7 Most Important Things to Know Before Beginning a PhD

by Kavan Wolfe (published on Dec 13)

Are you thinking of pursuing graduate degree? The Internet is rife with advice on how and whether to proceed. Most of this advice is wrong. Today I am officially “Dr. Wolfe.” Here is what I wish I knew when I started.

1. Find a Reasonable Supervisor

The single most important part of a PhD is finding the right supervisor. Most people will tell you to try to work with someone who is 1) a (famous) prolific researcher, 2) brilliant, 3) similar in research interests. Bullshit. The most important quality in a supervisor is reasonableness. Your supervisor can indefinitely forestall your graduation and make your life so miserable you’ll quit. If you get an unreasonable supervisor, you’re hosed.

Many academics become prolific by cracking the whip over an army of grad students and then taking credit for their hard work. Worse, truly important research is often time-consuming, so those who do the most important stuff rarely publish the most articles. Brilliance is nice, but not necessary for the same reason as overlapping research interests: your PhD should be your own. Never mind your supervisor’s agenda, or your department’s, or your school’s. You need to pursue your interests, your project, your way – otherwise your job talk will be uninspiring and you won’t get a good position.

2) When Choosing a Program, Focus on Past Graduates

Most people compare programs based on two factors: the overall reputation of the school and the research reputation of the faculty in your department of interest. This strategy suffers from two problems: 1) famous universities aren’t necessarily strong in your particular field; 2) having a bunch of prolific researchers does not imply that the school’s PhD program is pedagogically sound.

To choose a program, ask consider two questions. First, where did previous students from this program get jobs? Second, how long did they really (not officially) spend in the program? If students like you went to this program, and got the kind of job you want after a reasonable time, then it’s your kind of program. Of course, you also have to watch out for changes in the program or faculty.

3. It Usually Takes Longer than you Expect

Longer than they tell you. Prospective students are commonly told fairlytales about three- to four-year programs. In some countries, like the UK, this is still accurate because university funding is sometimes tied to program duration, but this is unusual. Find out how long previous students took, and don’t take their word for it. PhD’s have ambiguous end-dates: there’s the date you finished writing your thesis, the date of your defense, the date you submit your corrected thesis, the date you accept a position, the date you begin your position, and the date you get your diploma. You want the last one. When did you start, and when did you receive your diploma? Seven or more years is terrible. Six is bad. Five is realistic. Four is fantastic. Three is a myth. But it varies by field.

4) Be Damn Sure you Want to do This

As far as I can tell, PhD students fall into one or more of three categories: aspiring academics, egomaniacs, and people just aren’t sure what else to do with their lives. If you’re not an aspiring academic, think long and hard about whether you really want to go through five to eight years of hell, followed by an anticlimactic post-doc position. Then read every strip at PhD Comics, and think about it again.

5) Difficulty comes from Politics, not Research

PhD’s are supposed to be difficult, and they are. However, they’re not difficult for the reasons you would expect. A PhD is supposed to be difficult because doing good research is wickedly complicated. A PhD is actually difficult because of all the political wrangling, endless debates about inconsequential minutia and general academic assholery.

6) Go Big or Go Home

Doing good research is easy. Pick a real group of people who are in trouble, and use all that expert knowledge you’ve accumulated to improve their lot in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re in physics, medicine, anthropology, or English, helping real people is a powerful thing. The trouble is, all the while you’re trying to do something real, people around you will bitch and moan about how it’s risky, too novel, methodologically questionable, and doesn’t make a clear academic contribution. During my proposal defense, I desperately wanted to say “If you’re not going to help, get the fuck out.” In hindsight, I wish I had.

7)Most Academics are Simultaneously Geniuses and Morons

At the end of middle school, someone always gives a motivational speech about how “when you get to high school, you won’t be spoon-fed anymore – you’ll really have to work hard.” And then you get to high school and the spoon-feeding continues. And then you get the same speech at the end of high school, and you get to university, and the spoon-feeding continues. And then at the end of undergrad, you get a similar speech, but with the “now when you get to grad school you’ll meet some of the smartest people in the world and they’ll knock your socks off” twist. Yeah? Where?

Academics are almost all intelligent, because many of the tests you have to pass to get in (LSAT, MCAT, GRE, GMAT, SAT, etc.) are glorified IQ tests. The trouble is, intelligence isn’t the only thing you need to become a great intellectual. You also need rationality, creativity, and persistence. And the other trouble is, none of these are highly correlated with the kind of IQ. The result of this misalignment between entrance criteria and required characteristics is an academic system populated by intelligent yet irrational people. This leads to all sorts of hilariously demotivational exchanges:

“I never authorized you to buy that!”
“Yes you did. You said right here in this email, ‘go ahead and buy it.’”
“Yes but you were supposed to confirm first.”

“You should have used grounded theory”
“Yes, and I would have, if you hadn’t told me not to when I proposed it three years ago.”

“I don’t think you should rely on this reference.”
“Then why did you send it to me?”

“You’re supervisor didn’t actually read your proposal, did he?”
“Considering that the answer to his question was in the abstract, I suspect not.”

“Just pick the survey questions that will give you the answers you want.”

Conclusion

In summary, don’t do a PhD unless you’re absolutely certain you want to be an academic or you have some other extremely compelling reason. If you decide to do one anyway, choose a school that graduates students quickly and gets them reasonable positions. Then find the most reasonable, easy-going supervisor you can. Choose an ambitious topic that matters, and go make someone’s life better. Then do your best to ignore all the negative bullshit around you, and keep putting one foot in front of the other until you can stand up at a conference and identify by name real, living, breathing people whose lives are better today than they were yesterday because of you.

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7 Comments

  1. PS says:

    Thank you for the advice “Choose an ambitious topic that matters, and go make someone’s life better,” as knowing all the disappointments that can pop up, (but there are joys in the degree, too) this articulates what will get you through. I remember one professor read the instructions out loud for a 20 page paper to us in class. We all took notes and spent ~20 hours writing the paper but after we turned it in, the professor failed 19 of 20 grad students for not meeting the requirements / understanding the directions. She then made us redo the assignment but handed out a one or two page single spaced dense set of intensely complicated instructions that she admitted she’d forgotten to photocopy and hand out the first time around. In all, we spent 20+ hours working on what I would call “the wrong assignment” all because she wasn’t prepared for class or willing to go back to the office that first fateful night to make photocopies. Then we had to spend another 20+ hours working on the “correct assignment” but covering the same material but underlines and notes written in the margins of the text meaning little or getting unnecessarily confusing.

  2. tetris11 says:

    Right…well…can’t wait.

    How steep is the learning curve? I haven’t started yet, but I’mve listened to some of their conversations and it sounds like complete gibberish. How soon till you pick up the lingo?

  3. Dr L. says:

    Became Dr today. This is all true. Believe it.

  4. carl anthony seales II says:

    Great review of some of the shit I went through!

  5. asdf says:

    “In some countries, like the UK, this is still accurate”.

    I am coming to the end of PhD in pure mathematics that was largely completed in France, and I have many, many friends in other parts of europe in similar positions. The US is the *only* country I know of where PhD’s routinely take long than 3-4 years due to the fact that the funding runs out.

    Having said that I don’t have much experience with the arts or indeed, any other hard science so it might be area related.

  6. asdf says:

    Oh, two more things:

    “Three is a myth”

    One of my supervisors apparently had a finished thesis, ready to hand in two years and one week after he started. This was in Paris. He is now a full professor at 34. I imagine that as well as being very clever and hard-working he was also very lucky, but it still happaned.

    My other supervisor (also hard working, clever, and lucky) solved his PhD problem in the first few months thinking it was a warm-up problem. This was at Harvard.

    Second thing: I completely agree with everything else written here. Very good advice. In relation to 5 I personally like the analogy between PhD’s and marathons. You don’t finish by being a good sprinter, you finish but not stopping.

  7. Bob the Chef says:

    This is crap. Most academics are not the smartest people in the world. In fact, I would place more emphasis on the “moron” bit. The absolute affront to common sense that is published by the most prolific writers is astounding. Furthermore, the point of academia is not primarily to make someone else’s life better, although it should not be detrimental, of course, to anyone. It is truth for its own sake. Now, I know modern thinking today is largely pragmatic, and “truth for its own sake” leads to laughter at meetings with one’s adviser. Publish or perish, doesn’t matter what’s in it, as long as your ref count is high and your Erdos number is small, and whatever other bland and petty ego-stroking crap these subhumans engage in. This is a sad state of affairs. Mode2science expresses is perhaps the epitome of this academic decadence, the reduction of knowledge to that which is useful regardless of its truthfulness, the reduction of academia to a mutual admiration society for the inept and sheltered. Read Newman’s treatise on the university. It is a place that should be and was, to one degree or another, an environment existing for the intellectual development of its members, and thus to strengthen individual autonomy in searching and knowing the truth. Academics thus are those who live for the truth, no matter the costs to career, and in many cases are those who shape a new generation of students in their intellectual abilities. An academic is someone who must see more, not less, but unfortunately, graduate school has revealed that this is usually far from the case. Worldly and inferior goods, petty goods, are valued far above the ultimate raison d’etre of the university and academic life. Truth is good for me, and for others.

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