I got the chance to interview a former PhD student who decided to drop out of the program after two years and continue with a Master’s degree. I thank Mohamed Aladdin for agreeing to this interview and sharing his experience and thoughts behind this critical decision. I believe Mohamed’s answers will benefit people who are contemplating about pursuing the highest academic degree.
Mohamed Aladdin graduated from Cairo University with a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering in 2014. He then went onto pursue a Master’s degree in the same university and graduated in 2019. While being a part-time Master’s student, he was working full-time at Si-Ware Systems, Cairo, as a Digital Design Engineer from 2016 to 2019. With three years of work experience and a Master’s degree, he moved to Canada to pursue a PhD in Computer Engineering from McMaster University, ON. After two years, he decided to shift to the Master’s program and is on his way to completing his thesis in December 2021.
At what point in your career did you think about doing a PhD and why did you decide to do it?
Doing a PhD has been one of my dreams, so I knew from before that I would go in this path. I wanted to explore the world of research. The idea of finding a problem and obtaining novel solutions was fascinating to me. After working 3 years in digital design, I also wanted to expand my knowledge in the system level, so I moved from my background to computer architecture. I also thought a PhD degree would open more options for R&D (Research & Development) jobs. Moreover, I love teaching and I thought a PhD degree would provide me opportunities to teach various classes.
What challenges did you expect to face before starting the degree?
I had three challenges in my mind back then. The first one was the PhD itself. I knew it would be a stressful process. I expected to pass through bad times and good times depending on the moment. I thought about being emotionally and mindfully drained. I knew my mind would be under stress as the curriculum is demanding
My second challenge is everything related to moving from Egypt to Canada. I have my family, and a lot of friends in Egypt, of course. How would I deal with homesickness? Especially, that I am a social person, it was not going to be easy to leave all of this. I also thought about how I will handle my long-distance relationship, especially with the 6-7 hours time difference.
I considered these two as the major challenges. There were other minor challenges, for example, I shifted my path from digital design to exploring higher levels like computer architecture, they are sort of related, but I didn’t have prior experience.
What was your future roadmap like before starting the PhD?
When I started, I wanted to learn about computer architecture and have a good understanding about how a computer works. I wanted to do well in my courses and have a good standing in all aspects of the curriculum. I wanted to publish my research in reputed journals, and finally join a big company in the field after graduating.
What challenges did you face in the beginning?
I joined in January 2020 – right before the pandemic. Everything became online. It was difficult to feel like you are part of the new system. I wanted to live in a shared house and interact with Canadians to improve my language, but everyone went home once the pandemic struck. I felt isolated. At the same time, I tried my best to cope with the new topic. It wasn’t easy and added more obstacles to my learning process.
Long-distance relationship was challenging. I was preparing for my marriage in the next winter (2021). In the end of my second semester, I felt like I drowned. However, I didn’t want to judge my PhD based on the challenges raised by the pandemic, so I decided to give it another chance in a more normal environment.
What aspect of your PhD did you enjoy the most?
I was the first PhD student with my supervisor. Over the years, as the group kept getting bigger, I enjoyed the company of my colleagues. I like spending time with them and share ideas with them, solve problems, and explore solutions, which I really missed in the beginning.
I also enjoyed learning about computer architecture. It is a fascinating field.
Coming to the most difficult question, why did you decide to step out of your PhD program?
The situation since the COVID didn’t change much. In the beginning of my second year, I got married. We applied for my wife’s visa to bring her to Canada, but we didn’t hear anything till today. There are lots of travel restrictions because of COVID. So, you can imagine, the first year of marriage, we were separated, and I felt I am trapped. This was part of my decision.
Another reason is, I needed to work really hard and focus completely to get work done. But due to my family situation, I couldn’t handle everything in the best way. I felt like I was not making significant progress, and eventually I started to think that I am wasting time. I gave it a lot of chances to balance between my family and PhD, but family comes first.
In the end, there were a lot of uncertainties. I decided to focus on one aspect of my life, which is family, rather than trying to balance everything and end up wasting time.
Your decision seems to be attributed to problems created by the pandemic, and not the PhD itself. Am I correct saying that?
Both actually. As I said, PhD is a stressful process, it’s not at all easy. Some family matters must be handled separately. It’s hard to focus on the stress from both family situation and studies at the same time. So, my decision is driven from both these aspects.
Furthermore, universities didn’t understand how difficult it is for students during the pandemic. For example, they would cancel your TAship (Teaching Assistant salary) if you leave the country. I couldn’t even go to Egypt and work remotely, which I feel is not fair. Everything was remote during the pandemic, but the university was not flexible with their policies.
Also, the financial situation got worse over time as the housing prices in the city went up. My decision was based on a mixture of these factors.
You kept saying PhD is stressful. What actually makes it stressful?
The PhD program itself is very demanding. You have to complete specific number of courses with good grades along with progressing your research. The expectations are very high.
There can be conflict of interest between you and your supervisor. Some supervisors may encourage you to aim for higher grades in your courses, while others may simply ask you to do the bare minimum and focus more on research. Based on what I have observed, some supervisors meet with you sporadically while others micromanage you, scheduling meetings every single day, making you work in their ways. It is unfortunately difficult to find a supervisor whose work style you can be completely comfortable with.
Not to mention, the pressure to bag publications under your name. “You are so late to publish something.” With my supervisor’s help, I was able to publish some work. But in the end, the program demands your complete focus. Throughout my time in PhD, I was consumed with family situation like I talked about before. Also, I found that working harder is not enough to reach what you are aiming for!
What was your biggest “expectation vs reality” moment?
As I said earlier, I entered a different field from my background. I thought because I am very eager excited to learn, I would swiftly manage to learn the topics and move from projects to projects. But, it was so hard. In reality, I started to feel I don’t have the motivation to work. Even though I was interested, the environment that I spent my PhD in was not motivating at all for my personality. It is not just about your potential, but you also can get some external motivation from your environment.
How is the financial situation for a PhD student?
The financial support from the university is just enough for one person. You can somehow manage to pay your bills, but it is not definitely enough to sustain a family. The university’s attitude is that “We’re giving you a free degree, so we will give you the minimum amount for your TAship or RAship (Research Assistant).” I did some calculations actually and found that it is less than the minimum wage. With this level of stress, you can make so more money in the industry. It is not comparable.
If a person comes up to you and ask, “Should I do a PhD?”, what would be your answer?
It really depends on the person, and his/her future plans. I don’t know what I will say to the person. If you don’t want to go to the academia at all, Master’s degree would be enough. Even a bachelor’s degree is sufficient in some cases. Some companies seek PhD graduates for some of their positions.
But I believe you need to understand the market in your field. It differs from electrical engineering to mechanical, to health science or whatever. Then, you need to figure out what you want to do in your life and see if a PhD will get you closer to your goal with all its pros and cons.
What does your future roadmap look like now?
For now, I am just trying to complete my Master’s thesis. Then, I will take a break from everything. I am not trying to think a lot about the future. I haven’t decided yet. All the options are open to me, but I am trying to enjoy the current moment. After the break, most likely I will look for jobs, and then perhaps I might join a PhD again, I dunno!
I believe the pandemic was a good chance to slow down the speed of our lives and all the stresses that come from our planning for the future. I think you will be more relaxed when you believe not everything is under your control at the end. You just try hard to do your best and if it is not working out according to your priorities, of course, it is fine to quit.