Why doing a PhD is like training for the Olympics

Alona Fyshe, Amii Fellow & Canada CIFAR AI Chair

This article was written by Alona Fyshe, an Amii Fellow and Canada CIFAR AI Chair who serves as an Assistant Professor of Computing Science and Psychology at the University of Alberta. She combines her interests in computational linguistics, machine learning and neuroscience to study how the human brain processes language.

Why would anyone want to do a PhD?

The decision to pursue a PhD isn't one to take lightly. In signing on, you're knowingly subjecting yourself to several years of difficult, gruelling work.

There are many reasons not to pursue a PhD. You don't need one to get a job; industry demand for AI talent has created a competitive and lucrative job market for all education levels. And if your goal is to get a tenure track job, those positions are few and the competition is fierce.

So people often wonder: why on earth would anyone want to do a PhD?

I answer this question with another question: why on earth would anyone want to train for the Olympics?

Hard work and vision

Imagine you're deciding whether or not to train for the Olympics. Weighing the risks versus the rewards, you would realize that it is unlikely that you will make money, the chances of being accepted to compete in the Olympics are small, and the probability of winning a medal is even smaller. The competition is certainly fierce!

An athlete’s training is years of hard work with sparse payoffs. They have to learn to love the process of working hard, and getting better over time, even when they’re not winning medals.

Most athletes understand that they might not go to the Olympics, but they will live the rest of their lives knowing that they gave it their all. They have the lived experience of dedicating themselves to a goal and mastering a particular physical feat.

I see many parallels between training for the Olympics and doing a PhD. If you are contemplating a graduate degree, consider this:

  • You will work hard and there will be days and weeks where your hard work doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. You’re not failing, you’re discovering what doesn’t work.
  • Learning makes you realize how little you know, so you'll feel like you are behind a lot of the time. You’re not behind, you’re learning. This is all normal. It’s part of training!
  • You have to learn to love the process of working hard, and understanding more over time, even when you haven’t completely answered your research question or published a paper.
  • When something doesn’t work, certainly take a moment to feel disappointed. But then revel in the feeling of curiosity. Why didn’t that work when you were so sure it would?!? What can we try next?

Students gathered at a poster presentation at UpperBound

Develop an Olympian state of mind

Like an Olympian, learn to track your progress. What did you work on this week? What did you learn? Even when things don’t go as planned, you may find you are still moving towards your goals.

Like an Olympian, lean on your coach (graduate supervisor). Your supervisor is on your team. They want you to succeed! Ask for advice, celebrate your successes, but also share when things aren’t working. Your supervisor has a lot of experience and can help you think about your results and what to do next.

Like an Olympian, build a support team. Olympians have more than a single coach. They have physiotherapists, massage therapists, sports doctors, sports psychologists, teammates, friends and family. Olympians learn to look for support in all kinds of places and know that different people provide different support.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice from people who aren’t your graduate supervisor, from people who aren’t professors, or even people who aren’t even in graduate school! Though the problem you are working on is likely very niche, many people have experience with the skills required to stick with something when the going gets rough.

And, like an Olympian, see this as a stage in your life. This is your chance to really dive deep into a research question and become a little obsessed.

The next phase of your life may be very different, but you are gaining technical and non-technical skills that will help you in whatever you tackle next. Every day is a chance to practice, train, learn, and get a little better.

Wondering how to get started?

Amii supports AI education and professional development across all stages of talent - whether you’re just getting started, have an advanced degree, or anywhere in between! Learn how Amii can help you move along your Talent Journey.

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