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Do I regret that I spent 4.5 years for a Ph.D.?

A Quora user asked me on Quora to answer the question he had: "How was your path to being a PhD and then a lecturer? What were the various phases? Left jobs? Regretted it?" I didn't think I was the best person to answer the question, but since it was the first time someone pointed me directly to answer a question, so I spent Saturday night to write something up. I ended up just writing my life story around Ph.D., and I am not sure if I answered his question. But I'm willing to share my story as just one of millions of examples, and hope it helps others to decide their life decisions. So here is the copy of my answer:

Who am I?
My name is Daigo Tanaka. I received a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) in 2007, but I never became a full time lecturer or even a post-doctoral researcher though I was a part-time lecturer for a semester in the past. I immediately left academia upon graduation. It's been my unique path and I have no regrets. If you are still interested, here is my story to read on.

How did I land on a Ph.D. program?
I came to USA as a visiting researcher at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington D.C. while I was still a graduate student in Keio University of Japan. The position at Georgetown was a two year program to research in computer engineering to help planning and operating surgery. After the two years, I was supposed to go back to Japan to complete my doctoral degree. But I soon found that the professional career in USA was suited for me. So, I started to apply Ph.D. programs as my contract was ending.

Luckily, Professor Kenji Shimada of CMU was interested in taking me as one of his students, and the university admitted me to Biomedical Engineering program that had just started as a department. I was very excited. At the same time, I was always feeling insecure because of my poor English communication skills. Besides, my undergraduate trainings were not purely in engineering. Because of those concerns, I even started to sneak into undergraduate courses at CMU because I even didn't know much about differential equations. (Now, many of my friends think I have a solid math background, but I still have this psychological complex to make me always think my math is weak, and it drives me to continue studying.)

What was my Ph.D. student life like?
My life as a Ph.D. student wasn't so fortunate in the first half. The young Biomedical Engineering program there wasn't clear on the criteria in passing the qualifier exam, and after the first attempt, I was just told to take it again without a concrete feedback. One of the professors in the committee actually told me that it wasn't a fair assessment to me. But I passed in the second time anyways. What was much harder was when a research scientist who was in my project, sued the university for a strange reason, and he left the university with all the work I had done for the project and for my future thesis. (Later I found he published using the results of my work without listing me as a co-author or even acknowledging me. He even used the images I produced as the figures in the article.) I had to throw everything away and find a new project.

My professor found a new project for me, and it was a joint project of him and the other professor who became my co-thesis advisor. I was thankful to all the training I received from both of them, but I often found myself in trouble finding a clear path because the two advisors who had very different philosophies often didn't agree to each other in advising me.

I was always very depressed about my research and was a frequenter to the student psychological counseling center. I was more interested in Computer Science studies such as machine learning and medical image processing than my thesis topic, and I took refuge at such classes outside my planned study. These off-the-track activities even led me to give a guest lecture in a medical image processing class on the topic of unsupervised learning of the high dimensional space of the image statistics.

Graduated. Now what?
After 4 and half years, I graduated, and overall, I was proud of how I did. I first-authored in 4 peer reviewed engineering journal articles during the period, and I won the first prize of the annual student presentation in the department two years in a row. However, it was becoming clear to me that I was going to leave academia as soon as I graduated.

Why did I decide to leave academia? First obvious reason was that I was not interested in teaching. I frankly don't have the patience and creativity to make the class room engaging and look after each student. One could be a research professor instead, but only if he or she is really good at it (and good at winning big grants). Unfortunately, I always felt my research was someone else's and didn't find anything I felt truly my work. I was also not so excited in the world of publish or perish, and I wanted to focus on making things that were more connected to outside of academia.

I also switched the field. I left the medical field that I studied for 11 years and went to the energy sector, one thing because one of my best friends did so and encouraged me to join, and the other reason was the sector seemed to be a safe-bet in the midst of the financial crisis started to loom. So, I joined Schlumberger, the largest oil field services company in the world. My devision was in Houston, Texas. It was exploration, meaning that it was looking for oil and gas under the sediments. I was applying my background in computational geometry to help geophysicists create 3 dimensional models of geological structures. The scale of the project was enormous, and I enjoyed working with many talented colleagues. Many of them also held a Ph.D. The corporate offered excellent courses in software engineering and project management. I became particularly interested in Scrum, one of the agile software development frameworks. I became a Certified Scrum Master and Certified Scrum Professional. It served me very well in marketing myself and do the work in my next move.

More soul searches
After I worked at Schlumberger for almost 5 years, I and my wife, who is also a Ph.D. from CMU (Cognitive Psychology), decided that it was time for us to move to San Francisco Bay Area for the culture and life style more suited for us.

A 100,000 employee company was truly like a Titanic in the scale and the level of organization. While it offered the structured and effective corporate trainings that I still value, I always felt like working in a small boiler room in a huge vessel that I cannot even see the whole picture. My desire instead was to sail out in the wild ocean in a small yacht with a few crews, where I would have to do all sorts of work to keep the boat afloat and moving. So, I joined a small start up called FiveStars Loyalty. The company offered a customer loyalty program for small and mid size businesses. I joined early. It was still running with the seed investment, and operated in a humble warehouse-like office in Mountain View.

Joining the startup was one of the biggest life events. I worked day and night with smartest and the most talented people who either left or passed the opportunities at the big players from Google to McKinsey. We were hungry for success and were often very crazy in things we did. We worked smart and hard, and in a couple of years the company became to serve thousands of merchants and tracking over $200M in transaction data from millions of users. It attracted more and more talents including directors from Facebook and Capital One, and a senior designer from Apple. In such a rich environment of innovative idea, A+ players, and hard work, I frankly think that I learned 10 times more things in just the single year of the startup than my 5 years at the corporate.

More than two years have passed, and I will continue to work at FiveStars. I can see new exciting opportunities here such as data science of consumer behavior. I was fortunate to meet such a successful startup with the unique and attractive culture and people, and I want to see FiveStars grows to be a "super" successful company.

Retrospectives and looking forward
You may think that having Ph.D. degree became less and less relevant in my case, and I agree on it 100%. Looking back, I think the fact that we hold Ph.D. is just a record of the completing basic academic trainings. That is a bottom line and it doesn't tell about the potentials we have. Through the struggle as a Ph.D. student, I learned that we can learn anything eventually as long as we don't give up. Because I learned that in a hard way, I continued to learn deeper and broader after I graduated and left academia. That was more important lesson hidden under the degree.

We are in the big socioeconomic reformations triggered by the big bang of the information technology, and they require me to revise the course many times in my life. I sought the life in academia first, then went on to be a software engineer in the energy sector. Then my internal voice pushed my back to join the startup movement. Now I am striving to be a data scientist who also has a solid engineering background to get the actual work done in the real world.

It's been a while since Ph.Ds became rather abundant and the pie in academia is getting thinner (and less tasty?) Academic life is still attractive to a lucky few, and they seem to be becoming even smaller minority. All these are result of the population dynamics and socioeconomic change we are in. Whether we chose to earn Ph.D., and whether we decide to stay in academia, it seems to me that it is wise to keep on telling ourselves, "In the age of great changes, don't cling to the past accomplishments, and always be ready to redefine oneself."

Thanks for reading.

Original post: March 23, 2014 | Last updated: March 23, 2014

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