Take No Prisoners

7 Most Important Things to Know Before Beginning a PhD

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.”


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.