Graduate study is a mysterious and uncertain process. This easiest way to see this is by noting that a very old advisor/student mechanism is preferred. There is no known succesful mechanism for “mass producing” PhDs as is done (in some sense) for undergraduate and masters study. Here are a few hints that might be useful to prospective or current students based on my own experience.
- Masters or PhD (a) You want a PhD if you want to do research. (b) You want a masters if you want to make money. People wanting (b) will be manifestly unhappy with (a) because it typically means years of low pay. People wanting (a) should try to avoid (b) because it prolongs an already long process.
- Attitude. Many students struggle for awhile with the wrong attitude towards research. Most students come into graduate school with 16-19 years of schooling where the principle means of success is proving that you know something via assignments, tests, etc… Research does not work this way. Research is what a PhD is about.
The right attitude is something more like “I have some basic questions about the world and want to understand the answer to them.” The process of discovering the answers, writing it up, and convincing others that you have the right answers is what a PhD is about.
Let me repeat this another way: you cannot get a PhD by doing homework (even homework assigned by your advisor). Many students fall into this failure mode because it is very natural to continue as you have for the last n years of education. The difficulty is often exacerbated by the mechanics of the PhD process. For example, students are often dependent on their advisors for funding and typical advisors have much more accumulated experience and knowledge than the typical student.
Their are several reasons why you cannot succeed with the “homework” approach:
- Your advisor doesn’t have time to micromanage your work.
- A very significant part of doing good research is understanding the motivations (and failures of motivations) of different approaches. Offloading thinking about this on your advisor means that you are missing a critical piece of your own education.
- It invites abuse. Advisors are often trapped in their own twisty maze of too many things to do, so they are very tempted to offload work (including nonresearch work) onto students. Students doing some of this can make some sense. A bit of help with nonresearch can be useful here and there and even critical when it comes to funding the students. But a student should never be given (or even allowed to take on) more load than comfortably leaves room for significant research.
- With respect to the wider research community, a PhD is an opportunity to develop a personality independent of your advisor. Doing your advisor’s homework doesn’t accomplish this.
- Advisor. The choice of advisor is the most important choice in a PhD education. You want one that is comfortable with your own independent streak. You want one that is well enough off to fund you and who won’t greatly load you down with nonresearch tasks. You want one who’s research style fits yours and who has the good regard of the larger research community. This combination of traits is difficult to come by.
Even more difficult is coming by it twice. I recommend having two advisors because it gives you twice the sources of good advice, wisdom, and funding.
- Institution. The choice of advisor is more important than the choice of institution. A good advisor is a make-or-break decision with respect to succeess. The institution is a less important choice of the form “make or make well”. A good institution will have sufficient computational resources and sufficient funding to cover student costs. Quality of life outside of school should be a significant concern because you will be spending years in the same place.
- Lifestyle. Before choosing to go for a PhD, try to understand the research lifestyle. If it doesn’t fit reasonably well, don’t try. You will just end up unhappy after years of your life wasted. This is a common failure mode.