Saturday, June 25, 2016

Counter-Advice for the PhD

Recently I attended the Programming Languages Mentoring Workshop, a program to introduce advanced undergraduates and early-stage PhD students to research in general and research in our field. (By the way, this is a fantastic workshop and I highly encourage students to attend!) While listening to advice from other academics and talking to the students about their questions, I realized that I have come to disagree with much of the conventional wisdom and advice for PhD students, some of which I have been guilty of re-dispensing. I express my dissent here.

Clarification: The workshop was not the source of all of the quotes! It was simply what got me thinking about the dangers of taking any one piece of advice too seriously. (The workshop itself is great for showcasing different points of view.)


"To decide what to work on, read lots of papers and then choose the best problem."
One of my undergraduate professors once told me, "Take all advice with a grain of salt. Most advice is highlights and wishful thinking." This was one of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me. It is easy for people to give this kind of advice about choosing research problems after they have learned what makes a good research problem. The advice is far more difficult to follow for people who are still developing their research taste. While some people probably have chosen research problems this way and while it is helpful to more deeply understand your area, early-stage researchers sometimes just have to jump in, do things, and learn from the confusion.

Also, in the early stages of a PhD, developing research skills (project management, time management, and communication of results) can be far more important than working on the best problem. In this case, I would recommend working on a problem that a mentor is sufficiently invested in to help you gain the skills you need.


"Choose an advisor you are completely compatible with."
This advice goes in the same category as the previous one. Once you have gone through the PhD and developed a deep understanding of who you are and who your advisor is, it is easy to think that a good situation can be easily recreated or a bad situation could have been more easily avoided. While you should look enough into your soul and do enough due diligence to make sure there are no glaring red flags, you should not worry if you do not feel like you know enough about your working style or preferences to choose a perfectly compatible advisor. Advisor-advisee relationships, like all other human relationships, depend a lot on many factors, only some of which are under the control of the two main participants, and also can evolve quite a bit over time.


"Do a PhD because you are in love."
 I completely agree that doing a PhD out of love of learning, love of discovery, or love for a discipline is a much better reason than doing a PhD for the money, fame, or glory. But I've seen many students get stuck in the "passion trap," the idea that you need to be completely in love with something before you invest significant amounts of time and energy into it. According to Cal Newport, who has written extensively about this, passion is something that often comes later, after you have become an expert and people recognize you for your contributions.

What I have noticed is that people often differ more in the narratives they have about their relationships with their work than in their actual relationships with their work. In my Quora answer to the question "How common is it for PhD students to do work they are not passionate in?" I talk about how one's relationship with a project often follows a trajectory similar to a romantic relationship: infatuation, followed by a steady state that comes sometime later, often much later, with a period of confusion and negotiation in between. I've seen every researcher I know well experience the confusion phase, but some researchers are more open than others to talking about it.

A side observation is that relationships with research seem to vary culturally: for instance, being blanket positive about one's own research seems to go along with the American tendency to be blanket positive about one's own life.


"Superstars are born, not made."
No one has said this specific phrase to me, but many people have implied it with the qualities they value in students. Once a professor told me that some students "just can't cut it." I've seen professors pick favorites based on internal metrics they have (often, it seems, based on how much a student reminds them of themselves). I've seen students decide someone is the smartest among them because of confidence, or some other "star" quality that doesn't necessarily correlate directly with research skill. While there is a baseline level of intelligence, curiosity, drive, and tolerance for uncertainty that someone needs to be a good researcher, many of the qualities that make a great researcher--discipline and persistence, to name two--are not entirely innate and definitely not strongly correlated with the confidence and charisma that seem to build many star reputations. (Note: confidence and charisma can also be learned.)


"The PhD is lonely without a significant other, especially if you are a woman in a male-dominated field."
I was surprised that people have told me this--and that, at least when I was starting my PhD, there was a common conception that having a romantic partner was somehow necessary for enduring the trials of the PhD. While it is important to nurture healthy relationships with supportive people, a significant other does not need to be one of them. Especially in relationships between people of similar levels of ambition, it can become tricky to negotiate coevolution and colocation, thus adding unnecessary pressure to the PhD experience. (And, unfortunately, because of society's insistence on holding on to gender roles, women who date men often find themselves with more pressure to conform to their partner's desires.) During my PhD, I had many friends, some of them women in male-dominated fields, many who ended up becoming stars in their fields, who were happily single for significant portions of their PhD.


"The most successful PhD students work all the time."
See my answer (and other answers) to the Quora question "Do Ph.D. students have time for hobbies?" Nurturing a relationship with a significant other also counts as a hobby, so you can do that too if that's what you want.


"If it's not hard, it's not worth doing."
There is something to be said for only doing things that help you grow in some way, but there is necessary challenge and then there is unnecessary challenge. During the PhD, it is necessary to come to terms with uncertainty, confusion, and possible rejection of your ideas from the community. This is crucial for one's development into a full-fledged researcher. What is less necessary, however, is depriving yourself of food or sleep, always working to the point of exhaustion, or mismanaging your time so that you are always under deadline pressure. For some people it may be necessary to endure toxic advisor or collaborator relationships, but I would encourage those people to seek ways out of that if possible--abuse does not need to go hand-in-hand with growth. Self-inflicted struggle only makes the necessary struggle more difficult.


I hope you realize by now that there is no single right way to do the PhD and that there are many valid--and sometimes conflicting--views on what a good path is. Have fun with the confusion. :)


Norman Ramsey said...

One of your more thoughtful pieces. Thanks for this.

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