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10 easy ways to fail a Ph.D. [article index] [email me] [@mattmight] [+mattmight] [rss] The attrition rate in Ph.D. school is high. Anywhere from a third to half will fail. In fact, there's a disturbing consistency to grad school failure. I'm supervising a lot of new grad students this semester, so for their sake, I'm cataloging the common reasons for failure. Read on for the top ten reasons students fail out of Ph.D. school. Focus on grades or coursework No one cares about grades in grad school. There's a simple formula for the optimal GPA in grad school: Optimal GPA = Minimum Required GPA + ε Anything higher implies time that could have been spent on research was wasted on classes. Advisors might even raise an eyebrow at a 4.0 During the first two years, students need to find an advisor, pick a research area, read a lot of papers and try small, exploratory research projects. Spending too much time on coursework distracts from these objectives. Learn too much Some students go to Ph.D. school because they want to learn. Let there be no mistake: Ph.D. school involves a lot of learning. But, it requires focused learning directed toward an eventual thesis. Taking (or sitting in on) non-required classes outside one's focus is almost always a waste of time, and it's always unnecessary. By the end of the third year, a typical Ph.D. student needs to have read about 50 to 150 papers to defend the novelty of a proposed thesis. Of course, some students go too far with the related work search, reading so much about their intended area of research that they never start that research. Advisors will lose patience with "eternal" students that aren't focused on the goal--making a small but significant contribution to human knowledge. In the interest of personal disclosure, I suffered from the "want to learn everything" bug when I got to Ph.D. school. I took classes all over campus for my first two years: Arabic, linguistics, economics, physics, math and even philosophy. In computer science, I took lots of classes in areas that had nothing to do with my research. The price of all this "enlightenment" was an extra year on my Ph.D. I only got away with this detour because while I was doing all that, I was a TA, which meant I wasn't wasting my advisor's grant funding. Expect perfection Perfectionism is a tragic affliction in academia, since it tends to hit the brightest the hardest. Perfection cannot be attained. It is approached in the limit. Students that polish a research paper well past the point of diminishing returns, expecting to hit perfection, will never stop polishing. Students that can't begin to write until they have the perfect structure of the paper mapped out will never get started. For students with problems starting on a paper or dissertation, my advice is that writing a paper should be an iterative process: start with an outline and some rough notes; take a pass over the paper and improve it a little; rinse; repeat. When the paper changes little with each pass, it's at diminishing returns. One or two more passes over the paper are all it needs at that point. "Good enough" is better than "perfect." Procrastinate Chronic perfectionists also tend to be procrastinators. So do eternal students with a drive to learn instead of research. Ph.D. school seems to be a magnet for every kind of procrastinator. Unfortunately, it is also a sieve that weeds out the unproductive. Procrastinators should check out my tips for boosting productivity. Go rogue too soon/too late The advisor-advisee dynamic needs to shift over the course of a degree. Early on, the advisor should be hands on, doling out specific topics and helping to craft early papers. Toward the end, the student should know more than the advisor about her topic. Once the inversion happens, she needs to "go rogue" and start choosing the topics to investigate and initiating the paper write-ups. She needs to do so even if her advisor is insisting she do something else. The trick is getting the timing right. Going rogue before the student knows how to choose good topics and write well will end in wasted paper submissions and a grumpy advisor. On the other hand, continuing to act only when ordered to act past a certain point will strain an advisor that expects to start seeing a "return" on an investment of time and hard-won grant money. Advisors expect near-terminal Ph.D. students to be proto-professors with intimate knowledge of the challenges in their field. They should be capable of selecting and attacking research problems of appropriate size and scope. Treat Ph.D. school like school or work Ph.D. school is neither school nor work. Ph.D. school is a monastic experience. And, a jealous hobby. Solving problems and writing up papers well enough to pass peer review demands contemplative labor on days, nights and weekends. Reading through all of the related work takes biblical levels of devotion. Ph.D. school even comes with built-in vows of poverty and obedience. The end brings an ecclesiastical robe and a clerical hood. Students that treat Ph.D. school like a 9-5 endeavor are the ones that take 7+ years to finish, or end up ABD. Ignore the committee Some Ph.D. students forget that a committee has to sign off on their Ph.D. It's important for students to maintain contact with committee members in the latter years of a Ph.D. They need to know what a student is doing. It's also easy to forget advice from a committee member since they're not an everyday presence like an advisor. Committee members, however, rarely forget the advice they give. It doesn't usually happen, but I've seen a shouting match between a committee member and a defender where they disagreed over the metrics used for evaluation of an experiment. This committee member warned the student at his proposal about his choice of metrics. He ignored that warning. He was lucky: it added only one more semester to his Ph.D. Another student I knew in grad school was told not to defend, based on the draft of his dissertation. He overruled his committee's advice, and failed his defense. He was told to scrap his entire dissertaton and start over. It took him over ten years to finish his Ph.D. Aim too low Some students look at the weakest student to get a Ph.D. in their department and aim for that. This attitude guarantees that no professorship will be waiting for them. And, it all but promises failure. The weakest Ph.D. to escape was probably repeatedly unlucky with research topics, and had to settle for a contingency plan. Aiming low leaves no room for uncertainty. And, research is always uncertain. Aim too high A Ph.D. seems like a major undertaking from the perspective of the student. It is. But, it is not the final undertaking. It's the start of a scientific career. A Ph.D. does not have to cure cancer or enable cold fusion. At best a handful of chemists remember what Einstein's Ph.D. was in. Einstein's Ph.D. dissertation was a principled calculation meant to estimate Avogadro's number. He got it wrong. By a factor of 3. He still got a Ph.D. A Ph.D. is a small but significant contribution to human knowledge. Impact is something students should aim for over a lifetime of research. Making a big impact with a Ph.D. is about as likely as hitting a bullseye the very first time you've fired a gun. Once you know how to shoot, you can keep shooting until you hit it. Plus, with a Ph.D., you get a lifetime supply of ammo. Some advisors can give you a list of potential research topics. If they can, pick the topic that's easiest to do but which still retains your interest. It does not matter at all what you get your Ph.D. in. All that matters is that you get one. It's the training that counts--not the topic. Miss the real milestones Most schools require coursework, qualifiers, thesis proposal, thesis defense and dissertation. These are the requirements on paper. In practice, the real milestones are three good publications connected by a (perhaps loosely) unified theme. Coursework and qualifiers are meant to undo admissions mistakes. A student that has published by the time she takes her qualifiers is not a mistake. Once a student has two good publications, if she convinces her committee that she can extrapolate a third, she has a thesis proposal. Once a student has three publications, she has defended, with reasonable confidence, that she can repeatedly conduct research of sufficient quality to meet the standards of peer review. If she draws a unifying theme, she has a thesis, and if she staples her publications together, she has a dissertation. I fantasize about buying an industrial-grade stapler capable of punching through three journal papers and calling it The Dissertator. Of course, three publications is nowhere near enough to get a professorship--even at a crappy school. But, it's about enough to get a Ph.D. Related posts • Recommended reading for grad students. • The illustrated guide to a Ph.D. • How to get into grad school. • Advice for thesis proposals. • Productivity tips for academics. • Academic job hunt advice. • Successful Ph.D. students: Perseverance, tenacity and cogency. • The CRAPL: An open source license for academics. 3 qualities of successful Ph.D. students: Perseverance, tenacity and cogency [article index] [email me] [@mattmight] [+mattmight] [rss] Every fall, a fresh crop of Ph.D. students arrives. Since I'm actively looking for Ph.D. students, I get the same question a dozen times every year: "How long does it take to get a Ph.D.?" This isn't the right question. "Ph.D. school takes as long as you want it to," I tell them. There's no speed limit on how fast you can jump through all the hoops. A better question to ask is, "What makes a Ph.D. student successful?" Having watched Ph.D. students succeed and fail at four universities, I infer that success in graduate school hinges on three qualities: perseverance, tenacity and cogency. If you're in Ph.D. school or you're thinking about it, read on. What doesn't matter There's a ruinous misconception that a Ph.D. must be smart. This can't be true. A smart person would know better than to get a Ph.D. "Smart" qualities like brilliance and quick-thinking are irrelevant in Ph.D. school. Students that have made it through so far on brilliance and quick-thinking alone wash out of Ph.D. programs with nagging predictability. Let there be no doubt: brilliance and quick-thinking are valuable in other pursuits. But, they're neither sufficient nor necessary in science. Certainly, being smart helps. But, it won't get the job done. Moreover, as anyone going through Ph.D. school can tell you: people of less than first-class intelligence make it across the finish line and leave, Ph.D. in hand. As my advisor used to tell me, "Whenever I felt depressed in grad school--when I worried I wasn't going to finish my Ph.D.--I looked at the people dumber than me finishing theirs, and I would think to myself, if that idiot can get a Ph.D., dammit, so can I." Since becoming a professor, I finding myself repeating a corollary of this observation, but I replace "getting a Ph.D." with "obtaining grant funding." Update: Within a month of writing that last line, I was awarded my first three grants. Perseverance To escape with a Ph.D., you must meaningfully extend the boundary of human knowledge. More exactly, you must convince a panel of experts guarding the boundary that you have done so. You can take classes and read papers to figure out where the boundary lies. That's easy. But, when it comes time to actually extend that boundary, you have to get into your bunker and prepare for the onslaught of failure. A lot of Ph.D. students get depressed when they reach the boundary, because there's no longer a test to cram for or a procedure to follow. This is the point (2-3 years in) where attrition peaks. Finding a problem to solve is rarely a problem itself. Every field is brimming with open problems. If finding a problem is hard, you're in the wrong field. The real hard part, of course, is solving an open problem. After all, if someone could tell you how to solve it, it wouldn't be open. To survive this period, you have to be willing to fail from the moment you wake to the moment your head hits the pillow. You must be willing to fail for days on end, for months on end and maybe even for years on end. The skill you accrete during this trauma is the ability to imagine plausible solutions, and to estimate the likelihood that an approach will work. If you persevere to the end of this phase, your mind will intuit solutions to problems in ways that it didn't and couldn't before. You won't know how your mind does this. (I don't know how mine does it.) It just will. As you acquire this skill, you'll be launching fledgling papers at peer reviewers, checking to see if others think what you're doing qualifies as research yet. Since acceptance rates at good venues range between 8% and 25%, most or all of your papers will be rejected. You just have to hope that you'll eventually figure out how to get your work published. If you stick with it long enough and work at it hard enough, you will. For students that excelled as undergraduates, the sudden and constant barrage of rejection and failure is jarring. If you have an ego problem, Ph.D. school will fix it. With a vengeance. (Some egos seem to recover afterward.) This phase of the Ph.D. demands perseverance--in the face of uncertainty, in the face of rejection and in the face of frustration. Tenacity To get a tenure-track professorship after Ph.D. school, you need an additional quality: tenacity. Since there are few tenure-track faculty positions available, there is a fierce (yet civil) competition to get them. In computer science, a competitive faculty candidate will have about 10 publications, and 3-5 of those will be at "selective" or "Tier 1" venues (crudely, less than 33% acceptance rate). A Ph.D. by itself won't even get you a job interview anymore. There are few good reasons to get a Ph.D. "Because you want to become a professor" might be the only good one. Ironically, there's a good chance you won't realize that you want to be a professor until the end of grad school. So, if you're going to do Ph.D. school at all, do it right, for your own sake. To become professor, you can't have just one discovery or solve just one open problem. You have to solve several, and get each solution published. As you exit graduate school, an arc connecting your results should emerge, proving to faculties that your research has a profitable path forward. You will also need to actively, even aggressively, forge relationships with scholars in your field. Researchers in your field need to know who you are and what you're doing. They need to be interested in what you're doing too. None of that is going to happen by itself. Cogency Finally, a good Ph.D. student must have the ability to clearly and forcefully articulate their ideas--in person and in writing. Science is as much an act of persuasion as it is an act of discovery. Once you've made a discovery, you have to persuade experts that you've made a legitimate, meaningful contribution. This is harder to do than it seems. Simply showing experts "the data" isn't going to work. (Yes, in a perfect world, this would be sufficient.) Instead, you have to spoon-feed the experts. As you write, you have to consciously minimize the amount of time and cognitive pain it takes for them to realize you've made a discovery. You may have to go "on tour" and give engaging presentations to get people excited about your research. When you give conference talks, you want them eagerly awaiting the next episode. You will have to write compelling abstracts and introductions that hook the reader and make her feel like investing time in your work. You will have to learn how to balance clarity and precision, so that your ideas come across without either ambiguity or stifling formality. Generally, grad students don't arrive with the ability to communicate well. This is a skill that they forge in grad school. The sooner acquired, the better. Unfortunately, the only way to get better at writing is to do a lot of it. 10,000 hours is the magical number folks throw around to become an expert at something. You'll never even get close to 10,000 hours of writing by writing papers. Assuming negligible practice writing for public consumption before graduate school, if you take six years to get through grad school, you can hit 10,000 hours by writing about 5 hours a day. (Toward the end of a Ph.D., it's not uncommon to break 12 hours of writing in a day.) That's why I recommend that new students start a blog. Even if no one else reads it, start one. You don't even have to write about your research. Practicing the act of writing is all that matters. Translations • Portuguese. Related posts • How to get into grad school. • Productivity tips for academics. • Recommended reading for grad students. • Academic job hunt advice.
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Well you done done me and you bet I felt it I tried to be chill but you’re so hot that I melted I fell right through the cracks and now I’m trying to get back Before the cool done run out I’ll be giving it my bestest Nothing’s going to stop me but divine intervention I reckon it’s again my turn to win some or learn some I won’t hesitate no more, no more It cannot wait, I’m yours Well open up your mind and see like me Open up your plans and damn you’re free Look into your heart and you’ll find love love love Listen to the music of the moment maybe sing with me (people dance and sing) All love peace for reality (We’re just one big family) And it’s our God-forsaken right to be loved love loved love loved So I won’t hesitate no more, no more It cannot wait I’m sure There’s no need to complicate Our time is short This is our fate, I’m yours Scat Well I’ve been spending way too long checking my tongue in the mirror And bending over backwards just to try to see it clearer My breath fogged up the glass And so I drew a new face and laughed I guess what I’ve been saying is there ain’t no better reason To rid yourself of vanity and just go with the seasons It’s what we aim to do Our name is our virtue But I won’t hesitate no more, no more It cannot wait I’m sure There’s no need to complicate Our time is short This is our fate, I’m yours Well open up your mind and see like me Open up your plans and damn you’re free Look into your heart and you’ll find that the sky is yours There’s no need to complicate Cause our time is short This is our fate, I’m yours
Letzte Aktualisierung: 2011-12-06