Is a PhD right for me?

575 words

When I was almost finished with my studies, I thought for a long time about whether I should do a PhD. On the one hand, I was in actual love with my master’s research topic and I had the opportunity to continue right where I left off. On the other hand, PhD students lead a stressful life of imposter syndrome and are paid a pittance.

I spent quite some time searching for articles and videos with titles like “why I quit my phd” to see if any of their feelings and thoughts sounded like the sort of things I might think. That was a useful activity which I would recommend to any prospective PhD student.

Right now, I am 2 years into my PhD.1I have heard multiple colleagues say that this is the worst part. Long enough in to think you should have visible results by now, but not long enough to actually have them. The title question remains. Here is a list of things that would have allowed me to make a more informed decision.

  • Imposter syndrome starts the day you’re hired and won’t stop for many years to come.
  • It is normal to fantasize about quitting every so often.
  • You will at some point realize how much more money you would make in industry. That is how much you’re effectively paying to do a PhD.
  • You will like your job less than you expected beforehand.
  • It is probably better to drown your sorrows in online procrastination than in substance abuse.
  • Free weekends will be rare, or at least you will feel guilty about them. Other people will always seem to be working more than you.2This is partly sampling bias. You do notice when your advisor sends you an email at 11pm on a Sunday, but you don’t notice when she doesn’t.

    There are good reasons for working outside office hours. Using your brain for 8 hours straight is hardly possible. Working less during the day and then a bit in the evening or on weekends is nicer.

    Also, publish-or-perish is a terrible incentive structure, this does play a part.

  • Depending on how good you are at making friends, your first conferences and workshops will be sad and lonely and exhausting.
  • Your sense of self-worth will become tied to your sense of how your research is going.
  • When your proofs or experiments are not working, you will feel frustrated and miserable for days/weeks/months on end.
  • When your theories and data do start working, the world will shine and your heart feels made of clouds and it will be blissful. For an hour or so, until you find the irrecoverable bug in your proof.
  • Academia is a scam. The fraction of your time reserved for research is a strictly decreasing function of time. Research directions are chosen because they are uncrowded and occasionally interesting, not because the outcomes would have any relevance to the world at large. Every single postdoc is sad and lonely because they have to move long distances every year or so, preventing them from having any friends.

That said, getting to do a PhD is undoubtedly a privilege. While the whole world is burning, trillions of non-human animals are brutally slaughtered every year for needless human consumption, and 815 million humans are too poor to afford enough food, you get play a part in the Unidirectional March Of Human Progress™ by spending four years in your safe, rich bubble thinking about a useless problem that Erdős once mentioned. Be sure to enjoy it.

Beyond Condorcet winners: Majority Judgement

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There have been rumours on Wikipedia that Michael Balinksi passed away this Februari 4th. If this is indeed the case, then my heartfelt sympathies go out to those around him. I never knew him personally, but he was an amazing scientist and I’ve used results of his more than once. He was quite a phenomenal speaker.

Today I want to talk about a single-winner voting system that Balinksi introduced with Rida Laraki. It is called majority judgement and it is so brilliant that it almost makes me wonder what voting theorists could have been doing both before and since then.

One big concept in social choice theory is majority rule: if most people think that A is better than B, then A should be the winner. Most multi-candidate voting systems generalize this in various ways, always preserving that if candidate A would beat every other candidate B, C, etc, in a pairwise competition, then A should win the election. If candidate A satisfies this criterium, we call A a Condorcet winner. The leading wisdom in social choice theory was that any good voting rule should let the Condorcet winner win (if it exists).

According to my informal sample from the Effective Altruism community, EA’s favourite voting system seems to be approval voting, which is one of these voting systems that generalizes majority rule to multiple candidates.

The genius of majority judgement is that it moves past the Condorcet winner paradigm and considers a perspective beyond that.

To illustrate, let’s assume we’re running an election among two candidates, the red candidate and the blue candidate, and every voter gets a ballot with for each candidate the options “Amazing”, “Good”, “Mediocre” and “Terrible” to express how good of a president they think the candidate would be. Let us for simplicity assume that our voting population consists of 5 groups, the A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and E’s, and everyone in a group votes the exact same way. The outcome of the election is in the table below.

% of population402040
Red candidateAmazingMediocreTerrible
Blue candidateGoodTerribleAmazing

The red candidate wins the Condorcet-style election: 60% of the population prefers the red candidate over the blue candidate. But the blue candidate is clearly better: 80% of the population considers the blue candidate to be “Good” or better, while 60% of the population considers the red candidate to be “Mediocre” or worse.

Majority judgement is a voting rule designed to have the blue candidate win in the above election. The actual algorithm is a bit involved, but the first step is to compare the median vote: if at least 50% of the voters think the blue candidate is “Good” or better and at least 50% of the voters think that the red candidate is “Mediocre” or worse, than the blue candidate will win. If the median opinion is a tie, a more complicated tie-breaking rule is entered. ((The exact rule satisfies a number of optimality criteria and is the only rule to do so. For this post I want to skip the details.))

I think the concept is very elegant, and I believe that the outcomes really would be better than with a system that elects Condorcet winners. In a talk that Balinksi gave, which I was lucky enough to attend, he pointed out another advantage of the majority judgement rule: it allows voters to express what they think of the candidates. You wouldn’t be asking anyone to “vote for the lesser evil”, everyone can keep their conscience clear. Majority judgement admits a clear way of expressing frustration with both candidates: rank both of them very badly. It also helps that the different options are given in words instead of ranking by numbers, for the latter turns out to entice voters to rate their favourite candidate 10/10 and all others 0/10.