The fast track: a prag­matic ap­proach can speed PhD suc­cess

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Tim Mar­ler is a re­search en­gi­neer, and Dean Young is a free­lance po­lit­i­cal sci­ence writer. This work was com­pleted while Tim Mar­ler was work­ing at the Univer­sity of Iowa.

A PhD is of­ten ap­proached as a labour of love, but ro­man­ti­cism and per­fec­tion­ism can lead to pro­tracted and un­pro­duc­tive ef­forts. Tim Mar­ler and Dean Young sug­gest that stu­dents and aca­demics alike fol­low a more prag­matic, time-sav­ing path, while Ju­lian Kirch­herr ar­gues that the it­er­a­tion of quick and dirty drafts is the most ef­fi­cient path to a vi­able the­sis

Decades ago, we sat in the li­brary as grad­u­ate stu­dents, star­ing at shelves of books and think­ing: “If only we un­der­stood all the knowl­edge sit­ting on just one shelf, what power that would be.”

To­day, we try to con­vince our­selves that such day­dream­ing was not naive. Of course, there are peo­ple who love to learn, but is pur­su­ing such pas­sion fool­ish? Is it un­prof­itable? Pre­sum­ably, pas­sion for knowl­edge is the fuel for pur­su­ing an ad­vanced de­gree. Or is it?

Ac­tu­ally, ob­tain­ing a PhD can of­ten have less to do with learn­ing and more to do with jump­ing through the ap­pro­pri­ate hoops. Fewer stu­dents strive to learn as much as pos­si­ble sim­ply for the sake of learn­ing. Rather, the ob­jec­tive, in the US sys­tem, at least, is a high grade-point av­er­age that yields an em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­nity that, in turn, yields a high salary. Ul­ti­mately, the name of the game has be­come profit, and this game has new rules.

It is still the case that only two types of stu­dents ob­tain a PhD: those who are rel­a­tively smart and those who work hard. How­ever, two dis­tinct paths to suc­cess have emerged, and stu­dents should de­cide early in their grad­u­ate school ca­reers which path to travel. Is their pri­mary ob­jec­tive to ob­tain a de­gree as ex­pe­di­ently as pos­si­ble, or is it to learn? These two goals are not al­ways mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, and with gen­uine cu­rios­ity and per­se­ver­ance, in­de­pen­dent learn­ing is pos­si­ble. How­ever, the path for ob­tain­ing a de­gree ef­fi­ciently is not ob­vi­ous, and the guide­lines in this re­gard can be elu­sive, un­spo­ken and of­ten un­re­alised.

Thus, with no judge­ment as to the moral­ity or su­pe­ri­or­ity of ei­ther ob­jec­tive, we of­fer these guide­lines. We present them in the con­text of engi­neer­ing and sci­ence, but they ap­ply to the hu­man­i­ties and arts as well. They are in­tended pri­mar­ily as ad­vice for stu­dents en­ter­ing grad­u­ate school with the in­tent of go­ing on to work in in­dus­try or academia. How­ever, ad­her­ing to these rules can ben­e­fit stu­dents and ad­vis­ers alike, and the ben­e­fits point to broad aca­demic and so­cial trends.

To see fur­ther, you must stand on the shoul­ders of a gi­ant. But you must first in­ter­view the gi­ant. Much like in old mar­tial arts movies, suc­cess can have less to do with where you study and rather more to do with the “mas­ter” who teaches you. How­ever hum­bling an honour it may be to study un­der the most renowned pro­fes­sor, muster just enough courage to look at this demigod with a dis­cern­ing eye. As much as a univer­sity se­lects a stu­dent, a stu­dent should select an ad­viser. The per­son­al­ity traits that make for an ex­cel­lent re­searcher may not make for an ex­cel­lent man­ager; and yet, ad­vis­ers serve as man­agers as well as men­tors. Do not hes­i­tate to call a prospec­tive ad­viser and dis­cuss in­ter­ests and intentions. Get a feel for what kind of per­son you will be work­ing for and whether you like them. Most im­por­tantly, study only with an ex­pert in your spe­cific field of in­ter­est. If you don’t have a spe­cific field of in­ter­est, find one. Do not sim­ply in­tend to study, for in­stance, the his­tory of Italy; re­fine your in­ter­est as much as pos­si­ble.

Then, do not sim­ply look for a fa­mous math­e­mat­ics or his­tory pro­fes­sor, for ex­am­ple; look for some­one who has ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence study­ing your spe­cific topic of in­ter­est. No mat­ter how in­tel­li­gent and renowned ad­vis­ers are, the less fa­mil­iar they are with your spe­cific topic, the more ef­fort you will have to ex­pend teach­ing them about it. An ad­viser with ex­pe­ri­ence in a field slightly dif­fer­ent from that of your in­tended area of study may of­fer a unique per­spec­tive, may ask help­ful ques­tions, and may in­ad­ver­tently re­quire clar­ity in pre­sen­ta­tion. But this will in­evitably cost time.

An­other piece of ad­vice is to min­imise your teach­ing obli­ga­tions. Even if you as­pire to a ca­reer in higher ed­u­ca­tion, teach­ing while in grad­u­ate school can be a drain on time if you are con­sci­en­tious and wish to do it com­pe­tently. Teach­ing well is only a ter­tiary cri­te­rion for suc­cess in academia, and it is all but un­nec­es­sary for suc­cess in in­dus­try.

One of the first classes that one of us taught in grad­u­ate school was in stat­ics. It was for the me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing depart­ment, and it was ap­proached like an engi­neer­ing de­sign project. Pride drove own­er­ship of the course, con­cep­tu­ally and emo­tion­ally, and pre­par­ing for and teach­ing the course dom­i­nated the sum­mer. Ev­ery exam and ev­ery quiz was crafted metic­u­lously. Each lec­ture was de­signed to be en­er­getic and unique, with var­ied pre­sen­ta­tion styles and me­dia.

But pride came with a sub­stan­tial cost. When the fi­nal nu­mer­i­cal grades for the course were cal­cu­lated, it took three hours merely to as­sign the let­ter grades for just 12 stu­dents.

Few grad­u­ate stu­dents have an im­pres­sive in­come dur­ing school. What they do have to spend is time. Spend it wisely. A short stint as a teach­ing as­sis­tant can pro­vide valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence, but such work should be lim­ited to two semesters. Cer­tainly, the abil­ity to ex­plain ma­te­rial clearly and to com­mu­ni­cate ef­fec­tively is use­ful. How­ever, de­spite the ex­pe­ri­ence, teach­ing does not fa­cil­i­tate ob­tain­ing a de­gree as ex­pe­di­ently as pos­si­ble.

There can be lit­tle room for ini­tia­tive in grad­u­ate re­search. This third guide­line con­tra­dicts what academia is sup­posed to em­body tra­di­tion­ally, but it rep­re­sents a turn that academia has taken in some re­spects. It can be more ef­fi­cient sim­ply to ask “What is the min­i­mum nec­es­sary ef­fort re­quired to achieve the goal?” rather than “What is the max­i­mum one can con­tribute while pur­su­ing the goal?”

With that for­mer ques­tion in mind, it is use­ful to meet with your ad­viser at least ev­ery other week and to take notes dur­ing each meet­ing. If ap­pro­pri­ate, re­mind the ad­viser what tasks were dis­cussed pre­vi­ously, what has been achieved and what will be com­pleted next. Do this con­sis­tently and reg­u­larly. But be­ware. The di­rec­tion you re­ceive from week to week may change, and mem­o­ries can be short for aca­demics jug­gling teach­ing, re­search, publi­ca­tions and ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Most new grad­u­ate stu­dents lack the ex­pe­ri­ence or knowl­edge nec­es­sary to de­velop an ef­fi­cient and effective plan of study. To­wards the end of a grad­u­ate ca­reer, it can show aca­demic ma­tu­rity to sug­gest new ideas and re­search di­rec­tions. How­ever, do not pur­sue these ideas with­out first ex­tract­ing in­put from an ad­viser be­cause do­ing so risks un­suc­cess­ful work and un­nec­es­sary crit­i­cism.

As provoca­tive as it may be, the next piece of ad­vice is to con­sider that while money isn’t ev­ery­thing, it’s right up there with air. Hav­ing to grap­ple with fi­nan­cial con­cerns in the con­text of the pur­suit of knowl­edge can be one of the more dispir­it­ing as­pects of ad­vanced ed­u­ca­tion. Nonethe­less, it is a crit­i­cal as­pect.

One of us, as a new grad­u­ate stu­dent, was do­ing work that was un­funded. It was sug­gested that fund­ing from the Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion be pur­sued.

When the proposal was de­liv­ered to the univer­sity’s depart­ment of spon­sored pro­grammes, it was pointed out that “in­di­rect costs” – the cut of the grant that goes into cen­tral univer­sity funds – had to be in­cluded. As was ex­plained at the time, this money pays for things such as

Be­ware. The di­rec­tion you re­ceive from week to week may change and mem­o­ries can be short for aca­demics jug­gling teach­ing, re­search, publi­ca­tions and ad­min­is­tra­tion

light­ing and fa­cil­i­ties. The 40 per cent over­head was more than a neigh­bour­hood loan shark might charge for a ply­wood-walled, com­put­er­less study cu­bi­cle in a cold base­ment. Nonethe­less, a cut went to the don, so to speak, and the point was well taken. Money is al­ways a con­sid­er­a­tion, whether you like it or not, be­cause some­one must pay for the or­gan­i­sa­tion that sup­ports you. And, when times are tough, it’s nice to have a don.

Work­ing with­out a grant al­lows a cer­tain de­gree of free­dom to ex­plore var­i­ous top­ics, po­ten­tially broad­en­ing your ex­pe­ri­ence, but it is more ef­fi­cient not to have to worry about fund­ing, so aim to work only on a project for which a grant has al­ready been awarded. This cri­te­rion is more eas­ily sat­is­fied in the sci­ences than in the lib­eral arts, but it is an im­por­tant cri­te­rion nonethe­less. A source of fund­ing pro­vides three valu­able pil­lars. First, it pro­vides a salary, so you will not need to waste time do­ing a part­time job that may be un­re­lated to your re­search. Sec­ond, it means that you have a thor­oughly re­viewed plan of study. Fi­nally, it en­tails that the sig­nif­i­cance of your work has been ac­cepted, pre­sum­ably by ex­perts in your field. Con­sid­er­ing that a fun­da­men­tal re­quire­ment for grad­u­ate re­search is the con­tri­bu­tion of new ma­te­rial, this last pil­lar is cru­cial.

Es­pe­cially in the sci­ences and engi­neer­ing, academia can be a busi­ness, whose pri­mary goal, as with any busi­ness, is to in­crease prof­its. Although a univer­sity is a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, dif­fer­ent de­part­ments, labs and re­search cen­tres are of­ten mo­ti­vated by their search for re­search fund­ing. How­ever, there is a ten­dency in academia to cloak the busi­ness of re­search. An as­so­ciate of­ten re­minds us that in a room full of artists, the “sell-out” is the first to make a profit. The same is true with re­search. Any­one who treats re­search as a busi­ness tends not to be well re­ceived in academia, but they likely have the fund­ing nec­es­sary to drive ad­vances, and they may even­tu­ally be wealthy. Why should there be any less glory in pur­su­ing knowl­edge for which there is a de­mand and which also hap­pens to of­fer profit?

The laws of sup­ply and de­mand also ap­ply to re­search. That is, if there is no de­mand for a par­tic­u­lar line of re­search, it may go un­funded. In this vein, you can­not sim­ply study what­ever topic in­ter­ests you. In an ef­fort to se­cure fund­ing, you will in­evitably steer your re­search to­wards more pop­u­lar fields and top­ics. In many cases, there are ac­tual fund­ing cus­tomers that need spe­cific prob­lems solved. Pay at­ten­tion to that. It can waste time and, ul­ti­mately, money to pur­sue top­ics in which there is no in­ter­est be­yond that of the stu­dent. Who­ever pro­vides your pay cheque is the cus­tomer, and who­ever funds your re­search pro­vides that cheque.

In view­ing academia as a busi­ness, you should al­ways give cus­tomers what they want, and this ap­plies on two lev­els. First, al­ways con­sider the de­mand for the re­search prod­uct. This is much eas­ier said than done. Any­one can ac­knowl­edge that the cus­tomers are al­ways right, but truly lis­ten­ing to them and ex­tract­ing what they need is dif­fi­cult, es­pe­cially if you have your own per­sonal de­sires with re­spect to the prod­uct (in this case, the re­search). Talk to the fund­ing cus­tomer con­stantly.

Sec­ond, most stu­dents are, in ef­fect, em­ploy­ees, and the ad­viser is a boss who dou­bles as a cus­tomer. In some re­spects, your ad­viser will pro­vide your pay cheque, or at least gov­ern it. Thus, do what the cus­tomer re­quires. In ad­di­tion, al­ways con­sider your au­di­ence when writ­ing and pre­sent­ing. In the case of a the­sis, the au­di­ence is your ad­viser and com­mit­tee. Again, talk to the cus­tomers con­stantly.

If ad­vanced ed­u­ca­tion is a busi­ness, publi­ca­tions form

You can­not sim­ply study what­ever topic in­ter­ests you. In an ef­fort to se­cure fund­ing, you will in­evitably steer your re­search to­wards more pop­u­lar fields

part of its cur­rency, es­pe­cially if you de­sire a ca­reer in academia. In pre­par­ing a the­sis, we sug­gest there are, in essence, two strate­gies re­gard­ing for­mal publi­ca­tions. The first en­tails writ­ing noth­ing at all un­til all re­search is com­plete. This is the more ex­pe­di­ent ap­proach be­cause writ­ing a the­sis de­mands a lower stan­dard of qual­ity than a jour­nal pa­per. Of course, some pro­grammes re­quire a cer­tain num­ber of publi­ca­tions be­fore grad­u­a­tion, but these should be com­pleted only as nec­es­sary. If pos­si­ble, write con­fer­ence pa­pers, rather than jour­nal pa­pers, be­cause they re­quire less sub­stan­tial con­tent and are vet­ted less rig­or­ously.

The sec­ond ap­proach is to view each po­ten­tial the­sis chap­ter as a jour­nal pa­per. These pa­pers are writ­ten and sub­mit­ted as the var­i­ous stages of the work are com­pleted. The pa­pers are, in essence, com­bined to form the the­sis. This re­sults in a higher-qual­ity the­sis that has been vet­ted by ex­perts in the ap­pro­pri­ate field. How­ever, writ­ing pa­pers takes time, and this is time spent prior to grad­u­a­tion.

We knew an English pro­fes­sor who, although most pro­fi­cient with tech­ni­cal writ­ing, had also writ­ten ex­ten­sive po­etry. Both of his wives loved all of it. They each asked that it be shared with the rest of the world, but it never was. It sim­ply sat on a shelf, be­hind the pro­fes­sor as he graded pa­pers in his den. His ra­tio­nale was that there was al­ready “so much crap out there”: why should he add to it? You could take that ap­proach to aca­demic publi­ca­tions, too. Frankly, it is rel­a­tively easy to pub­lish pa­pers. It is dif­fi­cult to pub­lish sig­nif­i­cant work that al­ters your field. Many will view the lat­ter as the no­bler course, but the for­mer is surely the prac­ti­cal course. Choose your course wisely.

Aper­va­sive theme of these guide­lines is the cost of time. Ev­ery­one is af­forded ap­prox­i­mately the same amount of this valu­able com­mod­ity. A base amount is nec­es­sary to ob­tain an ad­vanced de­gree, and ex­tra time can be spent ei­ther on cam­pus or be­yond cam­pus, mak­ing more money. With in­creased aca­demic through­put and tu­ition costs, the lat­ter is of­ten the more pop­u­lar choice. This in turn raises a ques­tion of so­cial val­ues. Has money be­come more valu­able than knowl­edge?

Be­fore the Sec­ond World War, hav­ing fund­ing for re­search was rare and was of­ten re­garded as cor­rupt. Now, there is lit­tle re­search that is not funded. By past stan­dards, re­search is now con­flicted. The next fron­tier in this di­ver­sion from re­search solely for the sake of knowl­edge is the preva­lence of spin-off com­pa­nies to com­mer­cialise re­search. Ar­guably, these help to dis­sem­i­nate new knowl­edge and ca­pa­bil­i­ties, as the­ses can have a lim­ited au­di­ence and, thus, a lim­ited ef­fect on so­ci­ety.

Per­haps, how­ever, the ap­par­ent con­flict be­tween the pur­suit of knowl­edge and the pur­suit of money is il­lu­sory – just a by­gone prej­u­dice grounded in his­tor­i­cal cus­toms. We as­sume that knowl­edge and money are two op­pos­ing in­ter­ests, but maybe there is sim­ply a change in pref­er­ence.

Emo­tion­ally, we cling to what we think academia should be. If only ev­ery grad­u­ate stu­dent would re­pu­di­ate these guide­lines as cyn­i­cal and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, we sigh. How­ever, although the op­por­tu­nity still ex­ists for ro­man­tic pur­suits of knowl­edge, the path of least re­sis­tance guides us to­wards sup­pos­edly more prac­ti­cal pur­suits. It is in­cum­bent upon us all to recog­nise and man­age this lat­ter path.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.