Crystal Lee (she/她)

How I did my PhD

Two of the most influential (and helpful) things that I have read about the process of doing graduate school have been Philip Guo's classic "The PhD Grind" and Jean Yang's reflections on what her PhD was like. While there are some generalizeable takeaways from each piece, what I really liked about these narratives was their specificity: you got a slice of the ups and downs of graduate school and the many other factors that contributed to their PhD experience -- failed projects, changing research directions, and other personal circumstances. Unlike articles that try to list discrete lessons on what one learns during a PhD (e.g., project / time management, how to set boundaries, etc.), these narratives show that finishing a PhD is hardly linear as they emphasize what life outside of graduate school looks like, particularly if you are spending a majority of your 20s completing the degree.

The other thing about grad school advice is that it assumes that one experience generalizes to another. As my friend Jane eloquently relates (emphasis mine):

Nobody told me that the vast majority of wise advice you see is abbreviated to the point of uselessness. People are shitty communicators. I saw a figure recently saying that the body receives eleven million bits of information per second. A few million from the eyes, a million from the skin, so on and so forth. Your conscious mind is capable of dealing with only fifty bits per second. The English language contains only 1.5 bits of information per character. When I’m done writing this, there will be only 1500 bits of information conveyed to you. Wisdom is more than explicit precepts on how to behave; it’s a set of attitudes and coping mechanisms. It is a way of feeling, not just a way of thinking. You can’t accurately compress billions and billions of bits of feeling into a couple thousand. I sometimes think that pleasant aphorisms exist only for the benefit of the advice-giver, so they have a handy summary of what they’ve learned. It makes sense to them, but it won’t to you; at least, not enough that you’ll be able to use it.

Here’s my overly-abbreviated contribution: nobody told me that some things can’t be learned. They can only be experienced.

My friend Jonathan abbreviates the thought further and introduces me to the term context collapse. So, instead of advice, I'll just relate how the process unfolded for me, and try to do a similar recounting by year. I hope it might be helpful for you in some way in the way that Philip and Jean's posts have been for me.

Summer 2016

I make a very conscious decision not to do very much work during the summer and to mostly have fun. Earlier that year, I had fallen in love with a Swiss PhD student at Stanford following a first date that ended in a trip to the ER. We are sufficiently smitten that we spend most of the summer living together in Oakland, where I do some light reading but mostly walk around Berkeley Bowl and bask in Californian sunshine. Later in the summer, we pack all of our belongings in my car and we drive from Oakland to Cambridge, stopping at major national parks. It is one of the happiest and most carefree summers in my life.

Year 1

Fall 2016

I start at MIT and very quickly become overwhelmed, like many PhD students. I am excited by the people I meet in the office and the things I get to encounter in class. My cohort in HASTS is filled with delightful people, and one of my cohort-mates suggests that we organize a weekly lunch where the five of us get to know one HASTS faculty member. I find it exhilarating to get to know so many people so quickly, but I am also fascinated by the different ways that people approach reading and writing. While I am excited by all of the potential directions that the HASTS program could take me, I am also incredibly disheartened: while I had started the program as a very disciplined historian of science, there are few history of science courses offered in HASTS during my first year and I feel generally lost about the kinds of questions I want to answer.

I entertain lots of possible project ideas mostly around the history of quantification and the social sciences, but none of them are very exciting. I apply to the NSF GRFP and the reviews agree that these ideas are all pretty lackluster. My advisor at the time, Dave Kaiser, is relatively hands-off and sort of lets me do whatever I want, which is both a generous and dangerous mode for a directionless grad student. I primarily came to HASTS to work with Dave but slowly discover that our research interests and mentorship style may not actually be a very good fit; with my lack of direction, I realize that I need a much more hands-on, detailed approach (Dave prefers to advise at a higher level compared to talking through more minute details). After November 2016 -- two months into the PhD -- almost everyone I know spirals into a slump about what we can or should be doing.

Spring 2017

After trudging through the fall, two things happen during the spring semester that irrevocably change my graduate school experience for the better: first, I join a graduate women's therapy group at MIT Medical. Even before starting grad school, I knew that I had mental health issues that I wanted to carefully monitor, but I had limited experience with therapy and psychopharmacology. I often felt like I went to my sessions without knowing what to say. Group therapy gave me a space to support others and to know concretely that I was really not alone. The format also meant that I didn't have to have something to talk about every week: one person might have something to process one week and not another. This really took the pressure off and I learned how to ask for the help and support I needed.

The second thing that happened was one of absolute happenstance: I was feeling miserable about my work but was slated to present at a workshop on data visualization run by Matt Jones at Columbia. I ended up doing a practice run of that presentation during the HASTS Program Seminar on Mondays, which was enormously beneficial because the faculty representative who engaged most meaningfully with my work was the person who would later become my advisor, Graham Jones (no relation). Graham is an anthropologist of magic and secrecy, so while we have nothing in common on paper, he was incredibly generative and excited about the work I did (and was perhaps the first person since I started grad school to really engage with it). After that seminar, we end up talking for more than 2 hours. He spends hours with me thinking through random projects and exploring all sorts of ideas that had nothing to do with computing. If anything, he helps me think through topics in ways that had nothing to do with technology, which is an interesting perspective when you're doing a PhD at MIT. Graham gets tenure in the spring and I switch advisors. After so much time thinking of myself primarily as a historian of science, I struggle imagining myself as an anthropologist. As an undergraduate, I did a lot of work on the history of science in East Asia; I begin to think about what a research project in China or Taiwan could look like.

Summer 2017

To help address these issues, Graham suggests that I tag along with Rob Weller, an anthropologist of religion who works in China and Taiwan. Rob very kindly takes me under his wing and I spend a couple weeks in Suzhou with him and one of his former students who is now a professor. We go around to different temples interviewing mediums and watching religious rituals. I watch Rob, and Rob watches everything that's going on in the temple. This becomes a masterclass in how to do ethnography: I watch Rob take field notes, record interviews, and -- crucially -- have dinner and socialize with his interlocutors. I decide that this is a really scary method of doing research and that it may not be for me, but Rob is very encouraging and I become less afraid. He and his students take me to many excellent restaurants in Suzhou and we eat magnificently after spending most of the day in temples.

Year 2

Fall 2017

I start the semester with renewed resolve to become an anthropologist despite having never taken any classes in anthropology. Thankfully, Graham is teaching introduction to anthropology and requests me as his TA. I am awed by his lecturing style and learn the basics alongside many brilliant undergraduate students. I also take some other graduate courses on big data and quantification. Things are generally pretty uneventful, but I still have many questions about what I could be doing. I begin considering projects on data visualization and the senses, but I don't really know where to start so Graham suggests that I think more about sensation and disability. I am a bit confused by this but I also feel an impending crisis; I have mixed feelings about graduate school so I decide that I should only do things that make me happy. I read a lot about the anthropology of food and wonder if I should write something about Buddhist vegetarian meats or about computing technologies that aim to emulate the human senses. In the winter, I work at the European Commission on some UX and statistical work that feels easy and straightforward but it does not make me very happy. My mental health takes a nosedive and I spend most of my days pretending to work or lying down.

Spring 2018

At this point, I feel increasingly adrift and consider quitting graduate school to do literally anything other than research. This is partially due to the horribly lonely nature of academic work, but also because my bipolar disorder has become increasingly unmanageable and I have a series of mental breakdowns. I occasionally make it to classes but often I am completely absent both in mind and body, punctuated by periods of fervent productivity and hypomania. Graham becomes alarmed during one of our meetings where I am talking so quickly and so randomly that I am completely incomprehensible. My psychiatrist ups my lithium dose in response to my rapid cycling, but I decide that the lithium makes me so groggy and slow that the medication replaces my hypomania -- the most enjoyable part of bipolar disorder -- with brain fog, so I am left only with intense depression and a hazy memory. I stop taking medication and for the second time in my life, I contemplate suicide. Both Graham and my partner notice and we decide that I should probably take off time from MIT. I submit the paperwork and take medical leave for the next six months.

Summer 2018

I struggle throughout the summer to get out of bed and I hide the fact that I am on medical leave to my parents. At the same time, I start filling out intake forms for mental health facilities but it is surprisingly difficult to get professional help (don't ever say "just get help" to someone). I find out later from a kind patient coordinator at McLean that using the insurance numbers I gave her, the system says I do not have health insurance. (I paid for the insurance through MIT since I couldn't get it anywhere else.) She walks me through the process of talking to Blue Cross and the health insurance office at MIT, who decided to terminate my coverage in the system once I started medical leave.

I spend many hours on the phone trying to get the insurance people to reactivate the health insurance I had already paid for, and many more calling mental health facilities, many of which have horrific online reviews that detail patient abuse. Meanwhile, my partner's immigration situation becomes increasingly murky and it is unclear whether or not he would be able to stay in the country after his PhD despite having a predoc and postdoc lined up at MIT. (I think it's particularly telling that MIT was slower with immigration documents than USCIS under Trump -- the people who refused to process the materials were in Cambridge, not in a government building.) Between the health insurance fiasco and MIT's unwillingness to process standard immigration paperwork for my partner, I have deep misgivings about ever wanting to return. Between immigration and my medical leave, Stephan and I start burning through our savings very quickly.

Year 3

Fall 2018

I attend a partial hospital program in Boston. It is a largely positive experience, except for the one day when an older faculty member joins my therapy group and talks about how he was unjustly denied tenure before he won a MacArthur more than a decade ago. (That is actually not as upsetting as the fact that he kept on talking about how he didn't need to be here with these people.) I chalk this up to academic trauma. My partner's immigration situation worsens and it seems like there is no other way to resolve it in a timely manner so we get married. As someone who had no plans to ever be married or be financially dependent on a man, I am deeply upset by the US immigration system. However, I am grateful for my partner's emotional and financial support. We have a ~15 person wedding with three dogs. Other than the stress of trying to get health insurance and trying to file immigration paperwork, I have very few memories of what happened during these six months.

Spring–Summer 2019

I return to MIT under the stipulation that I will permanently leave if I become unhappy and cannot orient myself. MIT has an inter-semester period between the fall and the spring where people attend workshops; I pick one on multisensory approaches to technology in collaboration with the Perkins School for the Blind. On the first day of the workshop, I meet Alan Lundgard. He shares an interest in data visualization and we talk about tactile graphics. He invites me to a lab meeting with the Visualization Group run by Arvind Satyanarayan, and I become captivated by human-computer interaction theory. Alan and I write our first paper together, and I am struck by how quickly publications move in computer science compared to the glacial pace in the humanities and social sciences. Through Arvind's lab, I also meet Jonathan Zong, who (along with Alan) are some of my closest friends at MIT. Jonathan and I write a piece together for Slate and the pitching and editing process almost breaks us -- over the course of 3-4 months, there are over 20 versions that are each almost complete re-hauls of the previous iteration. We get ghosted a lot and have long stretches of time where editors are ostensibly working on it but then get back to us too late so we have to completely change the news hook to make the piece relevant.

Within MIT, though, the Visualization Group feels like an ideal place to be thinking about all things visualization and I convince Arvind to read a qualifying exam with me in HCI and visualization. Over the summer, I write my first NSF grant and wonder why anyone would go through so much work for such little money (especially since MIT takes over half of it). I continue preparing for my exams for the rest of the year.

Year 4

Fall 2019

I finish reading for my exams with Will Deringer (in STS), Graham (anthropology of media and mediation), and Arvind (HCI). A random opportunity to help develop a digital humanities class at Harvard's history of science department pops up and I jump on it almost immediately -- given that I hadn't really done any DH work at all since I started at MIT, I was really excited to be developing some new curriculum. I go to my first computer science conferences (VIS and ASSETS) and I enroll in a personal storytelling workshop on the weekends, which is the first time I really have a community of friends outside of MIT who don't do anything related to tech. This is a welcome respite from school as the Media Lab and CSAIL become overtaken by the Epstein and Stallman scandals. Between the Harvard strike and the student activism addressing sexual violence at MIT, all of my friends and I are exhausted. I begin livetweeting some of the stuff at MIT and am surprised / grateful that people are taking notice of student activism.

At the same time, my chronic pain issues worsen and it becomes really difficult to do work throughout the year, as I get intense flareups that incapacitate me completely. I get a few tests done and one thing we discover is that my IUD had been embedded in my uterine wall the entire time which probably exacerbated some of the pain, so my OBGYN uses a huge hook to forcibly pry it from my uterus. The pain continues unabated for another two years.

Spring 2020

I finally take my exams, which is an onerous mix of three written exams (8 hours each) and a final oral exam (which is actually quite fun). All of my examiners get along really well and are interested in what the others have to say, so we have an exciting and invigorating conversation. I get home after the exam and realize that the day after my exam is the due date for the Berkman Klein fellowship. I slap together an application on a whim after getting home from the exam and hibernate for the next week. Since I finished my exams right before the spring semester, I get assigned to TA a class for the spring semester. I do a random mix of things outside of class, like reading a list on critical disability studies with Ashley Shew, pretending to like ceramics (I am terrible at it), and going to some conferences. Things shut down pretty much immediately after the last conference I attend in Seattle.

Summer 2020

Everyone tries to regroup. The research I had planned in my NSF proposal is not going to happen, as most of it was earmarked for travel that I was going to do at archives and conferences. I have a nice quarantine bubble but my partner and I decide to move back to California with my sister, where we stayed for the next year. Both Graham and Arvind have a record number of UROPs asking to work with them, and I end up working with a truly stellar group of undergrads on topics related to COVID and computing. I meet with them each twice a week to work on three different projects. Even if working on COVID-related stuff is demoralizing, it gives me a (false?) feeling of Doing Something, which is still worth something.

Year 5

Fall 2020

I decide that I really enjoy working with undergrads and decide to double down on it with Jonathan to create an interactive website for the COVID data visualization work. I work with Tanya, the UROP working on the COVID visualization paper, and we submit the paper to CHI early in the autumn. I feel restless after submitting the paper since I feel like someone should be leveraging the results (or at the very least, it should be interesting to someone), but nothing really happens to it for a couple months.

I start the fellowship at Berkman but I am not really sure what to do other than attend the weekly meetings. Even if I have no idea what Berkman is supposed to be, I figure that I might as well use the Harvard brand for something and promise myself that I will use the fellowship to figure out what non-academic things I can do after graduating. Some of the people I meet are very snooty and unpleasant to talk to. Others are reasonably nice but intimidating. Overall, I struggle to find people I connect with, but everything is okay because I get to live with my sister in California. Near the end of the year, I also start working on a paper with some colleagues at Stanford, which is the first (and last) time that I get to be on an academic research project with my partner. (He left academia after he finished his postdoc at MIT.) We all work pretty well together, but the research itself doesn't gel and we get rejected by a lot of different venues.

Spring 2021

Both of the COVID-related projects get accepted. Academics who actively ignored me now pay attention (and often regurgitate) the things I say, which is annoying. The semester I spent talking to anyone who would listen was really paying off now, since I finally had some exciting leads outside of academia that seemed intellectually exciting and geographically flexible. I felt a lot of FOMO and said yes to almost everything, which was good for my CV and bad for my mental health. Despite everyone telling me not to do it since I have to actually write a dissertation, I end up joining a cool nonprofit because I was afraid of turning things down and it seemed like a good post-PhD springboard. However, I have a panic attack before every meeting and feel lost about what I really wanted to do with this kind of role, which felt very reminiscent of early grad school. I become similarly exhausted by the Stanford project, as I could never get the analysis to be as precise as I'd like. I feel increasingly stressed about whether or not this is the kind of scholarship I wanted to be doing, and I take my name off of the paper.

Later in the spring, Berkman has its own CSAIL moment and the community (and the mailing list) implodes. Between the nonprofit, the Stanford project, and the zillion other little things, I feel so burnt out. My psychiatrist tells me to do nothing for at least two weeks. Many of my friends outside of academia also don't seem to be having a good time at their jobs. While academia is uniquely exploitative and toxic in unimaginable ways, I reflect on the fact that I might also use this to idealize many other jobs (particularly in creative fields) that might still have the pyramid scheme problem.

Year 6

Fall 2021

I finally move back to Boston from California. It feels strange to be seeing people in person again, even if we're all masked, but I enjoy returning to a community of people I like. I talk with Arvind and Graham about what this year should look like, and we decide that I should continue on some of the other projects we are working on (like a screen-reader data visualization project) and consider applying for jobs. Graham doesn't want me to be distracted by going on the job market instead of writing my dissertation, but he also recognizes that jobs in the humanities and social sciences only come around once in a blue moon. He encourages me to apply for dream jobs now since they are so scarce. Arvind, by contrast, takes an abundance mindset since computer science often hires every year; he says that I should apply once I have my best foot forward. We end up with the soft launch model and I spend most of the semester writing my job market materials. Jonathan, Alan, and I wrap up the analysis for the screen reader paper and end up submitting it later that semester. A job opens up at Mozilla and I am so excited for it as it feels like the non-academic job that I have been looking for -- a springboard from academia into a cool tech community that holds many of the same values that I do. I submit an application to Mozilla hoping for the best but expecting nothing; I finish the job market materials promising my partner that I will go on the job market exactly 1.5 times and then move on with my life (0.5 being the test run year).

Spring 2022

I start at Mozilla in the new year and feel excited because it seems like an organization that actually instantiates its values in a meaningful way (e.g., working conditions that would pass muster with European labor laws). I continue to be surprised that I'm in a tech organization but largely do not encounter any cis men. The program I am working with, Responsible Computer Science, is also well-respected and well-funded, which is something that humanists and social scientists can rarely say.

Sometime in February, I get notice from the search committee at MIT that I have been invited for a job talk. I panic and do two test runs of possible things I could talk about, but none of them really gel and both sessions are disasters (even though the audience was great and I got a lot of feedback). I spend the week before the job talk agonizing over this and decide to completely rewrite the talk over the weekend for the presentation on Monday. After a couple of different agonizing emails where they keep pushing off when we'll find out about the outcome, I get an offer in the late spring and freak out about how I'm actually supposed to finish a dissertation that I was going to write in the coming year.

Summer 2022

My committee and I converge on a model where I basically take all of my existing papers, staple them together, and then write an introduction and conclusion. (I have two months to meet the deadline, so theoretically a month per chapter.) This goes poorly and I spend a lot of time agonizing or doing my job at Mozilla, which is an excellent source of productive procrastination. I am spread a bit thin at Mozilla since we are launching a couple of different projects at the end of the summer and I am struggling to hire consultants to work on some projects. To address this, I spend a lot of time doing research on responsible computing in East Africa and India while trying to make appointments with everyone I can in order to learn more. I end up trying to do two people's worth of work while theoretically finishing my dissertation.

Just as expected, I finish writing at the last moment and turn in the document a bit late (I was supposed to send it to my committee on July 1, a Friday, but I cheat a little and send it after the July 4th weekend). Arvind and Graham give me great comments on it but I feel so exhausted that it's hard for me to really internalize them. Two weeks later, my parents come into town and I defend my dissertation. It goes generally pretty well since I just gave a modified version of my job talk. Graham introduces me and opens the defense by speaking to my parents in Chinese and I almost start sobbing. (I ended up having a tear or two but thank goodness for the mask.) On a related note, one of my best research expenditures in my entire research career thus far is getting all of my slides translated for my parents via the UMass Translation Center, and then hiring someone to do simultaneous interpretation in Mandarin Chinese.

For the curious on how the access dimensions worked for my dissertation presentation -- I had it in-person and my entire committee wore masks (which set the tone for everyone to, too). In order to keep my mask on and speak to a large room, I got one of these portable mic packs that amplified my voice as I walked around with my mask one. My department had an OWL and an omnidirectional mic, which we used to record my presentation and the Q&A to Zoom. For the simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter joined on Zoom and we turned on an interpretation track, which allows a Zoom attendee to listen primarily to that track while suppressing the audio of what's happening in the event. My parents joined Zoom on their phones and used headphones during the entire thing, sort of like UN ambassadors.

I felt like I was really valued by a large academic community but also felt sad that there were so many people I could disappoint. Somehow, I thought I would feel very happy after all of this was over, but it was all very anti-climactic. My dissertation presentation ends, we have strawberries and champagne, and I leave feeling very empty inside.

Last thoughts

I wrote a bulk of this piece in the three months immediately after I finished my PhD and the process still feels very alien. I know that there's a piece of paper (and something that exists on the blockchain) that says that I in fact accomplished this thing, but it still feels a little unreal, much like the job. Overall, I enjoyed my time at MIT since I met and talk to so many terrific people -- they are the friends I call at 2 am in the morning and the ones who have heard every version of shitty paper ideas that later become good ones. Friends aside, I really do not think I could have done the PhD if it were not for my two incredible advisors, Graham and Arvind, who have really shown me what thinking together in a respectful, compassionate, and constructive environment could really look like. They have pushed me to be a better writer, thinker, and person -- I owe them the world.

So, what does that mean for folks who are doing (or thinking about doing) a PhD? I think largely my experience is not generalizable, but if I were to think about a few elements that really made this experience wonderful, it would be: (1) very generous and enthusiastic advisors, (2) supportive friends and colleagues, which I found much later in grad school, and (3) a very supportive dog (and partner).

(Almost) a year on

Quite a few people have asked me if I would choose to do a PhD again knowing what I do now. This is a very difficult question to answer for a number of reasons. I genuinely think that the process of learning and meeting so many influential people in my life was worth it in itself; that being said, the end of my PhD story is fundamentally a happily-ever-after one. It can be hard (especially for someone who unfortunately thrives on external social approval) to regret becoming a professor at MIT. A professor I had in college once told me that talking to faculty about their grad school experience is misguided because they are the ones who actually got drafted by the NFL (an effective metaphor for explaining academia at Thanksgiving because players also don't choose where they live), and it's difficult to imagine going back to normal life if you've won the lottery.

But enough metaphors. Would I do it again? Probably, but I think I would have benefited a lot from spending more time working outside of academia with no connection whatsoever to school prior to starting the PhD. I like to think that I made up for some of that experience working at the European Commission and Mozilla, and I think those two jobs were great because they let me very concretely imagine alternative life paths that would have been just as -- if not more -- fulfilling. It feels trite to say that everything was going to be fine regardless of what I chose, but I think that speaks to what Jane was talking about at the start: it is advice for my 21 year old self who worried that if I didn't do things just so that I would be setting myself up for a disappointing life that I regretted. I fully own how unrelatable and privileged this is -- as my partner said, "this is some entitled Stanford shit, Being Angsty About Finding Meaning and Success™ when you could just do a 9-5 you like enough and live your life" -- but one thing that really contextualized professional success for me was this poem. All this to say: I'm glad I did the PhD, even though it caused me a lot of pain; it's hard to say whether or not things would have been fundamentally better if I had worked in tech or media. (Academic job security never looked so good amidst the huge layoffs.) I think other paths would have been just as satisfying, albeit in different ways, but it's easy to say that when I've experienced conventional academic success.

Thanks so much for reading. I hope this helps you or makes you feel less alone as you navigate graduate school!