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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How Not To Get A PhD

Just came across this interesting article about seven ways of NOT getting a PhD - common issues that can distract a student from completing her or his studies.

I wish I had read this earlier, but it's still helpful to me now.

Here's an exerpt that I find particularly relevant:

You can leave the paradigm shifts for after your PhD. And, empirically, that is indeed what happens. The theory of relativity (a classic example of a paradigm shift in relation to post-Newtonian physics) was not Einstein's PhD thesis (that was a sensible contribution to Brownian motion theory). Das Kapital was not Marx's PhD (that was on the theories of two little-known Greek philosophers). Of course, while doing their PhDs Einstein and Marx were undoubtedly preparing themselves for the great questionings that led to the big shifts, but they were also demonstrating their fully professional mastery of the established paradigms.

It is this professionalism that the PhD is about. To think it is more than that can be very debilitating. You can wait for a long time for a new paradigm to strike. Overestimating is a powerful way of not getting a PhD.

If you want to break the rules, you must have deep understanding of the rules first.

No matter how much of a creative, non-conformist rebel a student is, she should still exercise restraint until her training is complete. Even super-geniuses are not exempt. The PhD programme, like any other academic programme, requires that you fulfill certain ground rules and expectations.

I hope that potential students realize that PhD training isn't a good time to rock the boat.

Would you like to know more?

Planning a PhD Thesis


WanderLust said...

Actually, prior to getting his PhD in 1905, Einstein had worked on special relativity and the photoelectric effect (which won him the Nobel Prize in 1921). So, Einstein is probably not a good example. :)

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Wanderlust:

Yes, strictly speaking the authors of that article were inaccurate - Einstein published his first paper on special relativity just two months after he completed his doctoral thesis, so he must have been working concurrently on these topics for some years.

Also, Einstein's PhD thesis was not about Brownian motion. Believe it or not, it was actually about his new method for measuring the size of sugar molecules!

However, the authors did state that while completing his thesis work, Einstein was already preparing for the "great questionings that led to the big shifts."

So in the case of Einstein, the essence of their message is still applicable - PhD work needn't be earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting work. Not even for super-geniuses.

Lab Rat said...

"I hope that potential students realize that PhD training isn't a good time to rock the boat."

I'd disagree. Being in graduate school is actually one of the best times to rock the boat, simply because the consequences of doing so and failing are not as damaging to your future career - you've still got a thesis advisor to bail you out. And even if you don't complete the PhD because of this, it's not a huge barrier to getting a job.

But when you're a junior career scientist, the stakes are higher - if your paradigm shifting attempt fails, you stand to lose your funding, your scientific reputation and possibly your job.

The other good time to shift paradigms is when you get tenured. :)

Mike O'Risal said...

Meh... I'm too busy trying to figure out whether beetles and fungi influenced one another's evolutionary history to bother with any boat-rocking or paradigm shifting. The boat can sink for all I care, so long as it doesn't take the thermocycler and sequencer with it.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Lab Rat:

I think that the stakes are pretty high for students too. Life does go on without a PhD - but then it becomes practically impossible to continue a research career.

Not sure why you think that junior scientists stand to lose so much from a paradigm-shifting attempt. Can't they do that as a side project, publishing regularly on normal-normal stuff before dropping the bombshell?

To Mike:

Spoken like a true experimentalist!

Lab Rat said...

Many places give you a terminal masters if you don't finish the PhD, and with this, you still can get a job in research, particularly in industry.

But now let's say you're a junior scientist - a junior faculty for example. Naturally you'll want a variety of different projects, some less risky than others. But the resources you have at this stage are limited - since you're still relatively unknown, it's tough to get students and postdocs. Which means you've got to do a lot of the benchwork yourself, and there's only a finite amount of time per day to do so (you're likely to have teaching duties as well). And then there's equipment - if you're starting out as new faculty, your initial startup funding is typically quite small. On top of that, your tenure clock is steadily counting down.

So with limited resources, you're going to have to decide how to focus your efforts. Picking safer and less impactful projects might mean you won't get tenure. Picking risker projects and failing will also wreck your tenure chances. Picking a mix of projects leads to the danger of spreading yourself too thinly to be effective in any one project, and there goes your tenure as well.

It's equally tough as a postdoc. You're expected to mentor graduate students, and at the same time work on your own projects (and no, the graduate student is not the postdoc's personal slave). And unless you want to stay a postdoc forever, your projects have to be impactful enough for you to move on to a faculty position. The clock also works against you, as universities are more likely to hire younger researchers.

Then if you're a junior scientist in industry, you'll be tied to projects whose end objective is to make more money for the company rather than shift paradigms. :) Getting company resources redirected towards your direction would be like pulling teeth from an alligator.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Lab Rat:

Well argued. Your comment is a good dose of reality for those of us who have not stepped into PhD-level positions yet.