The PhD versus Online Dating

A Ph.D. is very much like a marriage with your advisor, as suggested by this PHD Comics post:

After all, the term “Ph.D.” stands for Doctor of Philosophy, where the word “philosophy” is composed of the Latin roots philo- (love) and –sophos (“wisdom.”). So maybe there are some skills transferable from your love life to your Ph.D. journey!

Just as marriage is like getting a Ph.D., I believe that finding a Ph.D. advisor is like online dating, as suggested by the following table:

  Online dating Finding a Ph.D. advisor
Begins with A dating profile A research profile
Look for Signs of future financial success by job title and education Signs of future career success by Science and Nature papers
Matching process Talking to multiple potential partners, but choosing one in the end Talking to multiple professors, but accepting one in the end
Profile picture Filters to look younger Faculty photos from when they were young

When we face problems, we can ignore them if they are unimportant. Yet, both kinds of relationships have been on earth for centuries (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_of_Philosophy), suggesting they are both important nonetheless and can be meaningful if done correctly. The main problem in common between online dating and Ph.D. is that all of us have unrealistic expectations of our partners, or in the Ph.D. world, our advisors.

When we get into a dating relationship, we think the other person will complete us. When most students get into a Ph.D. program, they think their advisors will be the one who helps them finish their Ph.D. in three years, then get a faculty job and live happily ever after. But if you are unlucky, these expectations may never even cross your professor’s mind. He or she may just be looking for someone who can pump out the perfect papers and give nothing in return, and they may try to get you to stay as long as possible.

We all think that doing a Ph.D. or getting into a serious relationship is easy, but they both turn out to be very hard, as suggested by The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller and 121 First Dates by Wendy Newman. Here is some advice from those books adapted to the Ph.D. advisor relationship:

  1. Meet with your future advisors before and talk to people that work with them. Just as you wouldn’t want to commit to a long-term relationship without knowing the person, you also would not want to sign up with a professor just based on an hour of chatting. Some Ph.D. programs offer rotations as a “dating period.” If you think blind marriage sucks, you might want to prioritize these programs. It would help you to better understand what you are getting into for the next few years, and also what you are getting out of it.
  2. A Ph.D. program or school is like a dating app. They each attract a different crowd. Choosing the right dating app will save you time. If you go into a dating app and all you see are shirtless guys, you can probably get a sense of the people you are going to meet through that channel. Likewise, If you walk into the department buildings of a school and the vibe is off, then you probably don’t want to be there. If the professor you meet likes to talk about himself the whole time instead of hearing what you want to do, you might want to stay away from him or her. 
  3. Don’t be with jerks regardless of the potential return. Just as bad boys have their special ways of attracting girls, powerful advisors have a special way of attracting students. The book 121 First Dates talks about how finding the cutest/richest one might not be the best for you, as you may constantly find yourself in a position of giving in. The amount of funding or number of Nature papers that the faculty member has doesn’t necessarily mean you will be happy, and Academia can leave a person vulnerable if they are stuck with an abusive PI. I have personally seen professors abuse their students and postdocs, and it is not enjoyable for anyone. Luckily both my PIs during both undergrad and Ph.D. are very nice and honorable. They genuinely care about the well being of the students.

On the bright side, a Ph.D. can be a place where you can meet a lot of interesting people and absorb diverse knowledge. If you do it right, you can do a lot of meaningful work. If you are excited to do a Ph.D., let nothing stop you. All the best, and may you find the one advisor for you!

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