backyard of the Silicon Valley is great for fostering collaboration with a bunch of awesome people working on cool stuff and to translate that into meaningful & impactful research. That's not to say that this isn't possible at other schools; it's just something I know Berkeley does, and it's awesome.

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.

1A great (and very relevant) illustration.