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Easy Ways to Fail a Ph.D. (might.net)
205 points by RBerenguel on Sept 1, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 107 comments



I'd add a huge one to the top of the list:

1) Pick the wrong mentor.

Quite simply, if a mentor hasn't graduated a student in the last three years, serious red flags should go up. Professors can get a ton of work done relying on research assistants and post-docs. But students need to be nurtured and many mentors just aren't up to the task. Their track record at graduating students is the best evidence you can ask for. Look for potential role models in that history.

If the mentor is a nontenured professor, ask for their advice but don't make them your lead mentor to sign off on your work. Tenure has many stresses and some are orthogonal to your interests as a student and future researcher. The nontenured need to be focused on themselves until they get tenure. They can have a lot of energy and novel thoughts, but since your results will be tied to their future prospects, your work will get undue pressure.

The edge case is the newly crowned associate professor. Fully interview the prospective mentor and get references. Your career will literally be in this person's hands. Make sure you know that this is a person who will challenge and inspire. Associate professors can be really, really great mentors, but you just have to be careful if they haven't graduated any students. If they have, and those students are already on tenure tracks, you likely have an excellent candidate.


I think this is one of the most important things, although as a student you may have less control over it than you'd like. The big problems in picking an advisor are lack of information and lack of opportunity. There may be the "perfect" advisor with the project you want and good funding, but no information available (e.g. new professor). On the other hand there may be the professor, who everyone says is great and is working on exactly what you want, but they don't have any money for a new student. You usually find yourself in these types of situations when choosing an advisor.

Bad advisors probably set me back at least a year and my former labmates as much as 3 years when they quit the lab shortly before our former advisor "resigned". I eventually took matters into my own hands and helped two professors I liked write an NSF grant on my topic and got funding for two students for 3 years, and they basically let me do whatever I want.


You usually find yourself in these types of situations when choosing an advisor.

No doubt, but as you note, your mentor will impact you for years and perhaps your entire career. If the right one doesn't come along, better to wait. Many schools also won't tell you that you've been admitted to the program and the mentor they've assigned isn't set in stone. Ideally, use the time during visits and interviews to identify the best mentors in the program. A good mentor will get you through the program. A bad mentor will actively sabotage your progress. To me, it's most the important decision you'll make, especially if as you note, the funding is tied to the mentor.

I eventually took matters into my own hands and helped two professors I liked write an NSF grant on my topic and got funding for two students for 3 years, and they basically let me do whatever I want.

Take note: If there's one way to punch your own ticket, it's this approach. Acquire your own funding and you're pretty free to do what you want. In that regard, grants may be more powerful than even publications.


This is excellent advice. I should have added this one.

Perhaps this belongs under a post called "10 hard ways to fail a Ph.D."

An advisor-advisee mismatch can be excruciating.


Unfortunately, I think it's pretty easy to overlook that it's not the idiosyncratic mismatch, but more that some mentors never should be and some just aren't ready. The system does not distinguish between the two so it's up to students to pass the word among themselves. If you've had a good experience with your mentor, when students fail with other mentors it seems like a mismatch. But in those cases, the faculty are more at fault than the student. They have the balance of power in the relationship.

For established mentors - Full or Associate Professors - if they aren't actively graduating students, there's something wrong. If they have current students who are taking, on average, 7 to 8 years, there's something wrong. If you want a tenure track position and this established mentor doesn't have a record of placing their students in those positions, there's something wrong. The concept of lineage really does help. Great mentors really do seem to birth new ones. If a particular mentor has a limited lineage, look elsewhere.

Otherwise, I actively consul folks to stay clear of nontenured faculty as primary mentors. As I indicate above, those folks have pressing priorities elsewhere. If you like someone who fits in that category, get a more senior mentor as your primary and add the younger one to your committee. Just make sure the primary is truly signing off on everything. The politics are always there, especially with a nontenured trying to prove themselves, but they are manageable with some savvy. The point is: Stay clear of the nontenured without a safety net. Not only are they distracted, but they have no standing to advocate and defend you, if necessary. You're easily expendable when the choice is you or their career.

Basically, mentors can be classified based on where they sit in the career trajectory and their history. If they don't have a clear and steady record of graduating students, then don't expect you'll be different.


I think it's hard to make generalizations about tenured vs. non-tenured. Some of the worst experiences I have heard about have been with tenured faculty, usually based on neglect. Many tenure track faculty need to graduate students in order to fulfil some sort of criterion for tenure-ability. If that is strong requirement in the department/university, the tenure-track people may be incentivized to treat the students well, unlike tenured people.

That being said, I always tell other students to remember that their interests are most often orthogonal to that of their advisors and that ultimately they are their only advocates. Also, choosing an advisor needs to be assessed on a case by case basis.


Perhaps, but tenured faculty come with track records. Those are easily examined. Neglect manifests itself in the form of students who take too long to finish and few graduates active in the field. With nontenured faculty the problem is with the lack of a record - in the field, in the department, and in mentoring.

I know of two criteria for tenure: Publications and grants. Student advising is not going to shift that calculus dramatically in any direction.

Nontenured faculty may be great but it's potentially too problematic to have one as a primary adviser. Too many unknowns affect their emotional and professional state to tie your ship to theirs. Better to get a more senior person as the primary mentor and then form collaborations with, and get advice from, the nontenured faculty.

For sure, it's a case-by-case consideration. A nontenured faculty with graduating students before they receive tenure is a good sign along with grants and publications. But a tenured faculty member is better equipped, at least politically, to look out for their students. If they don't have a record of doing so, stay far, far away.


The neglect I've seen from tenured faculty is usually due to having too many students and too many projects. For tenure track faculty, neglect seems to usually be due to too much time spent worrying about writing grants, teaching, and politicking (sitting on committees, etc).

My main point is that I don't think you can really say one is safer than the other. I certainly think early tenure track faculty have greatly divided attention and are under incredible amounts of pressure, which is not a good prescription for being a good advisor, but I think that a lot of what tenured faculty people do also can make them poor advisors.

As a student you will always be working with incomplete information, in particular, how you will handle a given advisor, even if everyone else says they are great (or horrible). Of course you have to simply play the hand that is dealt and make changes to your situation when appropriate.

On a side note, I was able to get one very senior person on my committee, who is very enthusiastic about my project. Even though he is not my direct advisor, he has been able to strongly advocate for me when necessary.


I agree completely. In my department the younger professors seem more focused on research and mentoring grad students while the tenured professors (with some exceptions) are more interested in teaching and administration.


Man, as a grad student, I can't disagree with the first two points enough.

This is OK advice if all you want to do is finish a PhD as quickly as possible (ignore course work and any studying not directly related to your dissertation), but it's terrible advice if you want to (a) become a broadly smart individual or (b) do research later on anything else besides the tiny topic of your dissertation. Grad school is the only time in your life where you'll have the freedom to study all sorts of incredible stuff. If you leave academics, you won't have access to the resources, and if you stay in academics, you'll be constantly scrambling to crank out publications as a post-doc or professors.

> In the interest of personal disclosure, I suffered from the "want to learn everything" bug when I got to Ph.D. school. I took classes all over campus for my first two years: Arabic, linguistics, economics, physics, math and even philosophy. In computer science, I took lots of classes in areas that had nothing to do with my research. The price of all this "enlightenment" was an extra year on my Ph.D.

Only a year? Sounds cheap to me! When else in your life are you going to have the opportunity for this kind of enrichment?

Yes, taking linguistics classes is probably not going to help your future physics research. (Though it can still be worthwhile). But taking chemistry, math, and physics outside of your particular niche is incredibly helpful for teaching you different ideas that you can apply later.

Also:

>Einstein's Ph.D. dissertation was a principled calculation meant to estimate Avogadro's number. He got it wrong. By a factor of 3.

Yea, well, for their PhDs, Bekenstein's discovered black hole thermodynamics, Feynman came up with the path integral, and Hawking proved the singularity theorem. Yes, you can go on to be successful after a modest thesis. But you can also kick ass young. (Also, finding a method to calculate a theretofore empirically-measured universal constant based on elementary principles--and only being wrong by a factor of 3--is pretty incredible!)

Frankly, I just don't know very many grad students who come close to "shooting too high". I'm sure this professor has met a few, but is his concern really that they are shooting themselves in the foot, or is it that grad students who take chances for big breakthroughs (and hence, usually fail) are not very useful for advancing the career of professors?


"This is OK advice if all you want to do is finish a PhD as quickly as possible (ignore course work and any studying not directly related to your dissertation), but it's terrible advice if you want to (a) become a broadly smart individual or (b) do research later on anything else besides the tiny topic of your dissertation."

The article is not titled "How to become a broadly smart individual" -- it's titled "Easy ways to fail a Ph.D." And the advice is exactly correct.

You have your whole life to become "broadly smart", and grad school is not the only time in your life when you'll have the freedom to learn stuff (it's not even the best time). The point of a PhD is to finish. If you forget that fact, you will fail.

Nearly every grad student wastes a little bit of time doing unrelated learning, and to some extent, that's expected. But you're perceived as wasting your advisor's funding, you're ruined. If you're on a TA-ship, you're wasting time and opportunity cost. If you're not funded, you're wasting (a lot of) your own money.

If you want to be a broadly smart individual, finish grad school as quickly as possible, become a professor, get tenure, and you'll have the rest of your life to study whatever you like. But if you take 10 years to get your Ph.D., you won't have the chance.


> The article is not titled "How to become a broadly smart individual" -- it's titled "Easy ways to fail a Ph.D."

That's why I said "This is OK advice if all you want to do is finish a PhD as quickly as possible."

Professors don't give this advice to students in the form "If you want to finish ASAP, take this advice, but really finishing ASAP isn't a good idea". They just give the advice, and it's bad.

> But you're perceived as wasting your advisor's funding, you're ruined.

I didn't say waste. There is a balance. And if your advisor treats you as a research technician, and only pays you conditional on working full-time on his research, you ought to change advisors.

>If you want to be a broadly smart individual, finish grad school as quickly as possible, become a professor, get tenure, and you'll have the rest of your life to study whatever you like.

First, ask any tenured professor and they'll tell you they have the much less time for free thinking then they had in grad schools. Grant writing, committee siting, etc., soaks up most of their time.

Second, the average age to get tenure is 39:

http://blogs.physicstoday.org/newspicks/2009/11/family-is-th...

Waiting until you're 40 to do your independent, free thinking is a good way to make sure you never do anything original.


You seem to be quite dedicated to ignoring the point of the article. Again, if you want to be "broadly educated", go do something else. A PhD program is not the right place for personal exploration.

A doctorate is not about broad education, and the assumption of the author (all advisors, really) is that you want to get a PhD -- because if what you really want is an extended version of an undergraduate education, then the best advice is to put the PhD on hold, and go find yourself for a while. Otherwise, you're most definitely wasting something -- time, money, resources, etc. -- and a good advisor is going to redirect your mis-spent efforts as soon as they're aware. It's not about treating you like a "technician", so much as it's about trying to save you from a tremendously unpleasant experience.

"First, ask any tenured professor and they'll tell you they have the much less time for free thinking then they had in grad schools. Grant writing, committee siting, etc., soaks up most of their time. Second, the average age to get tenure is 39"

If you're unhappy about the life of a professor, then don't get a PhD. Sure, you can enter a PhD program, screw around for a few years to take some classes and gain "broad" knowledge -- but don't be surprised when you get kicked out. And then, don't be surprised when you have a multi-year gap on your resume with nothing to show for it but some bad recommendations.


I'm not interested in being "broadly educated". In fact, if you knew me, you'd think that laughable. I am no polymath, nor do I aspire to be.

I'm talking about having a broad education within your field, i.e. taking course not directly related to your thesis that can give you insight on your thesis or on something you might research afterwards.

>>"First, ask any tenured professor and they'll tell you they have the much less time for free thinking then they had in grad schools. Grant writing, committee siting, etc., soaks up most of their time. Second, the average age to get tenure is 39"

>If you're unhappy about the life of a professor, then don't get a PhD.

I'm not complaining about the life of a professor, I'm challenging the idea that you should wait until you're tenured to think new ideas.


I kind of agree with the author, although I see your points. If you are talking about getting a broader understanding of your subject then that's pretty much part of the phd and nobody will argue against you for studying things that you think _may_ be relevant.

On the other hand a PhD is not the place to study Arabic or Sociology if you want to be a high energy physics: you can do that, but in your free time, not in the University paid time. For a long time I thought it would be great to be a student all my life and just go to lectures and learn. But nowadays I know that if I want to learn I can pick up a book and learn. That's how a lot of people do: undergraduate is there to give you the tools but also to teach you the method.

Anyone worth their salt with a phd can study another topic by themselves: you don't need to be lectured and have tutorial anymore.


Saying "really finishing ASAP isn't a good idea" is an advisor fail. Much of these points are advisor fails: it's your advisor who should be pushing you through grad school. They've seen it multiple times. You've seen it once.

If your advisor has recommended you should finish your PhD, you should finish your PhD. If he/she is saying "I don't think you have the wide knowledge base to properly understand this subject", then you start taking more classes. My advisor is talking to me about taking philosophy of science and software studies. They aren't critical path by any stretch of the imagination. But he thinks I need it.


Wow, the ultimate in of jumping hoops to live life how you want it: tenure. You can do exploratory learning after you've done all of this preliminary stuff when your 32!


> Yea, well, for their PhDs, Bekenstein's discovered black hole thermodynamics, Feynman came up with the path integral, and Hawking proved the singularity theorem. Yes, you can go on to be successful after a modest thesis. But you can also kick ass young.

Sadly, most grad students (and most professors) can't hold a candle to Feynman, Hawking or Bekenstein.

"Oh, just be like Feynman," is not a repeatable strategy for success for most folks.

> Frankly, I just don't know very many grad students who come close to "shooting too high". I'm sure this professor has met a few, but is his concern really that they are shooting themselves in the foot, or is it that grad students who take chances for big breakthroughs (and hence, usually fail) are not very useful for advancing the career of professors?

My advisor used the term "doctoral Vietnam" for the really hard topics.

He talked about the severed heads and charred skeletons that line the paths to the top of what look like "hills."

It takes a tremendous amount of arrogance or foolishness to charge up those hills and think you're going to make it to the top.

For example, tangoing with P v NP is a classic way that brilliant students in computer science leave grad school completely dejected.

They probably could have made a good contribution had they focused on something achievable.

But, you raise an interesting question: if Ph.D. students aren't going to challenge the hard problems, then who will?

I don't have a good answer to that question.


> But, you raise an interesting question: if Ph.D. students aren't going to challenge the hard problems, then who will?

Tenured professors. Because they certainly aren't wasting their time teaching.


That's the concept behind a tenure: you don't need to _prove_ yourself anymore, and hence are free to take risky path that may fail and leave you with nothing.

But if every PhD student thought they were going to be the next Einstein and tried to write a new revolutionary paper, we'll end up with a lot Universities closing doors.

You give the risky stuff to those who have proved themselves, not to the ones who have just started.


I don't think we really disagree here. Yes, you need to be smart and realistic about your capabilities. My Feynman et al. example wasn't advice for students, it was a refutation of the idea that theses aren't particularly important or indicative of future success (which is what you imply with the Einstein example).

Edit: "OP" --> "you". Sorry, I didn't realize I was talking with the author. Thanks for the thoughtful reply!


Never fight a land war in Asia.


I'm with the OP on this. It's too easy to get distracted by all the awesome things you can do and learn when at Grad School.

> (a) become a broadly smart individual

Do you need to be in grad school to achieve this? Why not just read widely and do the odd course here and there? I also suffered from the 'learn everything' bug and I think it cost me. I'm confident in my ability to learn so a lack of knowledge in one area doesn't bother me.

> (b) do research later on anything else besides the tiny topic of your dissertation

This isn't true at all. Learning the skills involved in focusing on one area can then be applied to another area later on. I've moved between Physics and Neuroscience and was (reasonably) focused on each at the time. However, the grad students who succeed in academia tend to focus on one thing for many years, right the way through post-docs. It's only when they become tenured that they begin branching out more.

(Note: I went through the UK system)


>> (a) become a broadly smart individual

> Do you need to be in grad school to achieve this?

No, but grad school is a fantastic place for it. Just because you can (partially) make up for a missed opportunity doesn't mean that missing it wasn't bad.

> Learning the skills involved in focusing on one area can then be applied to another area later on.

The fact that skills involved in one area can be applied to another doesn't mean you shouldn't be acquiring skills in many areas. In fact, it supports my point.


No, but grad school is a fantastic place for it.

Yeah, it is, and it's a great way to add years onto a career move that is paying you subsistence wages.

You can attend other classes once you're a post-doc (unlucky) or a professor (better). Then, the university is paying you to be there, rather than someone else trying to find a salary for you in their limited grant funding.


"The fact that skills involved in one area can be applied to another doesn't mean you shouldn't be acquiring skills in many areas"

I was referring to the skill of being able to focus. It's one I ended up learning the hard way.


Ahh, I parsed it wrong. My mistake.


Had I been using up research funding from my advisor during those two years, he would have been expecting me to produce research papers and to contribute to the project.

He probably would have booted me out and hired someone else willing to do the research if that had been the case.

If you've got a non-research source of funding like a fellowship or TA funding, by all means, have some fun.

But, if you're being paid from research funds, it's important to accomplish the research mission first.

If you have time left over, take some fun classes.


I agree, except that (a) this should lead you to TA for longer in order to spend more time doing classes, but that is exactly the opposite of what grad students are told to do ("get to research as soon as possible") and (b) you should push the bounds of how much non-directly-thesis-related learning you can do while on your advisor's grant. You're a grad student, not a research technician, and only bad advisors will require you to do nothing but work directly toward immediate publications.


> only bad advisors will require you to do nothing > but work directly toward immediate publications

I disagree with this point. If you have an advisor encouraging you to keep your eye on the ball getting out frequent publications, you should be grateful. You certainly will be when you get your Ph.D. and have > 3 publications under your belt for your job search instead of 1 and "several in submission."


I apologize. I must be presenting my ideas wrong, because I really don't think we disagree.

It is definitely the responsibility of a good advisor to make sure that their student leaves grad school well-prepared and with a competitive CV. An advisor who doesn't push his student to work hard and focus is surely doing a disservice. I just don't think that means the student shouldn't have a certain degree of freedom (maybe...10% of his time?) to pursue less immediately publishable knowledge.


The much more self-serving reason to spend time learning about activities outside of your specialty: applying techniques of your discipline to another discipline is a great way to crank out some easy papers for the second discipline's journals. There's some good work waiting to be done applying dynamic code generation to graphics, artificial intelligence, or probably some other fields. This sort of work probably wouldn't cut it in a systems journal, but would probably excite some people in the respective target groups.


EDIT: I think I spoke very poorly when I said "I can't disagree with the first two points enough". It's not that there isn't a great deal of truth to the OP's claim that not focusing on your research can lead to failure. It's that I feel very strongly about the danger of taking this advice too far (which, in my short experience, happens more often in grad school) and focusing on hitting all the career-ladder rungs rather than focusing on getting the training you need to make worthwhile contribution to your field.


My personal experience* is that some of that failure rate can attributed to students not understanding what a PhD is for. It is a qualification to conduct research... it is not about creating something cool/interesting and/or useful (particularly not the last one). It's about the journey not the product.

Unless you intend to stay in academia, the qualification probably won't pay off in terms of a higher salary vs. the years you wasted. And if you do intend to be in academia, be prepared for a long (possibly indefinite) wait before you get a permanent lecturing/research position. Post-doc life is not easy.

* 3 years wasted working on a PhD, no thesis submitted in the end, walked away back to the real world.


* Oh hi! I thought I was the only one :)

I think the real danger with a PhD program is that it is so easy to wander into a program, especially once you've gotten a master's degree. It feels like the right move and the next logical step, just like the previous degrees were. It's almost painless to stick around, look into interesting topics, get paid a livable salary, do some research and attend a few conferences. It can even feel like real meaningful work, without the indignity of having to find and start a job.

There is this kind of background worry that the whole thing is getting nowhere productive, or at least not at all where it's supposed to go, but it takes a few years to build up. That ends up blossoming into the regret of three years wasted, instead of a few stressful months (if that) in job limbo.

It's not all bad though. My curious distraction from my 'real work' was learning to program. I ended up with an employable skill that I enjoy using and building on. Still, though, 3 years.


> It is a qualification to conduct research... it is not about creating something cool/interesting and/or useful (particularly not the last one). It's about the journey not the product.

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. New PhD students should have this tattooed on their arms as part of the admissions process. I wasted an entire year trying to come up with a dissertation project because I didn't understand this fact.


I've described it as a research merit badge.


I won't tell you what I call it!

Ok, I will: Intellectual masturbation - It feels good at the time but is ultimately unproductive.


"Research union card" is my preferred description. It encompasses the necessity but scopes the applicability :)


People have touched on this, including the parent article, but this needs stating in BIG SHOUTY CAPITALS:

PhDs are the last mediaeval guild apprenticeship standing, with all the ceremony and all the anachronism that implies.

Seriously. You're apprenticed to a master, you have to produce a meisterwerk, then they let you in. The entire thing is a historical accident. Remember that and everything else is... well, it's still crazy, but you can get the thread of it.

(yrs, PhD (Cantab) 2007 - http://www.lexical.org.uk/science/thesis/)


With a few words switched, I find this a pretty accurate description of the PhD and postdoc years:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journeyman_years#Historic_roots


Aren't apprenticeships still quite common in a lot of fields? (Hairdressing, carpentry...)


Matt, I understand that you are writing primarily to your graduate students, but I also have to object to your first two points in general. I am a counterexample, as I took 12+ unnecessary math classes (getting A's in them) on my way to a successful PhD in theoretical computer science/crypto. I've found that my background in math has given me some tools and perspective that improve my research (I recognize when we are constructing a finite field in a round-about way, or when the abstraction we really want is a group action, or when Borel-Cantelli is really needed to make an argument rigorous, etc etc). I wouldn't have obtained these tools without a huge investment in time at some point.

Actually, I still find myself reading and learning unnecessary math papers most evenings as a hobby. I think it makes a huge difference.

Perhaps this is unique to mathematics, where theorem proving skills are portable. I certainly wouldn't use my situation to argue that PL grad students need to study French. But maybe the PL students should take an extra distributed systems course - and TA while they do it!


In theory, nothing is unnecessary, because everything in theory is unnecessary.

(j/k, of course; I love theory.)

More seriously, folks like you are the reason I phrased it "almost always." If you take the right "unnecessary" courses, it can help a lot. (So, are they really unnecessary then?)

My quantum mechanics class got me to think about the PL problem I was working on in terms of group theory. That turned out the be the key serendipitous insight that solved the problem.

But, I'm watching two students at two universities go down in flames right now because they're too distracted by taking lots of "fun" classes. They're like kids that locked themselves inside the candy store.


An American PhD sounds tougher than here in the UK, or at the very least significantly longer. Here, you get funding for three (or sometimes four) years and I don't know of that many people who have left their programmes.

Why is there such a big difference, and is there any data about how this this reflected in later careers?

I would guess that the advice of "only do a PhD if you want to be an academic" doesn't hold as strongly over here. Does it?

(Disclaimer: I say this as someone currently debating whether or not to do a PhD, but who doesn't want to be an academic.)


The differences are more than US versus UK. It's more US versus Europe.

I spent a semester in Ph.D. school in Denmark, and I noticed what you describe: 4 years guaranteed funding with a boot at the end.

What this means is that at the end of four years, a student has to staple all the papers they wrote, back-solve for a unifying "thesis" and then defend. No matter what.

In general, this is why Europeans Ph.D.s tend to need a postdoc, whereas American Ph.D.s can (usually) transition directly to faculty jobs.

The US Ph.D. student is encouraged to hang on and continue publishing with their advisor while they're on a hot streak and for as long as the grant funding lasts.

This allows US profs to turn the last couple years of their Ph.D. students into postdocs paid at grad student wages.


> whereas American Ph.D.s can (usually) transition directly to faculty jobs

In physics, going straight from grad student to professor is extremely rare these days.


In the biological and biomedical sciences, it is literally impossible.


I think the OPs comment was about computer science in particular, but even there things are changing somewhat. Partially it's because of the weak economy and scarcity of faculty jobs, but getting into the top-tier places almost requires a postdoc these days.


I don't know if the "boot at the end" thing is standard even in Europe. Many places simply stop giving you money and your advisor won't be able to help you as much, but you're free to hang around until you're done. My girlfriend for example recently finished her PhD (on time), and there where a couple of PhD students hanging around her department who had been there for close to a decade.


This is not true for all countries. In Sweden you get kicked out with no PhD if you haven't finished in eight years. And that is clock years. (You can get on or two extra years for childbirth and military service I seem to remember)


Depending on the school grad students are not necessarily cheaper to a professor than Postdocs due to the overhead/fees paid for students versus that paid for postdocs. Also the current academic job market in the US is bad. Taking a postdoc for 1,2,3 years has been very common in Computer Science for people seeking faculty positions in the last couple of years.


The same is true in math -- it is rare for mathematicians to move directly from a Ph.D. to a tenure-track faculty position.


Agreed. In fact I wonder what discipline it is not true in at the moment.


I've heard that it's possible (not easy) for statistics Ph.D.s to jump directly to faculty positions, but I think this is becoming less common. I think that economics Ph.D.s also often jump directly to faculty positions.


The tenure system is also completely different in Europe.


An American PhD is mainly employed to be an assistant to their supervisor, and gets to study a bit on the side. An English PhD is mainly funded to study, and does a bit of assisting/teaching as an apprenticeship to become an academic themselves. This means that in England the candidate gets to spend more hours/week actually working on their PhD, so it takes fewer years overall.


Quite a lot of people in the UK get paid as contract researchers (Research Associates or Research Assistants) where you pretty much get a decent wage to do work that will probably count towards a PhD.


I'd say this isn't the norm. Some of my colleagues who've been funded this way only got the money since they were unable to get other scholarships at the time. So their supervisor managed to scrape enough together to 'hire' them.

This has downsides since the student is effectively an employee of the lab. I've seen examples where conflict arose between what the lab needed from it's RA and what the student needed in order to progress with research work.


Things could well have changed - my experience was in the late 80's and 90's. Of the people I knew RAs usually took a bit longer to get their PhDs than full time students - say 4 years rather than 3. However, the prof running the lab I was in was pretty good about giving RAs time to do their thesis while getting paid from a project.


Some of our collaborators are in the UK, so we discuss some of this stuff sometimes.

My understanding is that they are given 3 years for their PhD and do not necessarily take any courses. With a British BS being 3 years, their total time to PhD is 6 years, whereas (for physics) the average time in the US is 4+6=10 years. Not knowing anything else about two fresh PhD grads, I would take the one trained in the US over the one from UK.


On the basis of the number of years spent?


Basically yes. But more specifically, graduate students in American universities will have had 2+ years of courses and have performed 4+ years of research. My understanding is that PhD students in the UK just finish at the end of the third year. In the US, you are basically done, when your project is completed.


You're on the right lines, but it's not time itself that's important ;)

I'm a British student taking my PhD in the US. The core difference is publication record: in the UK, publications while doing your PhD are simply nice to have. In the US, they are essential. This is one of the key time-stretchers (alongside having to take classes and being able to change your thesis at any time).

This roughly means that a PhD that has just graduated in the US is immediately hirable all over the world, whereas a European will not be able to take a job in the US until they've spent time building a publication portfolio after graduation.


People specialise earlier in the UK, so a PhD in the States requires a longer run-up to get students to the point where they have sufficient background in a particular field to do research in it.


Without being disrespectful to our American brothers I think the difference stems from the poor school system in the USA. Because of that the first few years of undergraduate are equivalent to European schools' last years (in breadth and a little harder in depth).

By the end of undergraduate they will have very much cached up (American schools may be bad, but Unis are top notch) but then in places like UK, students would have been a lot more focused. So once you move to PhD the first couple of years in the USA are more similar to what in the UK we call a master. Hence only the last few years of the PhD correspond to the 3 years of the European phd.

Overall I think the two system are equivalent in duration, it's just that in the USA they start from a lower step of the ladder.

(on top of this there may be difference in the focus: e.g. papers vs. thesis, but I am only talking about the durations.)


Quote of the article: "I fantasize about buying an industrial-grade stapler capable of punching through three journal papers and calling it The Dissertator."


I liked this quote a lot too: "Perfection cannot be attained. It is approached in the limit."


>At best a handful of chemists remember what Einstein's Ph.D. was in.

>Einstein's Ph.D. dissertation was a principled calculation meant to estimate Avogadro's number. He got it wrong. By a factor of 3.

This is interesting. A quick search can't show me the history of Avogadro's number -- what was it thought to be before? Einstein could have been off by a factor of three, or he could have been off by "only" a factor of three. Context matters.


Google: "einstein avogadro" gives me http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Avogadro%27s_number as the first result, it's quite good, certainly more than sufficient as a starting point.

Note that sub- and super-scripts have not copy-pasted properly.

>Einstein wrote in his 1905 Ph.D. thesis about the size of molecules and the closely related problem of the magnitude of NA. He derived equations for diffusion coefficients and viscosities in which Avogadro's number appears. From experimental values of the diffusion coefficients and viscosities of sugar solutions in water Einstein gave the estimate NA = 2.1×1023. In a later paper derived from his doctorate work[6] he gave a better estimate from improved experimental data: NA = 4.15×1023, close to Maxwell's value of 1873. Later (1911) it was discovered that Einstein made an algebraic error in his thesis[7] and in the paper based on it. When this was corrected the very same experimental data gave NA = 6.6×1023.

Prior to that Perrin's better estimate was 6.2E23


I thought about getting a PhD at one point. It seemed like a neat thing to do. Talking to a friend of mine who is a professor disabused me of that idea quickly. Too much obedience, maybe, but the real killer is the politics. Lots of politics and politicking and stroking ego to get a PhD. No good. That's not what it should be.


I doubt there is any professional endeavor free of "politics and politicking." Universities are large bureaucracies, and come with all of the institutional morass present in other organizations of such scale.


I've never worked anywhere that had so much politics as a University - and that goes for everything from start-ups through to multinationals.


> I doubt there is any professional endeavor free of "politics and politicking."

There's lots of professions where decisions are primarily made on merit. Entrepreneurship is one of them.


I wouldn't necessarily agree this is true as long as you never have a mentor, never take money from anyone who wants voting shares and only work by yourself.

All environments have politics. It's inherent in collaborative human interaction. What changes is the extent and the style.

I much better understand university politics than I do office politics. University politics is glacially slow and almost always run democratically; if you want something to change, you need plenty of closed door discussions with as much faculty as possible to get them on-side when the time comes to push.

My exposure to office politics was always power struggles between people with titles, and who can get the right handful of ears to listen. Sometimes you needed to step on the throats of other people internal or external to the company. I could never find the right pace, people or aggression to get it right.


The real point of disillusion came for me when I realized my advisor was so caught up in funding politics and jockeying for awards that he wasn't even looking at some of the research proposals we were sending out.


The only thing I don't agree with is "Aim too high."

I can't imagine surviving at a top-ten school without having a focused research vision from the start. I'm not saying you should walk in hoping to prove P != NP, but who wants to dedicate 5+ years of their life to working on someone else's research project? Not to mention that these are typically the best years of your life.

I think the real key is to aim for a the top of a hill, not a cliff. You need to pick a goal that enables you to make gradual progress. If you start out by saying "I plan to build the best race car in the world"-- that's fine. Your first paper may be on improving the tires, then a follow-up with an even better tire material, then you discover that square tires can be used instead of round ones (thereby disrupting the entire field of tireology), and before you know it you have a PhD. You never reached the top of the hill like you expected, but you kept climbing.

Disclaimer: I don't have a PhD (yet). :)


If you think the twenties "are typically the best years of your life", you haven't grown up yet. Unless you let your brain dry out or rot, your life will continue getting richer and deeper as you live it and continue to gain experience and knowledge.

Life is an ongoing "learning experience". What you learned in the past allows you to function at a higher level now; and it allows you to learn more so you can function and learn at an even higher level tomorrow; and so on, "forever and ever" (with a little bit of luck).


Man, this makes an Australian PhD seem like a piece of cake comparatively.

1. No need to worry about funding: if you get an APA or an APA/I. If you don't get one of those, you'll be screwed. But they're not impossible to get either, if you're an Australian citizen. It's not $$$ but it's just enough to live on, if you are good at budgeting. If nothing else, at least you won't starve to death.

2. No courses. Just research your thesis topic for 3 years.

3. No teaching necessary. You can do it a bit on the side if you don't have an APA or the APA isn't enough. But you're limited to 8hrs/week of paid outside work if you're getting an APA anyway.

4. No defence. I guess it's too expensive to fly specialists to Australia, and those who set up the system did it in a time when video conferences didn't exist.

5. If you don't pass the first time you submit, you can just keep resubmitting until you pass. Of course, if you submit when your supervisor says it's not a good idea, that's probably going to be an unconditional fail. But you'd not do something silly like that, well, we'd hope not. The only other way to fail is to drop out. And there's a bunch of reasons to do that! The biggest ones are not being able to get a good research topic, or to not get a good supervisor.


Maybe I am just bitter because I feel like my PhD was a waste of time (and I did finish), but I feel like doing a PhD is a failure in itself.

On HN a lot of people seem interested in Doctoral study and seem to praise it as a good thing, but I am wondering, are there many people out there who found their years of a PhD helped them much on their start-up?

I feel my years of PhD study and the degree have not helped much.


I think that my case is unusual, but I did a comp sci PhD, writing a dissertation on relational databases, and it's been extremely useful. I pursued the PhD because I liked writing software and wanted to study it more. No plans about academe or industry. Just seemed like a good idea at the time.

The PhD has helped in a few ways:

- I've been doing database-related startups for 20+ years, and my deep understanding of database technology has proven very useful. I could have gained some of this insight by working, but I think this path has led to a broader and stronger foundation.

- On a couple of projects, my actual dissertation subject has been relevant.

- While a PhD was off-putting to employers at my first startup (understandable, since it was also my first actual software job, and they had no evidence that I actually wanted to write software and was capable of doing so); once I got past that, the title was occasionally a useful thing to put out there. (On one occasion, I was asked to write a paper for an industry group with "lots of symbols".)

- Contacts with the academic world of databases that have come in handy over the years.


but I am wondering, are there many people out there who found their years of a PhD helped them much on their start-up?

sorry for the snarky comment, but i'm pretty sure 10000% of HNers will agree that a Ph.D. is definitely an anti-prereq for doing a start-up; in fact, it's probably the worst use of your time if your goal is to found a start-up (UNLESS you want to develop your Ph.D. thesis into a start-up, which is hard, since what is popular in research and what makes $$$ are largely uncorrelated).

that's like spending 3 years earning a law degree and then complaining that it didn't help you with your goal of becoming an Olympic swimmer


I was under the impression that it could help in getting people to take you seriously, although this might apply more to consulting than startups.


From the experiences of people I know, it helps if your startup is either capital-intensive (think building a chip) or is solving a really hard technical problem (think Google, DNA sequencing, or auto-parallelizing compilers). In those cases, the fact that you ostensibly advanced human knowledge in some small way serves as a predictor that you might be able to do it again, which inspires confidence. If your startup doesn't fall into either category -- and most don't -- it's less helpful.


I think what I find annoying/confusing is that on HN articles that have to do with PhDs are voted up and people are generally pretty positive about PhDs, rather than emphasizing that they are a waste of time to people interested in start-ups.

HN doesn't seem like the appropriate place for PhD info.


HN is no longer just Startup News, as it used to be. Topics which are of intellectual merit appeal both to startup founders as well as to PhD students. Hence the large number of PhD HNers and generally rosy picture of PhDs.

But I agree with the grandparent that getting a PhD is somewhat opposed to doing a startup (although you need many of the same skills for both).


Have you considered that some of us might like to cure diseases, build intelligent systems, or transform our energy mix? Not everybody is interested in trying to build websites.


Really, I think if you look at successful startup founders and the various other folks getting rich in the startup community ( VCs, CEOs, serial board members and angels) then folks with PhDs are vastly over-represented.

I could come up with a list, but I'd hate to turn this into a duelling-list thread. Still, start poking into the backgrounds of successful folks and I think you'll be surprised how many have a long-neglected "Dr" in front of their names.


I just got back from two weeks off of my PhD studies due to burnout, and did some serious thinking about quitting in favor of entering the small business and/or startup world because I still felt burned out. I realized that we've got some projects in flight that aren't finished and that I want to see through, because I stand to improve my reputation considerably if things go well, but if I leave now, I'm throwing out all the investment in those projects to this point.


Isn't that an example of the sunk-cost fallacy?


No. I stand to gain more than the opportunity cost of staying.


I believe the resilience, critical thinking/reading and ability to keep going are benefits I've had. Less so the actual research output.


I feel left out:

#11. Start a startup while doing the PhD.


I almost mentioned that. I did start-ups my last year in grad school (and for the year after I graduated). It almost killed my Ph.D.

Now that I'm a prof, I'm actually recruiting locals in start-ups to come get a Ph.D. with me. I feel like folks that can excel at a start-up can also excel at a Ph.D.

I also assert that someone with a start-up mentality should be able to get a Ph.D. much faster than a "regular" Ph.D. student.

The razor-sharp focus that a start-up needs is perfect for blasting through a Ph.D.

I'm looking for ways to make the two experiences synergistic and complementary instead of antagonistic.


Some universities are better at this than others. My alma mater, University of Bristol, actively encouraged their faculty and students to create startups inside their incubator, giving them a bunch of money (usually alongside other VC AFAIK). You had about a year to pop, if nothing happened you went back to your day job, if it did, the company span out at UoB held onto their equity. I'm sure this is a model you'll see at other top universities such as Stanford.

I'm now at UC Santa Cruz, and despite being 40 minutes from Silicon Valley, I see absolutely zero of this entrepreneurial spirit. The administration is wasting their talent from top to bottom. They had a business plan competition. Top prize: $500. Not an incubation offer. No VCs invited. Nothing.

Even my Computer Science Masters at UoB had a business plan class baked in, and the final project pitch was to a board including the head of CS, the head of the business incubator, another faculty member, and an invited VC. You had to impress all of them to do well. Apparently the VC was the only person who didn't like my pitch :) But UCSC is doing nothing like this anywhere. It's a terrible waste.


How did the process work for you? I'm in exactly the same place. I'm struggling between applying for an academic job now or delaying to pursue a start-up idea for my last year and year after graduation. The academic path is safe and has appeal, but I've been thinking about a startup for the last year and feel somewhat lame giving up on it before I know whether it will work.


This may be good advice for getting a doctorate in ?computer science? -- the author never states his discipline in the article.

It may not be particularly good advice for other disciplines. For example, as a doctoral student in Ecology you would be very lucky to have anything submitted for publication before you take your orals. It takes too long to get set up and start your research, especially if there is a seasonal component, and there are too many dead ends along the way. If you work hard, and with a little luck you may have one or two publishable papers by the time you graduate. Aim for the stars, but the important thing is clearing the trees...


Join a financial institution and get very well paid before finishing. This is the easiest way to fail your Ph.D.


I like the article. A good comprimise between pragmatic cynicism, and good advice.


I really like the term "pragmatic cynicism."



huh. I wish my advisor had been told about this. Before I dropped out, I'm pretty sure the problems I was having in my Ph.D. were mostly because of not doing 1, 2, 3, and 10. And my prof. pretty much pushed us towards 5 (the too soon one) exclusively. Although, to be fair, I was also an expert at 4 and 8. :)


My way:

#1, pick a supervisor who's going to be absent the entire first year and who decides to change your research topic significantly from its proposal to fit in with her own research (yes, I know this is common)

then

#2, decide the real world is more exciting and start working on a startup idea. Whoops. Still, dropping out to do the startup makes me cool like Larry and Sergey, so I'm down with that.


I think Einstein's dissertation is a bad example of a dissertation that was not an immediate superstar. It was. Einstein could have taken this author's advice of stapling together his first three papers. Einstein's considerations about more precise calculations of Avogadro's Number lead directly to his novel technique(at the time!) of using Brownian motion to deduce that photons exist as particles, and not just waves. Then it only took a couple of years for that idea to morph into his famous Annus Miribilis paper On the electrodynamics of moving bodies, from which Special Relativity sprung forth. And the rest was history.


Actually, the Brownian Motion paper concerned the increasingly popular atomic theory, not photons. The photoelectric effect paper used the notion of photons, but it wasn't new and Einstein didn't really believe that photons existed. And special relativity is different from those two entirely. And all those papers were published in the same year. The same year in which he defended his thesis.


Thanks for the clarification!


Professor Might's advice is on the whole good.

I would add:

Academic Jobs. Professor Might suggested that a Ph.D. is good only for an academic career, and I would in part disagree: I got a Ph.D. in engineering where it was solidly in my mind before, during, and since that never did I want an academic career. Actually I did take an academic job for a while as a way to have time better to care for my wife in a long illness, but I regarded the job as a waste of time for all concerned.

The best of my Ph.D. coursework was terrific stuff. And the Ph.D. did confirm to me that I knew how to do research. To me, both of these are the two main pillars of my current attempts to start a successful business.

Long one of the best approaches to progress is to do field crossing: For a career in computer science, either in practice or in research, I would suggest (1) avoiding taking any courses at all in computer science unless just want to waste some time and (2) taking all the best courses could find in the mathematical sciences.

In particular, my view is that now, for the future of computing, computer science has a fatal disease and is nearly dead -- the field is missing any powerful intellectual methodology. The problems in computing remain important, but by a very wide margin the most powerful tools for progress in those problems are just the mathematical sciences.

For how to get a Ph.D., I would recommend: Start with what is fairly clearly an important, apparently not well solved, real problem from outside academics. Then attack the problem with some new work in the form of theorems and proofs with prerequisites in the mathematical sciences.

The usual criteria for publication are "new, correct, and significant": Okay, given where you got the problem and that you did some original work just for that problem, your work is likely "new". For "correct", it is fairly easy to know that theorems and proofs are correct, and it is difficult to argue with them. For "significant", since the real problem was, likely so is your solution.

I brought my own research problem to graduate school. The best coursework in my first year was a BIG help. I did all the actual research independently in my first summer. All my advisors ever did was approve my final work. I recommend this approach.

If a student has done some good research and still has a problem with his advisors, then I'd recommend just publishing the work. Nearly no one in academics wants to argue with the significance of published paper.

I do recommend doing some publishable research while a graduate student. Once in a course I saw a problem that should have been solved but was not solved in the literature. I took out a week, found a crude solution, got the problem approved for a reading course, in the next week found a better solution, and wrote up the work. It was clear that the work was publishable, and, thus, much better than needed for a reading course, and later I did publish it. That work gave me good research credibility and helped me get the rest of my way through graduate school.

For getting a paper published, it can also help if the paper has more prerequisites in the mathematical sciences than any of the reviewers have; this situation can be relatively easy for someone bringing to computer science original work based on the mathematical sciences.

Can this approach to research work? Here's my evidence: I've published several papers in computer science jointly with others, and I've published two papers on my own. One of these two, and the best paper of the lot, really is in computer science. I've never had a paper rejected, and I've never had to make any significant revisions. The two papers where I was the sole author were in relatively good journals.

I was encouraged to publish my dissertation but wanted to sell it and refused to publish it! Again, I've never had any interest in an academic career.

I would take issue with the path suggested for research that a student should start with advanced courses in computer science, read 50-150 papers, and then do some research. That approach is too narrow -- it's nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, and ear to the ground and then trying to do good work in that position. Moreover, in a plowing analogy, will likely break a plow just where the last 50 people did.

For big success in academics, need to do some broadly powerful work. For that, I would suggest picking a direction with a much wider field of view, also starting with a field of computing important outside academics.




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