A Short Guide to PhD Graduate Study

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

    1. Your advisor doesn’t have time to micromanage your work.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

12 Replies to “A Short Guide to PhD Graduate Study”

  1. Independent scholarship is yet another choice, where you neither a) get a Ph.D.; nor b) make money. If you take your lifetime of work and publish it as a book, it will be derided as a “vanity” publication and will attain maybe only one mention in the scientific literature. If you think that you have solved a major AI problem, the non-comprehending mob will morph into an Internet pack of jackals to hound you at every turn — but to thine own self thou shalt have remained true.

  2. I disagree with the 2 advisors recommendation. I had 2 advisors who didn’t get along half-way through my Ph.D. and that was the worst nightmare I could ever imagine.

  3. I can imagine that advisor-advisor conflict is very rough. Any time you get conflict in academia, it’s almost always a “lose”. Typically, all parties lose and the question is “how much?” and “how often?”

    My impression is that usually there is no conflict, so the expected benefits outweigh the costs. However, Myriam’s point is certainly valid and something that should be thought about.

  4. When I started graduate school, I read a book called Getting What You Came For. It was immensely helpful in getting me thinking the right way about grad school.

    In the book, he describes the story of a history grad student who would give chapters to the conservative supply-sider on her committee, and then revise the chapters according to his comments. She would then give these chapters to the Marxist on her committee, who would tell her to change everything; they went back and forth for months and months. (The point of this anecdote is to choose your committee carefully).

    FWIW, I had two advisors and it worked great for me. It obviously depends on the personalities involved. If the advisors aren’t thinking about what’s best for the student, then something’s wrong.

  5. I also read “Getting what you came for.” Great Book.

    The main point I took out of it is that your thesis will not be the last bit of research you do, so don’t try to solve all the world’s problems before you graduate.

  6. Just a comment about the consistency of the advice. It’s between points 3 and 4. Yes the particular advisor you get is very important, but the information about individual advisors is found out -long- after the institution is chosen..er.. must be chosen. So chosing an institution with a number of profs doing close to what you like is not a bad idea, gives you freedom of choice for #3 after #4 is done (which of course must be done first). If you’re lucky enough to know exactly what you want to do and what prof to do it with (and you’re lucky enough for that prof to eventually be the right one for you), then #4 is just an annoying detail.

  7. i have a masters degree in criminal justice. I would like to get a phd for two reasons,,, 1- phds ppl at my work get promoted faster,,,2- i wana be called DR… my Q,, what is the easiest fastest phd major or program?
    thank u

  8. “You cannot get a PhD by doing homework” this is the reason for people opting for professional doctorates, they can easily do a given set of tasks without having to worry about originality etc. Probably comparable to the ease of getting a Ph.D. In education.

  9. o.k that is all well understood .
    but what if i am really motivated for research but i just don’t have the topic
    i have a master degree in Robotics & AI and really want to have PhD but My Master study adviser says “give an idea for a topic of your PhD ” well i know that i want to have PhD in Robotics & AI because i would like to investigate natural Intelligence and understand the way Our Intelligence Mechanism , but i dont have a detailed specific Project idea as my advisor requires

    so what about if nothing hit my mind ever, should i forget about having PhD just because no nice research topic came to my mind

    1. At CMU, I saw many graduate students linger in a frozen state where they couldn’t finish a phd, but couldn’t leave either.

      Look around, and figure out what a real problem is. Struggle with this for a little while, perhaps a year. If it doesn’t come, I expect you will find yourself 100% happier elsewhere.

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