The biggest risk factor I've found for a PhD student is lack of research experience during the undergrad degree.
I've seen it over and over.
A newly-minted bachelor's student without research experience has no preparation for the frustration, isolation, and sense of futility that real researchers face.
When it hits them, many discover they lack the temperament to actually move a research project forward. By then, they will have sunk 2-3 years of their life (or more) and a major amount of prestige into a failed attempt.
If you're an undergraduate and harbor the slightest ambition to get a PhD, drop what you're doing right now and start looking for a research group to join. You're going to need 2-3 years of experience actually doing research to know if it's something you'll enjoy long term.
You may well discover that you don't like what you find. If so, better to know that now than when you're in your late 20s.
If things do work out, you'll have a better idea of what to look for in advisors and schools.
I have known plenty of people who didn't feel like they had the skills (both technical and/or social) to go in to industry so they applied to grad school.
Having said that, the skills required to get a PhD are pretty specialised - it's absolutely not a given that people with PhDs are highly-functioning human beings, or even necessarily capable of holding down a conventional job. They will at a minimum have demonstrated the ability to self-organise, a high level of bloody-mindedness, and some very deep knowledge in a probably very obscure field. But unless you move straight into solo academic research in the same field, that's not the same thing as being trained in any strong sense.
No, but it's possible to just be a research serf to the professor, and the professor will carry you more or less to completion - very little indepenent thought needed. You do need to be able to do lots of (well defined, but tedious) work.
What on earth would you be memorising and for what purpose?
To shift the view, I don't need to be a kinesiologist or nutritionist to work out. By all means, they help, but are not necessary. The "memorization" of repeatedly going to the gym creates the motivation to get better, which motivates learning how nutrition and kinesiology impact performance. The point is there is some degree of "regurgitation of facts" that is necessary for progress.
"To memorize" vs. "To understand" is the core difference in Eastern vs. Western education styles. You need both obviously, but when and where to "memorize" and when and where to "understand" are often debated. My research idea is that more foundation of facts is needed because then you can talk about theory without worrying someone doesn't understand.
(To invoke Bloom Taxonomy) So while I'm not "just memorizing" all these different meta-cognitive theories of how people learn, I need to know them well enough that I can apply them. Once I can apply them, I can evaluate them, and eventually see enough patterns that I can create my own models and theories.
If I had to design a curriculum that wouldn't happen until very late in the process. Start by copying, then modifying, then adding and subtracting elements, then get to wholly original creation.
I also imagine this would cut down on cheating. No more empty page terror, or panic to grab a solution.
I did not imply this. If you looked up every basic result, you'll be demotivated easily.
It does require some memorization.
I also struggled with mental health during my PhD, but there were a lot of compounding factors. The PhD was fuel on the fire, but not the spark.
Now I've transitioned successfully into the "data science" field, so I'm much happier!
Other majors (e.g. accounting, nursing) work much more in their field. There just arent many chem e jobs.
Find someone who got a PhD and works in industry, or who got a PhD and works in an unrelated field, or someone who didn't finish their PhD. More viewpoints will give you a better picture.
Every faculty member I spoke to in undergrad told me very clearly that a PhD was bad for my career, enormously stressful and risky, and led to a faculty job search that was likely to fail. I was told not to pursue it unless I desperately wanted to be a faculty member. The most common advice I got was "don't do it".
This wasn't because I was a shitty candidate. I was accepted to four of the top five schools.
It's a mixed bag whether you will get good advice I guess.
Previous research experience might help, but there still are a number of factors that need to align in order to have a relatively smooth PhD. In my mind, it depends on the quality of your previous research experience, your advisor, and your goals upon graduation.
For my experience in particular, I did two summers of research at an R1 when I was in undergrad. Continuing on that path, I went to graduate school for my PhD. I am five years in; looking back, I was still extremely unprepared for the realities of research. When I did the undergraduate research, my hand was being held by the PhD students I was working under. Sure, I did some interesting stuff, but I received a substantial amount of guidance. Now in graduate school, my PhD advisor is very hands off, and our group tends to work in isolation. I have to push my research forward on my own. It took me years to get used to this, and not feel completely incompetent. My previous research experience was not a good predictor of my life as a PhD student.
In my mind, the best preparation would be to do a thesis-based masters degree and try to publish during that.
All my friends with PhDs are unhappy, and do not enjoy doing research. They are all intelligent, some a little bit creative, and only curious when forced. They are experts of citations (a tease that never gets old to me, sorry) and I’m afraid are most concerned with not being left behind or achieving prestige.
Having had countless long late-night chats with them in empty bars about this, I gather their habits of conformity got them that far and let them down once they were on their own. They consistently think what I’m doing in my life is more interesting than theirs. I think the opposite and would die to be in their shoes.
These friends are all in mathematics or humanities, and for those in humanities, I would especially die to be in their shoes. I recommend them books on a regular basis, collaborate with them on papers for fun, sending loads of notes that get chiselled down to whatever the editor is expected to prefer.
The whole process is nasty from my perspective. A pile of people desperate to wiesel off the next because that’s the skill they were selected for from early on. In my best effort to put bitterness aside, I can only rationally conclude it’s rotten to the core.
To be clear, these are very intelligent people. But, the system of schooling most go through selects fiercely against curiosity at it’s earlier stages. This is only a theory. Feel free to point to research on the topic.
People here are also seemingly very conformist. For the most part, they work extremely long hours, are in hetero-normative relationships, with similar life goals (get a high paying job, buy a house, have kids), they don't do drugs or rarely even drink. If they have any hobbies, it's going to be your typical going hiking and camping sort of deal.
I'm surprised that STEM research doesn't attract more "freaks" and free-thinking people. People who want to challenge assumptions and do things differently, explore new possibilities. Unfortunately, I guess where I am, the main draw is prestige and the possibility of getting a high paying job when you finish.
At least when I was at university, those people generally didn't have the focus to graduate with good grades (or graduate at all for that matter). It's one thing to sit around and talk about all the 'out there' implications of quantum physics. It's an entirely different thing to get your quantum physics course work in on time and study enough to pass the exam.
I get to invent, experiment, learn, and at a vastly faster pace. I'm even working in the same field, solving similar problems to the ones I worked on in school.
There aren't very many startups funding basic research, though.
I think the problem comes more from uncritically accepting standard practices or beliefs, not from just doing something superficially different from others.
Once in grad school the reality of winning grants in 6-12 month cycles meant that the most successful PhD's were really much better at marshaling undergrads and master's students to do their work for them, rather than being elite, creative scientists themselves. I saw a lot of time being wasted tweaking previous research into something 'novel' so we could cite ourselves as much as possible and still put up a good introduction about doing something to improve society.
Ultimately, the lack of long-term vision coupled with a pretty unstable PI made me reconsider the academia route. As an aside, I was doing all of my advisor's "peer-review" of articles, reproducibility is a huge issue, I saw a ton of funky stuff submitted that I personally didn't have the time or budget to check, but couldn't in good faith outright reject, because I was also sending out papers to be reviewed.
Running across an interesting book might feel like gold, makes you imagine research must be gold. You forget about the countless days, months, or years (sometimes even more depressing, decades) spent digging in between the gold veins.
I suffered from much the same disappointment when I started my PhD, after a masters that left me imagining research is a world of fun. Shortly after, I dropped it when I found a job/career that really brought me satisfaction. A move I have done more than once over the years after that.
So I have one advice for people who feel the disappointment of being "stuck" and not knowing what to chase: Consider just the work that passes the threshold for a decent standard of living and then pick the one that fulfills you more, rather that the one that makes others say "wow". Living on "kudos" means you're at the mercy of others to get your satisfaction.
Jeff Schmidt's book "Disciplined Minds" makes a similar argument. I have not read it all, though, so perhaps I should pick it up again.
The book has a good description of the problem, but in my view the author views the process as more political than it necessarily is. I also think the book's solutions are unlikely to help. But I still recommend the book as one of the few on the subject.
Early on the book discusses some data that indicates more highly educated people tend to be more supportive politically of the government than the population in general. (E.g. during the Vietnam war lawyers defending anti-war activists in the US were trying to figure out how to pack juries with people who would be favorable to their clients and discovered that roughly the more educated someone was, the more likely they supported the government and would disapprove of anti war activism)
The book makes the argument that gaining professional credentials is less about gaining knowledge/skills, but more about demonstrating that one can be trusted to work in an organisational and confirm to the assigned goals/ideology of that organisation.
One rough argument made in the book is for workers performing roles with work that can be completely specified by superiors, it's less necessary for workers to demonstrate they can conform to how their employer wants them to think, provided they do the work. For professional roles involving more intellectual work where an employee's day to day tasks cannot be completely specified in advance, it's important for such employees to demonstrate they can think how the organisation wishes them to think, so an important part of training for these roles is essentially political training.
Great summary. I guess my qualm is that this is not necessarily political. I'll admit it often is, but in my field I think people are often dedicated to bad ideas because of what I see as institutional inertia, the sunk cost fallacy, or not liking math, not just politics.
Having never heard of this book, I googled it after your mention and found this:
which immediately convinced me to order a copy. Sounds like fascinating stuff. Thanks for bringing this up!
Thanks for the thoughts, and the other comments here are all very lucid. These points aren’t lost on me, and I expect plenty of truth to them.
And one thing to consider: a researcher's mind is an inquisitive mind that will "dig" even in directions nobody really cares about, don't help humanity, etc.
The one upside of someone else giving the direction is that you can be sure that there will be some concrete benefit from it. The downside is that it's mostly about money and power...
Wiener argues that this often is not true, because the people with the money often have a poor understanding of what's actually important.
To give an example, in my own area of research, my impression is that most industrial folks hate math. They consistently deny the benefit of it. As a theorist who tries hard to do practical work, I find it very irritating for my work to be written off by industry for a bad reason. I went to a conference a few weeks ago, and it was clear that industry folks won't attend my talks, but when I spoke with some of them in private they seemed much more interested in what I knew. It may be mostly an advertising problem, but I still have the math barrier to break through. My mantra now is "math is cheap", which seems to resonate with people who are used to paying tons of money for new experiments which usually don't give you useful information. At the very least I can tell them what sort of experiments would be valuable based on my theoretical understanding.
Ultimately, we need a balance of input from those with money and those with more detailed knowledge. This is what I strive for. At the moment I'd say the vast majority of research is directed from above, so I'd agree with Wiener that we need to move in an individualistic direction.
There is no scientific answer to the questions "Which project to fund? What is good? What is important?", only political, economic, or religious reasons. Science studies for the sake of expanding human knowledge and satisfying curiosity.
What's important for you, the scientist? Finding a cure for Alzheimer or developing a new semiconductor? What's more important for the person funding it?
So I will argue that "having a poor understanding of what's important" in a generally valid conclusion about anyone. And unfortunately I am acutely aware that a scientist might just be curious enough to spend money on studies that will bring no palpable benefit to anyone but his own curiosity sometimes. While this is an admirable academic exercise, is it better than any other study that produces in the end a more palpable result, like money?
I might be to cynical or pragmatic but sometimes there's no going around it. Just recently I read about a new archaeological dig that uncovered a viking toilet and could finally describe their approach to human waste over the centuries. While this definitely increased the total human knowledge, can you imagine a more practical way of spending that money? I can assure you someone a poor understanding of what's actually important could :). Or at the very least you can expect that they will be able to identify the "importance" based on the financial and profitability aspects.
> While this is an admirable academic exercise, is it better than any other study that produces in the end a more palpable result, like money?
You seem to believe that research results in the most revenue when managers and bureaucrats are in control, but I disagree. Wiener's argument is that managers and bureaucrats often don't even accomplish their stated goals (which should be fairly objective) due to their lack of subject knowledge, e.g., in your example, how to increase revenue. Required subject knowledge makes the right path forward invisible to most people. Many people are fond of efficient market type arguments suggesting these things are unlikely, but if the number of eyes who can spot the problem is small, efficient market ideas don't work.
Jacob Rabinow, a prolific inventor, had a list of "laws", and this is one of them, which basically summarizes the problem:
> When a purchaser, who doesn't know the difference between good technology and garbage, orders "good technology," he will always get garbage.
If someone can't tell the difference between good quality research and bad quality research, they'll likely optimize on cost or some other axis and make a poor decision.
I try hard to provide value to industry, but I find that industry folks avoid the sort of theoretical engineering work I do because they don't like math. Again, some of this is a marketing failure on my part, but this is only a fraction of the problem in my view. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.
Some of this seems to stem from managers and bureaucrats not trusting researchers. Yes, many researchers would waste the money, but this to me is similar to managers and bureaucrats wasting money because they don't know what they're doing. I see no reason to be "acutely aware" of researchers' faults but not the faults of managers and bureaucrats. Ultimately we need a hybrid approach, not the largely top-down manager and bureaucrat controlled approach we have right now.
That may be perfectly right but I think we're both right only when taking it to an extreme. A purchaser might as well understand the technology very well. Just as a researcher could be a manager at some point.
The problem lies with "pure" researchers and bureaucrats. They will always see just their way so there's no middle ground. The perfect situation happens just by accident, where the researcher's curiosity happened to intersect with the bureaucrat's ideal money maker. And much of this is down to how each one communicates the expectation: the scientist doesn't know how to state his goal in terms of benefits that the bureaucrat can understand, and the bureaucrat doesn't know how to ask for things in therms that the scientist would understand.
But take the military for example. Their currency is power. And they are perfectly able to drive research in that direction even without being driven by scientists.
And yes, bureaucrats don't trust the researchers with their money. It's because a manager investing in research is like a bet with long odds, where you don't know what exactly you're betting on, and the bookie is a gambler himself. Scientists get guaranteed money without guaranteeing a result. And "worse", a success for the scientist doesn't really mean success for the manager. You are happy you have an interesting result, or a confirmation. The manager is happy if his investment was worth it in terms of time and money.
A more practical example would be if you paid someone to build you a manor and after years of work he comes with a hangar. Unless you're able to monetize on that it's a failure.
Every one of my former colleagues learned to sell their knowledge in terms of benefits a manager understand. It's easier for you to understand their language than for them to understand yours.
Wiener has an entire chapter on this. Research is a gamble by its nature and will rarely ever appear to be a good investment to a bureaucrat or manager. As I recall, Wiener seemed to want to move away from this model towards funding individual researchers with good track records, for this reason and also because management often does not understand what's important. While I do want to provide value to industry, I don't expect them to fund my research because they seem to be allergic to math in my field.
You also seem to be confusing research with development. If someone is asking for a manor, that's not research in my view. If someone is asking for a structure with certain properties and it's not obvious what the answer is immediately, that's research. Research often returns unexpected answers even when done intellectually honestly.
> Every one of my former colleagues learned to sell their knowledge in terms of benefits a manager understand. It's easier for you to understand their language than for them to understand yours.
I try, but it's frustrating when most industry folks lose interest you once you mention basically any math. As you've said, it's a learned skill, which I'm still learning. There are no guarantees, unfortunately.
> Having had countless long late-night chats with them in empty bars about this, I gather their habits of conformity got them that far and let them down once they were on their own. They consistently think what I’m doing in my life is more interesting than theirs. I think the opposite and would die to be in their shoes.
Huh. You'd think they'd just leave academia and go into industry after getting their Bachelors or maybe their Masters.
I mean, I'm fairly uncreative and conformist, but I noped out of college after getting my Bachelors and went right into industry. I'm currently more than happy working at an enterprise telecom in a conservative suburb, and I'm glad I didn't stick around in academia.
The grass is always greener
It does raise a question of how the grass is green, and why it’s on the other side.
Fun fact: The grass on the hillsides in the opening sequence of The Sound Of Music was actually painted by hand. It was worth it for the altitude and the Austrian mountain backdrop.
Are there more accurate ways to measure the importance/impact/relevance of research work?
Edit: To be honest, I got in by telling the graduate advisor that I would rather be in a Masters program there than a PhD program elsewhere.
Why? Some things are hard and those things will by definition have higher dropout rates. The fact that PhD programs have high dropout rates is not necessarily an issue unto itself.
> You're going to need 2-3 years of experience actually doing research to know if it's something you'll enjoy long term.
Is it realistic to expect a college sophomore to know whether or not they want to pursue a PhD program? I wish more undergraduate programs focused on original research but if yours doesn't you may not get any exposure to it until your senior year (if even then).
Don't you need a master's degree to be eligible for a doctorate program?
> If you're an undergraduate and harbor the slightest ambition to get a PhD, drop what you're doing right now and start looking for a research group to join.
How does undergraduates find a research groups to join?
Can't speak for all schools, but NC State accepts bachelors into their Masters and PhD program. While getting your PhD, you have the option to earn an MS "en route".
> How does undergraduates find a research groups to join?
For larger, research-oriented schools, this is as easy as visiting each professor's website. Most will have a link to their current or archived projects and their recent publications. Similar to the joke that you can get any academic paper for free by emailing the professor, the same can happen with research. Ask them about it and if you can join in on any of the on-going projects.
For teaching-oriented schools, this can be a little more difficult. My bachelors program only had 1 (maybe 2) labs, so if that wasn't your interest good luck. You can still do the same process, find a professor in a research area you're interested in and speak to them. There may not be funding, but you could be the spark under that prof's butt to start applying for some grants.
There are 8 or 9 former classmates of mine with PhDs and only one went out of his way to get a Master's prior, and only because it was a much more prestigious institution (Georgetown) than our undergrad (unknown liberal arts college). Everyone else either entered their respective programs directly from undergrad or had industry/life experience first.
At least at most US schools, you do not. Having one helps your chances of being accepted in most cases though
Research fairs like career fairs, or just asking profs from classes you enjoyed - every undergrad I knew in grad school just asked my prof if they could try out research.
Sure, if you are unprepared to do research then you shouldn't do a PhD, but my parents' students are hand picked, and it is very rare that they end up with a student that doesn't want to, or is unprepared to do research.
Being a PhD student should be one of the most fun parts of an academic career. You get to focus on your research, and are mostly removed from the politics and stress of securing funding. You aren't constantly being barraged by requests to review papers or having your time used up by a myriad of other responsibilities.
I guess it is totally possible that the corner of academia that I grew up around (ocean sciences at a lab removed from the main campus) is an outlier, but my impressions of getting a PhD were always positive, and the reason I never did it was because the part after your PhD seemed like it sucked.
* dropped out (some changed field completely)
* failed to pass their defense
* were miserable until they obtained their PhD
* managed to obtain their PhD after a looooong time and a lot of financial trouble. After that followed a long quest to look for a job (humanities).
* was uber successful and loved it
Note that these are people I know from all over the world, not just one country or one school.
The one guy that was uber successful absolutely loved what he was doing. The others either did not have the passion, or found out later that they did not enjoy doing research that much, or worse loved it but could not afford being poor.
This is the absolute most most important thing. I could have taken an increased scholarship however I would be bound to researching what the top-up provider wanted. Instead I opted to be on a base level scholarship but I got to choose exactly what path I wanted to take.
This is definitely not normal in the humanities. Want to continue working next year? Win this annual contest for your subfield that 800 other people are also applying for. It will cover your costs for 5 months if you win, after you spend an entire month preparing your submission for it. Didn't win this time? I guess you'll have to spend 20 hours per week every week on course prep readings and grading essays for the next six months. Good luck getting your research done at the same time.
Humanities PhDs also on average take significantly longer than STEM PhDs. 7 years post BA is normal in the humanities. 5 years post BS is normal in STEM. Guess where all that extra time goes.
It's because DARPA and Dow Chemical don't drop $30 million on your advisor for Enlightenment history.
If only there was some way to investigate your statement. Like some sort of study that went for a few years and produced a report...
"Many academics enter science to change the world for the better. Yet it can often feel like contemporary academia is more about chasing citations. Most academic work is shared only with a particular scientific community, rather than policymakers or businesses, which makes it entirely disconnected from practice.
This new PhD would see students go out into the field and talk to practitioners from day one of their research, rather than spending the first year (or more) reading obscure academic literature."
So... do industry research? Let's be clear: a PhD is a training program for research. As such most research done during a PhD is generally not that impactful, certainly not to go beyond fellow academics and to non experts. In my experience most people who go into it don't have much of an idea of what they want to do afterward -- they mainly know they enjoy research and are interested in the topic. AFTER a PhD is finished they can go on and try to influence society using their skills, or not.
Exactly this. The primary skill developed during a PhD (for me, and those around me), is knowing the difference between:
1. solutions that can be pulled from literature (bake),
2. solutions that should be easy to assemble from existing solutions (buy),
3. what technology requires a small-to-medium delta above and beyond the bleeding edge (build)
All those are research, but far too often (3) is what everyone targets.
> Mental health issues are rife: approximately one-third of PhD students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder like depression.
The baseline percentage of the population which experience depression (and other mental illness) each year is known to be pretty high -- and highest in for people in their 20's. One third sounds fairly normal; at any rate, there is a burden here to show that this is an exceptional proportion.
> For instance, a PhD in Germany is supposed to take three years, according to university regulations, but most students need five years to complete one.
If you are starting from an undergraduate degree, you probably need at least two years to take the PhD intro classes. One year to start a research program might work in a subject like the author's where your papers are chats about social implications, but there are plenty of subjects where even the data collection is going to take longer than that.
> In the US, meanwhile, the average completion time for a PhD in education sciences surpasses 13 years.
These programs are dominated by people who are working teachers, working on PhDs part-time.
> One study found that for every 200 people who complete a PhD, only seven will get a permanent academic post and only one will become a professor.
Being a professor is only one possible goal and for some fields, it isn't even the primary one.
1/3 is not normal at all.
My peers who went onto get PhDs without going to industry were... different. Not necessarily super smart, but not the best socially or in leadership positions.
I can think of 3 people that were getting their PhDs in engineering, but I thought they were average students at best. One was an average to below average working with me on labs. Another was just a goofy weirdo, I couldnt be friends with him because he'd shoo me away. Another was somewhat a brainiac, but to a fault, He'd get As, but didnt really have friends from what I could tell.
I imagine lots of this is correlation not causation, and that things are different at big names schools.
That can very well mean 1/3 of Americans get depression over their entire lives, and a PhD program would seem like the time to get it.
I don't know if you've been through a PhD program, but as someone who has, it's really difficult to explain the pressures and stress that you encounter during it to someone who hasn't.
In Germany, you need a Master's with the coursework done before starting a PhD.
Outside of the US, I don't think most PhD students take 'classes'. In Europe a PhD is purely a research degree.
There has been a study in Belgium that showed that Grad students had a relative risk of psychological disorder scored according to a questionnaire used to decide whether psychological/psychiatric care is needed were about 5x times more at risk than the general population, even when matched for the age, education attainment and several other known common confounding factors for mental health disorders. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004873331...
> If you are starting from an undergraduate degree, you probably need at least two years to take the PhD intro classes. One year to start a research program might work in a subject like the author's where your papers are chats about social implications, but there are plenty of subjects where even the data collection is going to take longer than that.
In Germany, you need a master's to start a PhD, as such your classes load is minimal...
> Being a professor is only one possible goal and for some fields, it isn't even the primary one.
Not according to the professors mentoring you. That's changing, but the normal consideration is that if you are not on a tenure track, you are a failure. If you acknowledge it, quite often you will lose the support of your PI and your peers.
I don't think this applies well to all fields of study. I have my Ph.D. in physics and there are loads of people researching problems that don't really have counterparts "in the field." I'm assuming "in the field" means industry or possibly a government service. I would think the same is true for mathematics at least.
>I research how to mitigate the social impact of hydropower dams.
Of course in this case, contact with people in the industry makes lots of sense. In fact, I'm not sure how this research would be conducted without this contact.
I certainly have gripes with academia but I don't think there is a monolithic motivation for students. For me, I think of academia as having the goal of advancing human understanding of the universe. Whether or not that has a social impact is probably up to some debate. I believe that one of the cool things about academia is allowing some people the ability to pursue ideas and work on problems that don't have obvious, short-term impacts.
Well, there is chasing funding. In your area of the universe, does the money follow worthwhile problems?
I was trying to say that I believe there is value or at least there can be value in the advancement of human understanding without it being tied to a social or business outcome. It seemed that the main thesis of this article was implicitly denying that value by stating that Ph.D.'s should be required to show the real-world impact of their work.
As others said, the Ph.D. students themselves don't really "chase funding" but their options are a result of chased funding, I suppose.
>A PHD should be about improving society, not chasing the metric which we measure to check if you are improving society.
It seems to be Campbell's law in action. Of course you can determine a different metric to use, or just tune the current metric some, but you'll eventually see the same problems emerge, maybe worse, maybe better.
I also think this issue shouldn't be viewed in isolation of other related issues, such as how the current system discourages reproducing the research of others and of publishing trivial results (we tested to see if we found this unexpected thing and we didn't).
Figuring how who is a good scientist, given that some theoretical good scientist could spend a decade chasing down an issue that ended up being nothing, is not an easy problem to solve. Tenure is one attempt to fix it, but it largely just re-frames the problem into deciding which scientists deserve tenure.
>Take my example. I research how to mitigate the social impact of hydropower dams. My core paper on this topic has been cited three times so far. I read in the promotions guidelines at my university that if I want to be promoted from assistant to associate professor I need to accumulate significant citations. As a result, I have now published a paper in which I reviewed 114 definitions of a current academic buzzword, circular economy, to propose the 115th definition of this term.
>In academic terms, this paper is a hit: it’s been cited 39 times since its publication. It is in the top 3% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric, a tool measuring a paper’s influence among academics on social media. People I’ve never met before come up to me at conferences to congratulate me. But I’m not celebrating: this paper symbolises everything that’s broken in the academy. Academics love definitions, not solutions.
This feels like the pure distilled essence of Campbell's law.
Why is this about the author's feelings? There are plenty of links in the piece to underlying data sources, and these show that the problems mentioned don't vary a lot by discipline. For instance: http://phdcompletion.org
As the author points out, it’s doing a decent job destroying itself.
Unfortunately, the social impact factor has been creeping in, in the form of more 'applied research' funding which is not fundamental and does not move scientific knowledge forward. The government has limited role in funding applied research, since industry is better positioned to understand what applied research is important and has a strong incentive to fund it.
Academia is imperfect, but the genius of the system is that letting scientists chase down interesting things does end up improving society dramatically in the long run.
The professors wanted to push their own ideas rather than my own. I knew the problems I wanted to solve were highly desired as I was getting hundreds of people visiting my website a day.
The two professors were pushing that the PhD process would teach me how to research, but I realized that I would be the professor's tool.
I talked to someone I looked up to, while he wasnt incredibly successful, he told me that- I was ready to do something, I no longer needed school.
I'm very thankful, I had a bachelors and masters degree in engineering fields with industry experience. I had products people were paying money for. The PhD didnt seem like it would be as valuable as 2-6 years of working on my website or other projects.
My take- If you arent going to work, school can force you to work hard. If you are already inspired, you are ready for life, go go go.
Many people share your view, though, and it's a shame. We have all of private industry to focus on short term benefits. Grad school is one place where the grinding expectation of immediate return-on-investment can be suspended. PhD students take low compensation hoping they can use curiosity and passion to direct their research. Increasingly, that's not the case.
>> appreciate the fact that the public is giving you grants and funding because the alternative is you get nothing.
This is cutting off the hand to spite the face. Taxpayers get an _unbelievable bargain_ for the work of PhD students and postdocs. Gutting research funding won't hurt them for long, they'll easily move on to much higher paying work, it's future society that will suffer.
I'd argue you get the best and most significant contributions to society in the long run with stable government funding of basic research. Don't believe me? Ask Steven Chu, Nobel Prize winner and energy secretary:
"letting scientists chase down interesting things" as per the OP's comment is how the "human knowledge base" grows in the first place.
Besides, who would decide what research is useful to pursue, other than the experts in a given field? If you don't really understand a research subject, how can you figure out whether it's useful or not?
A PhD is a degree in doing research. When students start, it is true that many think they want careers in academia. Many then realize that academia isn't what they want after a few years in and seeing how their advisors live, realizing salaries are lower, and realizing how competitive it is. There are plenty of amazing career doors that open with a PhD besides being an academic... any career that requires the ability to conduct, interpret, and/or communicate research.
The comments about meeting practitioners are pretty foreign to my experiences doing a PhD (in AI) and being a scientist. If anything, when I meet people in industry they often think non-practical research isn't worth doing even if it might have long-term value.
I think the author would agree, although he is making the distinction between impact in academic circles vs impact in society. His claim is that impact in academic circles has become out of touch with impact in society.
> If anything, when I meet people in industry they often think non-practical research isn't worth doing even if it might have long-term value.
Is there a way to measure how much non-practical research ends up having long-term value? Intuitively, the marginal utility of a 115th definition of a circular economy doesn't seem worth the academic man power yet that is what the author is being incentivized to work on because citation culture in academia.
These seem like different questions to me. There are plenty of ways to "pursue a career in science" that don't involve academia.
Writing a PhD is a very ambitious endeavor. You will inevitably have your downs and crises, because research is hard. This is independent of the research topic. Now asking that the PhD thesis should not only advance research, but also 'improve society' will only increase the pressure.
The author also has the purpose of a PhD wrong: this is your research journeyman time, and delivering the PhD thesis is like creating your masterpiece as craftsman (in the original meaning where you create a fine piece of work which earns you the right to call yourself master of a craft). The real, unsupervised research career starts after PhD. This also means that it would be a very bad idea to start with high-risk research. Do this as PostDoc, when you have acquired all the necessary skills.
Not focusing on publications is the worst advice one can give aspiring academics. Research is about advancing shared knowledge, and the only way to do this is to share your results. If you don't manage to publish, either your results are not relevant, or your work is not considered sound by your peer researchers. Successful publishing in reputable venues validates your research, and is the most effective way to disseminate new insights. I agree that the publishing system is broken. You have to work around that by choosing the right venues. This is another academic skill you need to learn.
If you really want to improve society and feel insufficient if you 'only' improve your research field, then don't pursue a research career. Better go work for some non-profit organization, or found one.
I'm not being facetious here. Politics is one of the primary avenues of bringing about social change. Ditto civil service.
A PhD should be about novel contributions that increase the sum total of human knowledge.
I agree that we should prioritise STEM, but within STEM the research areas should be decided by the scientists themselves.
However, these “kudos” are the principle measure of academic ability/productivity used by those making hiring and funding decisions so...barring a top-down change, we are stuck with them.
And what does it mean to improve society? Basic biomedical science rarely promises improvements, but has given us revolutionary technologies (the structure of DNA, the genetic code, cloning, transgenic animals, etc, etc). The essence of basic science is that you do not know what you are going to learn, or whether it will be useful. You cannot plan unimagined discoveries.
Should graduate students start doing "research" sooner? That is certainly the standard in biomedical research, where very few courses are required. But the consequence is that students know a lot about what they have done, and very little about other disciplines. How does a graduate student in biology become a computational biologist without learning programming and algorithms?
The comments about having research experience are spot-on. And many of the frustrations people describe could be reduced by learning more about one's advisor before joining the group.
The university where I am currently doing my PhD has a very heavy focus on the outputs of a PhD contributing something worthwhile not only to academia but also to industry or the world. It isn't a massively high ranking university but it does force academics to think practically as well as theoretically. We are required to have an industry (non-academic) advisor on our supervisory panel who helps guide the research so it can be useful and not just gather dust once finished.
But I still think some people should be isolated from the daily torment of humanity to push us forward. Maybe we just need less PHD.
The (sometimes literally) million-dollar question is: how do you align incentives to bring about that desired end-state? Ph.D's are not unique in struggling with this age-old conundrum; if the government is willing to pay for robotics research for drone warfare but nobody is putting up the cash to pay for nursing-care robot research, then we can make some pretty firm predictions what kind of robots we'll see mature and reliable in twenty years.
The evaluation of whether "general good" is advanced when answering a scientific question is subjective. Might I remind you that our foundations of probability - a pillar of mathematics and more - was furthered with the intention of winning gambling games? Or that our understanding of the limits of human physiology - how much force a skull can withstand, time before death under hypothermia - was furthered by Nazi scientists at the expense of Jews and other minorities?
While born out of sin, these two examples of science unequivocally better the "general good" - now...
And even some reputable programs will let some people "buy their way" if they don't qualify as for a fellowship/funding.
- it was incredibly political, much, much more than companies I worked at.
- most students were just trying to tweak some equations and get the hell out of that place.
Overall it was a very unhealthy environment and wasnt worth It.
Academic kudos translates directly to money (tenure, research funding) and power (gatekeeper positions) and that makes it microeconomics problem. Highly competitive person with high scientific achievement may not be the best person to judge and distribute kudos of others.
We should find a way to quantify kudos distribution to create good incentives. Researchers should get impact factor for mentoring, accepting papers to journals or giving voting for tenure to others who produce high impact studies after they get the tenure.
"Improving society" as academia's objective will have its own set of misaligned incentives, potentially much worse than the pursuit of "academic kudos". How would this be measured?
I just finished my Bachelor's and am starting my Master's this month. I have no formal research experience, but I planned to dive in during my Master's. For anyone who has done/is doing there PhD, if there is any advice you all could give me in order to get the most out of this next year before I apply for PhD programs, that would be great.
With that perspective, it doesn't matter much on what specific problem you start your research. Instead, find out which research groups are doing amazing work in the area you would like to work. And apply there.
To identify these groups, read a lot of papers in your favorite research area.
Do you already know your area of interest? This would be tremendously helpful for trying to pick an advisor.
It sounds like a very important role of your coursework will be to get a more refined idea of what research you'd like to perform. I'd recommend taking classes in each of your areas of interest. The more advanced classes might give you a better idea of research in that area. These are probably the classes the PhD students will be taking.
I think a goal of 2-3 publications in one year is pretty lofty, but it depends how motivated you are and how much work you have to put into each of those publications. I think one solid publication (long paper, good conference/journal) will already give you a substantial edge in PhD admissions. This is a good goal; if you can do more, all the better! But I would hate for you to feel like you didn't meet your goal, and not be satisfied with one publication. Honestly, even if you go through the trouble of submitting a paper and it gets rejected, that is still an incredibly valuable learning experience.
Feel free to email / google hangouts me at adam.r.drescher (at) gmail (dot) com if you have more detailed questions, want my perspective during your graduate school experience, etc. I'm happy to help.
I think part of the problem is people jumping straight into PhD without any research experience. I watched quite a few students struggle when taking this road.
I do agree that it's a problem if grad school costs money, but a large stipend is only really available in STEM or medicine.
 Not just "in my day"-ism. According to "We the corporations", demonstrating this was originally part of the legal requirement for many governments' approval of articles of incorporation.
By that metric, most fundamental discoveries in the last 200 years would not have been enough to finish a PhD.
Even Hamming's error correcting codes took 10+ years for Bell Labs to implement it. And even then it was because they had no other alternatives and were in a bind.
Measuring the utility of academia is futile. If anything should be said about utility it is that empirically, the average ROI on academia from the point of view of The State is always net positive: economically, culturally, socially, etc.
I think it is worth taking a hard look at the value all of this mathematical research actually produces.
I understand how number theory has been useful to cryptography. I understand how branches of pure math can have a surprising influence.
But when these examples are given by pure mathematicians, it often strikes me as anecdotal and motivated reasoning. Where are the hard numbers? Where is the cool-headed evaluation?
They very much want the NSF to continue giving them grants so they can keep funding their mathematical interests. Because it personally and immediately benefits them.
It may be true that 80% of the mathematical research that is valuable to society is done by 20% of mathematicians. In this case, not much can be lost by reducing research funding.
This is how I look at it: Funding mathematical research means your society is wealthy. When the vast majority aren't worried about putting food on the table, it is a privilege when you can get paid by them to pursue your mathematical hobby. A hobby that has some relatively low chance of impacting society.
> It may be true that 80% of the mathematical research that is valuable to society is done by 20% of mathematicians. In this case, not much can be lost by reducing research funding.
, you can probably get 80% of the return by cutting the right 80% of research; but, if you cut the wrong 80%, then you might be left with just the 20% return on the remaining 20% of work, or 4%.
(Also, there're lots of ways to cut the wrong 80%, and only one way to cut the right 80%.)
I don't know what the exact figure is, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was less than 25% of math PhDs who go on to get a research job in math. How much are we funding these students here? I was on the receiving end of some NSF money for a semester. Was it worth it for the NSF? I barely contributed much. Granted paying a grad student is relatively cheap. But I wouldn't hold it against the NSF if they were more stingy.
It may be that we really are funding the right amount and the benefits to the whole ecosystem are great. But I want someone to give a cool-headed discussion of the numbers, not some vague persuasiveness motivated by job security.
On average, maybe … but, if we just axe those at NSU 145, then we're definitely not going to be funding the proof of the bounded-gaps conjecture. Now, Zhang managed to prove it anyway (https://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2013/05/bounded_gaps_be...), but who knows how many people at small universities have a big proof in them, if they could only get the funding to have time to explore it?
(I would also argue that this is dangerously close to the point of view that big companies obviously know something about doing business successfully, so the best way to save government money spent on business is to cut out small-business loans.)
> I don't know what the exact figure is, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was less than 25% of math PhDs who don't go on to get a research job in math.
Did you flip a 'not' there? I suspect that it's the other way around, that less than 25% of math Ph.D.s do get a research job in math, or perhaps even worse. (At least, that's if by "research job in math" you mean "academic job in math with research expectations"; if you count industrial research, then maybe I believe it.)
(And yeah, I accidentally added a "not" there. Will edit.)
Well, sure, and that's my point; there will be outliers. They'll probably have some indicators, like coming from good schools, or prior good work, even if they are currently in lower-ranked places. Every time an outlier comes along, one can certainly retroactively find something that reveals all along that he or she was going to excel; the challenge is finding the people with this potential in advance. (You don't want to fund only the people who have done good work; eventually you'll just get an unduly privileged class of people who did a lot of good math now and no longer can.) So we should have some way of finding these outliers by evaluating their academic history and apparent future potential … and that's a grant committee. (Hey, I hate to find myself defending them! I'm an academic and grant writing is low down on my list of favourite things to do; but it's better than being told that, since I'm not at Princeton, I won't even get a chance to seek funding.)
> From what I followed when his proof came out, there were actually very similar ideas being developed by Terry Tao at UCLA and by a PhD student at Oxford.
I don't know about the Ph.D. student at Oxford, but (although I can't find it now) I am pretty sure I remember reading a post on Terry Tao's blog in which he was much more charitable than this; essentially, his view (I believe, though I can't find it) was that commonalities could be found between his work and Zhang's, as there always can between even the most revolutionary work and its predecessors, but that Zhang's work represented a genuinely new idea and huge step forward.
RSA took essentially from the dawn of recorded mathematics (Euclid) to about 70 years ago; it's now the prototypical example (second, perhaps, to Riemannian geometry) of apparently "purely pure" mathematics that turned out to have applications. I think that's an excellent argument for taking the long view.
Yeah, it's hard to quantify the value of research. I want research to be funded too. But I prefer some quantification over none at all.
Obviously, it would be nice to fund only things that are eventually useful, but this is virtually impossible to predict in advance so....we fund a bunch of things and see what works. (Also, math is shockingly cheap compared to lab sciences so it makes even more sense to spread the bets widely.)
The number theory that makes up the basis of cryptography was established in the 1700s. For example, Euler's theorem is the basis of RSA and was proven in 1763. The theorem is a small generalization of Fermat's little theorem which was known (but not proven) in 1640. These theorems are really just simple facts about groups and other cryptosystems, such as elliptic curve cryptosystems, are essentially the same facts except the multiplicative group of integers is replaced with an elliptic curve group.
These concepts could be taught to advanced high school students with no formal pure mathematical training. The "hot" areas in modern mathematics require not only an additional 4 years of undergraduate mathematics but usually ~2 years of a PhD program to begin to understand the current papers.
This is extremely different from other fields such as theoretical computer science which seems to have applications almost immediately. Even professional mathematicians likely do not research in hopes of applications hundreds of years later.
I will not claim that modern mathematics cannot possibly have applications. I will, however, claim that pure mathematics is an extremely poor way to allocate funds if you are simply looking for a return on investment in terms of "useful theorems proved per dollar". Mathematics research should be justified by stating that people trained in pure mathematics can be useful in industry, other applied fields or to teach mathematics.
I want careful, level-headed arguments justifying research in swath of pure math fields. Give me numbers, give me details. Not just vague anecdotes. It may be worth the cost, but I don't want that taken for granted.
As opposed to more important pursuits, such as advertising.
The entire field of computing was invented by pure mathematicians like Turing and Church working in the 1930s. At the time, no one had any idea what the applications, if any, would be.
It's like any science. Some work has immediate applications. Other work is pure exploration of the unknown.
And it is pure exploration of the unknown that leads to the truly revolutionary discoveries. You can't set out to discover penicillin when you don't even know it exists.
Saying that Turing and Church "invented computing" is too vague of a justification. I want numbers and details. Folks like Babbage were already thinking procedurally in practical enough terms that once the technological capability (not the theoretical capabilities) caught up, algorithms like the FFT could be discovered and put to use.
Turing's work was so important that he, not Babbage, is generally recognized as the founder of computer science.
One example of the importance of Church's work is Lisp. Church's lambda calculus is the foundation of Lisp, which pioneered nearly all the features of modern programming languages . The designer of Smalltalk, Alan Kay, called it "the greatest single programming language ever designed"  and talked about its influence on Smalltalk quite a bit .
And your example, the Fourier transform, was itself a mathematical tool long before the first computer was built, and the first published FFT algorithm also dates from the 1930s. 
I strongly, strongly disagree. A PhD should be about science. Not about utility for society. I am pretty sure that Max Planck did not think about the utility of computers when he proposed this completely absurd, little mathematical trick of discretising energy. Still, without quantum theory: no computer, no laser, no magnetic resonance imaging...and I could go on forever.
Progress in science is necessarily chaotic - if you disallow incoherence, absurdity, non-applicability, you will kill science. The author is conceptualizing "science" (maybe he talks about engineering and not science?) only as a tool of problem solving for the society - that is actual the role of science in Orwell's "1984" and that was the role of science to a certain extent in socialism. By making science teleological, one makes science ready for totalitarian abuse. Thank you very much!
By the way, comparing PhD systems from different countries is absolutely rubbish. In Germany, it is already rubbish to compare PhDs from different faculties from the same university....
It's such an absurd assertion when you consider that different people have different ideas on how to improve society.