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.
>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?
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.
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:
Waiting until you're 40 to do your independent, free thinking is a good way to make sure you never do anything original.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Tenured professors. Because they certainly aren't wasting their time teaching.
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.
Edit: "OP" --> "you". Sorry, I didn't realize I was talking with the author. Thanks for the thoughtful reply!
> (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)
> 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.
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.
I was referring to the skill of being able to focus. It's one I ended up learning the hard way.
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 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."
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.