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Ask YC: How to survive grad school?
86 points by grad_student_ 3068 days ago | hide | past | web | 50 comments | favorite
I've been amazed how helpful people have been here to career advice questions earlier, so as I feel I have hit rock-bottom today, I give it a try myself (I am a regular poster, but anonymous this time). I guess others might be in similar situation, so discussing this might be helpful.

I have always dreamed of becoming a scientist. I always loved maths, sciences, puzzles, theory but also programming and engineering. To illustrate this, I would say that probably I look up to Sergei and Larry more for inventing PageRank, than for building up their company, although I'm interested in the workings of the economy as well, but more at an abstract level.

So getting accepted into grad school in one of the top labs in its field seemed like a dream come true. I really admire some of the professors and postdocs in the lab. Many of them have achieved ground-breaking theoretical results in the past and their groups have produced a great number of widely cited papers, surveys, useful toolboxes, etc. I was anxious to take part in similar work, however small my contribution would be.

I was even excited when I was told that I will work on a newly started, well-funded, "interdisciplinary" project, that will greatly impact people's lives. Well, I was suspicious of the buzz-wordiness initially, but how could I not trust the judgment of such smart people. After almost a year, it is fair to say that I have good view of the project and it is almost surely a giant failure. I am completely burnt out and have given up all hope of getting any meaningful work done in this project. It does not solve any real problem, there is no potential for any good science within it and no-one has the slightest idea what it is about and where it should progress. I can't say exactly what it is, but in scope it could be imagined as similar to the EU-funded Google competitor that has been widely ridiculed before.

On the surface everything still looks good, we have plenty of meetings, senior group members travel to conferences to project partners, we have an active wiki, we make demos from time-to-time, the reviewers are happy, funding is good, etc. etc. However, I find it the most soul-crushing experience to continue working while pretending that the whole thing is getting anywhere. Any attempt I made to point out ways how it could be made more practical have been ridiculed, or even trying to question some of the assumptions have met aggressive reactions from the professor, so I have given up.

Watching my collegues I have noticed different kinds of behavior. Some of them are smart and realize what is going on but they have become cynical and play along, trying to get their own stuff done on the side. Others are just too incompetent to notice something is wrong, and are happy to have a good place where they can surf the net the whole day, while pretending to be scientists. Some of my collegues are completely clueless about programming or engineering, but having good observations, comments on meetings, being generally friendly goes a long way. I have to mention that this is in a place where tuition is free, grad-school pays about 60-70% of what one could earn in the industry at the moment, so it is a safe choice financially. Not much is expected of anyone, I guess if I wouldn't turn up for a few days in a row, no-one would notice.

So what do you guys suggest I should do? I have given up getting anything useful in this project, but still research is my main dream. Is there hope of better in a different grad-school or project ? How can you tell from the outside ? Is this frustration common or is there actually a way to get honest theoretical work done in grad-school ? I consider myself a hacker as well, so working at a start-up or big co. would both be an option, but I would still most love to work in research, in the idealized way that I imagine it. (find elegant solutions to difficult problems that have wide-reaching implications). Should I ignore the environment and just try to set my own research agenda ? Is it possible to do research outside of academia ? (I'm a bit afraid of becoming a crackpot publishing papers on perpetual motion machines on arxiv :-) ? Have you been in similar situation ? How did you manage ?

Sorry for the long rant, and thanks for any suggestion...




This post is important and I think that your feelings echo those of many thousands of graduate students.

Let me talk a little bit as a rare case: I've worked now under 7 advisors on 7 different projects and now I'm finally almost done. Most of the projects have been as you describe: "after almost a year, it is fair to say that I have good view of the project and it is almost surely a giant failure."

That's how most projects are. I'm not sure why, but I think it has to do with the fact that the projects are "planned research." The process of getting funding requires planning something that is intrinsically impossible to plan. You write a grant on hope, with the large picture in mind and then you get down to the details and things don't work out. This is normal.* Especially on the time frame of a new graduate student, it seems terrible.

To some extent, though, the system works. It does so for the same reason that some startups work: because as you look at the details you find new things that you couldn't have predicted. Those new things are your research. I'm working on a "failed project." But after 1.5 years working on it I am ready to begin writing a dissertation that I am proud of. Why? Because I found neat things along the way. That's how it works.

If you are in a good lab and surrounded by good people, I would recommend that you don't focus as much on the larger project as on learning all you can from the people around you and on understanding the details that your project will lead you to focus on. It is in helping other people, tracking down details, and playing with interesting questions that you will find the great science, not directly through the success of the larger project.

By the time I finish, I will have learned a lot. But I will have spent almost 8 years in graduate school, 2 for a masters in one field and almost 6 for a PhD in another field. If I had had my current perspective from the beginning I would have been a little more patient and I might thereby have saved myself three years. So there is a cost to hopping around even if there are benefits in terms of perspective.

Best wishes.

*I know of one exception. He explained his system: he does the research, then he gets grants for his research. This gives him time to do new research and he writes new grants based on that. He delivers because he only proposes to do what he has already more or less done!


I know of one exception. He explained his system: he does the research, then he gets grants for his research. This gives him time to do new research and he writes new grants based on that. He delivers because he only proposes to do what he has already more or less done!

That is brilliant! It reminds me of two things.

One is Craig Larman's work on the history of the waterfall process. Larman posed the question: given how broken the waterfall process is, how was it possible for any project to succeed? (The failures of course are easy to explain.) So he went back and interviewed people who were on famous waterfall projects that succeeded. And they told him: "Of course we knew it would never work to do all the design up front. So we built the system and then went back and wrote the spec, handed it in and got it signed off, and later submitted the actual code."

The other thing it reminds me of is Andrew Wiles writing a stack of papers in advance so he would have ten years to work on Fermat's Last Theorem while still publishing regularly.


That's what I decided to do a week ago in one of my classes. I have to write three analyses of other people's work every week on Blackboard, so I will create 4x3x2=24 insightful posts, then post one at a time from a nearby computer lab on the days of the lectures. I think the professor is looking for regular frequency per week, and not on whether we are commenting on work that was put up that same week or weeks ago. And while I copy-paste, if I notice a brand-new interesting work, I might write an analyses about it right on the spot, so as not to have every one of my analyses be about work from October.


"To some extent, though, the system works. It does so for the same reason that some startups work: because as you look at the details you find new things that you couldn't have predicted. Those new things are your research."

I think this used to be true when grants were small, and groups were scrappy and independent. However, today the funding agencies are pushing mega-projects; gigantic labs and "collaborative" research dominate the landscape, and the tendency is toward "million-monkey" results -- throw enough randomly pecking monkeys at any problem, and something good will probably emerge. This is a good career strategy if you're a PI, but it's not so hot if you're a monkey.

My advice to the OP is to get out while there's still time: switch to a different group, and start over. In your first year of grad school you're (probably) independently funded, so it's easy to do, and there isn't much of an intellectual tie to whatever work you've been doing. You also know a lot more about what to look for in a PI and a research program. Write off this year as a mistake, and move on.

In grad school, you've got to fail quickly, and choice of environment is no exception. If you're unhappy at the end of your first year in a group, you'll never be happy -- it only gets harder, and you don't want to be the student to who has a fantastic blowout with your advisor in year three or four, where there's little chance of recovery.

So, my advice is to change labs. Failing that, quit. Grad school isn't worth it, unless you can have a great experience. But whatever you do, don't get so far in that you feel that you can't quit, even though you hate your life and your work.


Find a good advisor. I've known many people who hated grad school but when they switched an advisor they liked, their world went from hell to a great graduate experience. Its all about your advisor.


People who were paying attention during undergrad should know this; I realized early on that a lot of your experience had to do more with the people involved than the material. A good advisor is no exception, and from what I hear, is even more important in grad school.

It's also pretty true outside the ivory tower. Surrounding yourself eight hours a day with people who amaze you with their skills and/or having a de-facto mentor can do wonders. A lack thereof can leave you feeling demotivated, like you are just treading water and not really advancing yourself.


I know of one exception. He explained his system: he does the research, then he gets grants for his research. This gives him time to do new research and he writes new grants based on that. He delivers because he only proposes to do what he has already more or less done!

You have just described my thesis advisor: he was offset -2 years on the 3-year grant periods. The publication system is so slow that his whole approach was timed just right.

Grant reviewers love news of great success, soviet style. They don't question how can one produce a scientific publication just one year into the grant period, which tells a lot about their review process.


The alternative is Simon Peyton Jones style: Work on some 10-15 papers at the same time. Whenever some new knowledge is gained, try to apply it to all the papers. At some point one of your papers is publishable. It is basically running research as one big investment bank and spreading your portfolio out.


I know from experience that your project is like a _lot_ of currently funded, large research projects. Depressing, huh?

Also, I know this is likely not what you want to hear, but it doesn't get any better after your PhD. If you're lucky, you'll get on tenure track and work your arse off for the next 5 years in order to (maybe) get tenure. If you're not so lucky you'll be fighting for post-docs on the type of projects you're talking about. Hopefully there will be only one post-doc, there could easily be 2 or 3.

My take is this: Under no circumstances accept the status quo. I've seen so many graduate students spiral into depression because they stuck at it. I know I did, and I stuck at it because of some weird obsession with how I was perceived in the world (by my parents, my old friends, whatever), and because I didn't spend enough time asking myself: What makes me happy? How do I want to live my life - and I don't mean "I want to be a scientist", I mean day-to-day, what do you want to be doing? Where do you want to be doing it?

So my suggestion is to spend time figuring out if there's another project you'd _love_ to work on, and if not, then consider quitting. No shame in that.

Also, I'd spend the time to watch Dan Gilbert's TED talk:

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_...

If you want to talk more, please feel free to contact me: einar@vollset.com


Faced with a similar situation, what I did was buy an arduino board, design a wonderfully complex robot, and start working on it on the side. When I feel tired and bored, I picked up some paper and would start designing parts of the hardware. I'd get back home and implement it.

Doing one thing with absolute focus leads to boredom, and boredom leads to burn-out. You need to keep yourself mentally interested by having something that actually interests you. Something big, something impractical, but something revolutionary.

For some people it's fitness, for others it's robots. You need to find the side project otherwise you will just see this long dreary never ending hole.

What you can do is also find something that overlaps with part of your work, so you can do work for work, but take the stuff you learnt and apply them to your side project.


Fro what it is worth, from my experience doing research it is very important for your sanity to work with other people that are about the same level of competence as you. That means other grad students or young post docs. Working with professors that "have achieved ground-breaking theoretical results" is very frustrating. The difference in knowledge between you and them is enormous; what is hard for you is trivial an uninteresting for them. So they are not very interested in working with you for the same reason you are not very interested in doing research with a first year student.

With somebody that is about as advanced as you, you can bounce off ideas, have interesting discussions, and learn a lot. And then got discuss with the professor.

Another problem with working with world class researchers (as a grad student) is that you will not learn the most important part of research. The hardest part of research is finding questions, not answers. Good questions that is. Questions that are interesting and unsolved, but solvable. This is very hard. If you work with someone that is really very strong he will have more ideas than time to investigate them. So you will at best become good at solving problems, but you will not learn how to find problems. In mechanical_fish's comments, he says that most researchers "publishing over-complicated solutions to easy problems, or non-solutions to difficult problems, or incomprehensible solutions to niche problems". This not because they are dumb or lazy, it's because they can't do the hardest thing in research: find good questions.

Another thing (that others have already pointed out): expect failure. Good research is hard. In fact even bad research is hard. Doing new things is hard, doing interesting things is hard, and doing new interesting thing is incredibly hard. So most of what you try will end in failure. Get used to it or get out of academia as quickly as possible. Not many people have the right mental constitution to live a happy life while they continuously fail. Look around you; you will probably see many people that are not happy with life. I think this has something to do with it.


Already my comment is lost among the many replies... I can't express how useful and motivating some of the advice is, so I'd really like to thank to all those who are taking the time to answer.


hi, first post ever!

basically... what you have, sir, is a day job with low expectations and no IP ownership conflict of interests. Please don't waste this opportunity. Of course you have to keep delivering value to the project, but if you are disciplined you can be done by lunchtime and devote the rest of the day to your own pursuits.

When you get a corporate job, you will feel the same. But then, you will have to moonlight and be careful not to use your employer resources (including IP and other intangibles). In the worst case, you will have to pick different domain and technology stack to avoid the illusion of IP theft.

If you endure in grad school, you might get your credentials and eventually decide what to work on... or you might not. But in any case, you don't need a paper that says you can solve complex problems. Read Paul Graham's article on Insiders vs Outsiders.

Good luck!


no IP ownership conflict of interests

This is a bit of an exaggeration. Universities claim IP, too. Although it is true that most of them are pretty incompetent at it, and they don't much like to sue their successful graduates because it makes for very bad press.


Whereas a former employer with an IP dispute is likely to just want to shut you down as a potential competitor (in their mind) the University just wants a piece of the action. At least, that's the sense I got from the IP agreement I signed when I started working here.


He mentioned elsewhere in the thread that he is a researcher in Europe; there is some variability, but basically if he was in private industry in Europe he most likely wouldn't have any of the insane IP concerns you are spouting off on here.


A year is hardly enough time to gain perspective on grad school. Give yourself some time. Eventually you will find a research project that interests you. In the meantime I'd suggest you continue cultivating inter-departmental relationships, eg, by working on the project you mentioned.

Also, worth noting, most people find the first couple of years of grad school the most frustrating because they don't align with their expectations. Once you are past that and you have a well defined research project things get better. Finally, regarding "finding elegant solutions to difficult problems that have wide-reaching implications": you'd be surprised to discover that incremental work can also be elegant and make an impact. Especially is CS that's how most research is done. So, don't set yourself up for disappointment. Pick a small problem that interests you and start reading on it...

Good luck.


I'm in a similar boat, only I stopped taking funding and am borrowing the money for school now. I've blown years on working on others' research projects instead of focusing on my own topic.

One old little statistic keeps screaming in the back of my head: in any given software development project, the average difference in productivity between the least and most productive programmers is 3600% -- so you're not in an unusual situation. The ones pretending to be scientists in your group end up on the bottom rungs of the hierarchy later.

As for sanity & graduation, I guess the question isn't what your group's doing, but what's _your_ research on? If you haven't decided your topic yet, you have some good scheming to do. If you have, then you have some more underhanded scheming to do. It's not cynical, it's being focused. The reason the project looks like a giant failure, assuming the ones planning it aren't complete idiots, is that it's essentially a cover story for specific research interests by the primary stakeholders.

The goal is to figure out how to pull as much good research you can on nonprimary topics out of the body of research your group is doing as a whole. The primary topic is rarely as interesting or as scientifically fruitful as the stuff you find on the way.

From your discussion, it sounds like you can't find a direct way to pull good research out of your mess of a research project. Perhaps it's time to talk about an interesting subsystem? Some way of coercing a small part of the project into useful research for you? Feel free to be as devious as you need to be, it sounds like you're one of the only few who care. The rest don't, and so it won't matter to them.

If not, look for viable exit strategies. You're there to do research. If you can't do it, then you're wasting your time.

And seriously, where's your adviser in all this?

As for research, I'm going to industry in a few months, but I never plan to stop researching. Only now I have to pay for my own hardware, which isn't terribly expensive giving what industry pays for a good computer scientist these days. Screw publication, I'm gonna be a crackpot independent scientist!

There are a few companies out there that make enclosed racks which take care of heat & noise for you. They look good underneath a TV.


Where are you in grad school that pays 60-70% of industry? I'm at a top 4 prog (one of Stanford / MIT / Berkeley / CMU), and it doesn't pay nearly as well (unless you have a very different meaning of industry).


Europe, not-so-high salaries, high taxes, social equality, long payed holidays, etc. etc.


Ah, EU projects I guess. Been there. Actually, your situation is quite common. I have yet to see something really useful coming from EU project.

Try to find something at least marginally related to the project that really interests you, get together with smart people in the lab and have fun. If you can put it in the reports, it counts.


That feeling of something being rotten at the core, even it though looks okay to the external world, really sucks. I had it once, too. I looked up at the ceiling and asked myself, "What am I doing here?" I was out a few weeks later, and have never regretted the decision.

I think that given that you're only a year in, you should switch labs if at all possible. You should look around at other projects in your vicinity, and evaluate the vibe of the people working on them, using your newfound experience. Go to group meetings if you can. Do you see the cast of characters you're seeing in your current environment (politicos, slackers, and friendly ignorami)? Or do you see neat, intense people, working quietly in a deep way on problems that interest them?

When you've identified a new lab you might like to join, pitch your transition as a surge of interest in the new area, not as discontent with your old lab. You likely do not have enough demonstrated accomplishment to bring to the table to make the new lab want to take the risk of bringing on a malcontent.

This approach will also keep you from intentionally or inadvertently burning bridges with people in your old lab, some of whom are likely quite good people, who you will meet again in your field.


For what it's worth, I dropped out of a top CS program a couple years ago and never looked back. I am much happier now.

I've always wanted to do research, but I eventually came to see academia as a life with little to recommend it. Professors spend most of their time teaching, advising, writing grants, speaking, doing grunt work---not a lot of room for deep thought. And as a result of the publish-or-perish system, much of the work being done has no lasting consequence; I found this demoralizing.

I don't know if this rings true to your experience, but if it does, and you're seriously unhappy, consider quitting while you're ahead. One day there may come a time when you feel that if you quit you're a failure.

As for doing research on one's own, all I can say is that I'm trying to do some. I feel more inspired than I did in grad school, where my first thought was always "will this get me a publication?" On the other hand, I'm not producing anything publishable, so you be the judge. I do from time to time wonder if this makes me a crank, but my opinion is that you're not a crank until you're pleading with people to take you seriously.

I highly recommend the book Disciplined Minds by Jeff Schmidt, which helped give me some perspective when I was making my decision.


I hope I'm not repeating something others have said, but I am at work and unable to read all the detailed replies (: I was in a PhD program and decided to leave after finishing my MSc, a decision I now somewhat regret. My advice to you is that if you are to finish a PhD, you must own your own research and be very passionate about it. If you are not happy with your advisor and still early into the process, by all means switch - there is no shame in that. Ideally, you should love your research topic but many people don't. If you are further along and could finish your degree soon? Just do what is required of you and get it! The point of the PhD is to show how you can do independent, significant research and if you can get funding and publications out of this just take the shot and do it. You should absolutely have your own research agenda. That may require working 60-70 hours a week, but so what? That is often what it takes to get ahead in life. Find a contribution that you can make and find a professor interested in that topic and try to get a paper published on it. Once you have finished your degree, you will be certified as an independent worker and you can then pursue your own research. All that being said, if you are a first year change advisors now! If you are a second year, maybe you can get an MSc out of this and move on to a new advisor. If you are past that why not just get the PhD and publish more work? (repetitive...)


Yes... I have seen this type of situation before. Is this a semantic web project?

Look I will be direct. Do you have an advisor yet? Is there anyone who you want to work with at the institution? Is it politically possible for you to switch to work under that person. If you can't name anyone at your institution, then is there anyone anywhere? If so, then you need to get there.

Getting a Ph.D. is a mentoring process. And you need to find someone who is the right fit. And then you need to become a world expert in a very specific area. That is how it goes...


It's hard to know how applicable my experiences are to your situation, but here are some things that I figured out (after a lot of time and frustration) that proved effective.

Grad school, for many people, seems inevitably to entail some prolonged dark night of the soul. Accept this as part of the process. It can cause you to lose yourself and your connection to what you really care about... or you can use it to strengthen these things. But you have to do that yourself. Don't expect anyone to help you. Models like "a community of teachers and learners" or "a thriving research environment" can lead to serious depression when they don't deliver. A better model is something like "an odyssey of solitude to test you".

I naively assumed that grad school would be an extrapolation of undergrad: I would be continuing my education by going deeply into a particular field. That was a big mistake. Eventually I realized it had nothing to do with education or even particularly with ideas. It was job training for becoming an academic. The real subject matter was: how to get an article published, how to fill out a grant application, how to give a talk at a conference. (Edit: oh, and how could I forget: how to pay as little attention to your teaching as possible.) As for learning the field, you were expected to know it all already and fill in any gaps on your own (we were handed a list of 500 books to read). I thought this was stupid and rebelled against the system in all kinds of ways that didn't help. Eventually I accepted that it is what it is, and turned my attention to what I wanted. Instead of changing the context, I figured out how to use it for my own purposes. It was hard to let go of my expectations - particularly to stop expecting mentorship or guidance from teachers. But doing so led to a lot of good things.

I divided my work into two categories: what I had to do to "feed the animal" (busywork and formal requirements) and what was meaningful to me. The strategy was to minimize the former (not eliminate it - don't fight the beast, petting works better) and maximize the latter. This worked well. Ironically, a lot of the praise and mentorship I had been craving started raining down on me once I no longer needed it.

Once one figures out how to feed the animal (in your case that sounds pretty easy), a graduate stipend can be a great basis for doing whatever you want. In my case, I used the last year of my fellowship to get back into programming. That was because I figured out I didn't want to stay in the field I was in; I had gotten what I needed out of it, and an academic job in that field would have been a waste. On the other hand, if I had had a passion for that field, I would have used my stipend to do work that I cared about, whether or not it was related to my official responsibilities. Not that I would have abrogated my responsibilities (that's the feeding the animal part) - just minimized them. If someone had asked me, "Why are you doing this other stuff" I would have said "That's my side project" or something like that. I also would have reached out to other people in the field, perhaps by sending them drafts of papers and so on. The point is that I would have done all this on my own and built up my own network of relationships.

This is a long comment that I could easily make longer! In any case, good luck.

Edit: ok, one more thing. It can be really useful to find a kindred spirit or two at your institution. They don't have to be in the same field. I would go exploring a little if I were you.


"I divided my work into two categories: what I had to do to "feed the animal" (busywork and formal requirements) and what was meaningful to me. The strategy was to minimize the former (not eliminate it - don't fight the beast, petting works better) and maximize the latter."

This is my exact strategy at the day job. For a long time, I rebelled against the absurdities of corporate life and got into long and difficult fights to change the system.

These days I just use the system to maximize progress towards my goals and minimally "feed the beast" exactly as gruesom pointed out above.

Imo, most managerial jobs can be handled in exactly the same way and can be used to further what you really want to do. (In my case I am working through "Introduction to Algorithms" (Cormen et al) in between meetings, memos and other management madness). One just has to be constantly aware of how much time and energy goes into which category of work.

I think of it like going to work at Arkham Asylum. You need to know what it takes to keep the Joker and the ScareCrow calm (or at least not ripping out your throat) while you save a chunk of your salary and work towards that startup. It is kind of fun in a "play a strategy game" kind of way. It also helps that I am mentally prepared to drop it all without a qualm, and walk away on a moments notice if it becomes necessary. Being single and having no family to support really helps here.

Great post gruesom!


a graduate stipend can be a great basis for doing whatever you want. In my case, I used the last year of my fellowship to get back into programming.

Man, that is my exactly experience! The thesis I eventually handed in bore almost no resemblance to the work I was doing and interested in :)

I'd definitely echo the "prolonged dark night" comment too. Sometimes, you just have to accept that and keep on plugging away, albeit maybe taking the night off to recharge a bit (it's like debugging, it's hard to see how that's going to achieve anything but it can make a huge difference).


Some... play along, trying to get their own stuff done on the side. Others... are happy to have a good place where they can surf the net the whole day, while pretending to be scientists. Some of my collegues are completely clueless... but being generally friendly goes a long way.

Congratulations! Your training is nearly complete! Welcome to the ranks of the enlightened! ;)

Your essay is pretty comprehensive and one can't really do it justice in less than an entire evening in a bar. But I'll offer some random observations.

You need to focus on a concrete goal. "Research is my main dream" is not a goal: It's a not even a real mission statement. "Get out of grad school with my degree" is a goal. "Get out of grad school right now, degree or no degree" is a goal. "Hang out in grad school while starting three YC companies" is a goal. "Go skiing every weekend until they kick me out of grad school, then get an industry job" is a goal. None of these is necessarily better than another; it depends on you.

You need to learn how a research career plays out in the real world. No, scratch that -- you've obviously learned it; you need to take a vacation from academia long enough to accept it. ;) The fact is: if the reviewers are happy, and the funding is good, you're an academic success. That's the goal of academic research, and if it disgusts you, you should get out of academia permanently. Because, frankly: "Finding elegant solutions to difficult problems that have wide-reaching implications" is almost uncorrelated to success in academia. You can be nearly as successful, with much less risk, by publishing over-complicated solutions to easy problems, or non-solutions to difficult problems, or incomprehensible solutions to niche problems. And you will find that the overwhelming majority of your colleagues spend most of their time on one of these paths, because they require less risk and less time, which leaves more time to go to conferences and write grant proposals and supervise students and curry favor with your colleagues and deliver lectures and all the other things that comprise actual day-to-day life in most academic jobs.

You need to realize that you are probably a very successful grad student. You can't tell right now, because you're still absorbing the truth: Most research projects are failures. That's what research is all about: Failing, over and over, but taking copious notes each time so that you have an idea of why you failed. As a student, such failure matters very little. My own Ph.D. thesis was a big catalog of various mistakes, ranging from small-scale implementation difficulties to grand-scale theoretical misconceptions that took three generations of grad students to unravel. And it went over just fine. People love reading about other people's learning experiences. It helps them learn what to avoid.

I'll repeat this, because it's important: You're a student. Nobody expects you to actually solve an earth-shattering problem. They expect you to do a bunch of work, help write some grants, write up something that your committee agrees is novel (but not necessarily earth-shattering) and then graduate and go work on something else. Which you should do. Unless you decide to just start working on something else right away, which would also be good.

Before this post gets any more Steve-Yeggesque: Yes, you can do research outside of academia. (You sound like a comp sci student, so take a moment to pity those EEs whose graduate work requires millions of dollars of capital equipment and a sizeable staff of techs. And even we can find ways to do research outside of academia.) You will find that it's much harder to get recognition for your work outside of the academy, but you have to ask: Are you in research for the adulation and the money and the girls, or are you in it for pleasure? Consider that many of the most successful discoveries were made by (what were then regarded as) semi-obscure cranks. (Think: Mendel.) Consider the delightful personal pleasures that crackpottery has to offer.

And, finally, I would note that if industry pays 30-40% more than your current job, that means you could work 60% of a full week at an industry job and still have time left over for your side projects.


[overwhelming majority spend most of their time on] publishing over-complicated solutions to easy problems, or non-solutions to difficult problems, or incomprehensible solutions to niche problems.

[PhD, year 8] I also get this impression from reading papers; and the incentive system rewards it. But I feel I'm too cynical - anyone got evidence?

A contrary view is that a PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy... and philosophy isn't about results, but reasoning. That's the game being played. It could be accurately described as angels-on-a-pinhead "academic" - but useful for practicing those reasoning skills.


Nice gem from the 'Yegge-esque'ness:

"Consider the delightful personal pleasures that crackpottery has to offer."


How many of us haven't considered a small lair, a few minions, and a doomsday device before?


You know, I've worked in labs which employed actual minions and actual doomsday devices (well, maybe not, but they were more than deadly enough to destroy all of us minions if something went wrong) ... and the excitement wears off. Eventually you stop being awed by the doomsday device and start being annoyed that its repair bills are so high and that you have to keep filling it with liquid nitrogen in the middle of the night.

Whereas putting something together in your garage from flea-market parts has a certain pleasure all its own.


Yep, the small scale, low budget, homebrew work is more aligned with what I thought you meant by 'personal crackpottery'.


Apparently the grass is always greener on the other side.


Pretty good description of the typical YC startup.


Throw in evil robots and sharks with lasers and I'm there.


My research has much improved since leaving academia. I think it's best to envision grad school as a day job.


My advice is to see what other projects are available in your department/university. Talk to other grad students (especially friends) to get a feel for what the other projects/professors are like and switch if something else looks better. People do it all of the time.

It's very common for a grad student to realize after a while that their project or advisor is a bust. Going into it, you have only a small amount of information and usually have to make a decision in a short amount of time. Choosing a project/advisor is always a gamble. I've seen a number of students who went on a few years before their advisor became unbearable, or suddenly there was no funding left. It's sad, but usually as a grad student, it only sets you back in time, which, as you'll see is your main, cheap resource.

Always try to do good work. It's very easy to get burned out or frustrated by your project/advisor and let your work quality go down. You hope that even if your advisor turns into a jerk, your personal work will still stand up for you (yes, it can suck being a grad student at the mercy of others...).


Also, try to get outside funding for yourself (grants, fellowships,etc., apply for everything). Your advisor will like it, but it will also make you more attractive to potential new advisors, even if they don't have money for an additional student at the moment.


I think your answers to these questions have a lot to do with your career goals. If you don't have an interest in being an academic, then I'd definitely jump ship and do something where progress is tied to revenue (i.e., business). If you do want to be an academic, then I'd work hard to make the best out of what seems to be a pretty frustrating situation. You can still redeem this experience through networking, running side projects, publishing etc. Those are all things that will help you if you choose to remain in the academy.


Please send me your CV, or link to a web-site, or an email that says more about your skills. I may be able to help you with an internship, or if not, at least give you some better advice.


In my experience, true motivation like you seem to have is not very common in university, so you have a leg up over most. There are plenty of reasonable professors doing great work. Send them emails, attend conferences. Find professors that are 1. Smart 2. Friendly 3. Financially well-off. You sound destined for academica, don't give up. And don't be afraid to exile yourself to Australia if that's where the opportunities are.


What you are experiencing is called 'science'. Normal science has around a 95% failure rate, great science is 1 in a million or billion. Most science is 'the grind', collecting, considering, developing minor things, most of which end up to be wrong. It is hard work, it is challenging work, and 5 years from now, you will either be part of something, or you won't.

If you think science is or could be otherwise, I think you are basically just fooling yourself by being completely unaware of history. Science isn't 'hacking' something together and making it work, it is finding the answer, not just 'an answer', but 'the answer' and even then 'the answer' is likely to be shown to be wrong by someone else. Knowing and learning what is wrong is as important as finding what is or could be right.

It sounds to me from what you say above that you want to be some sort of freelance creative computer consultant more than a researcher.

btw, no one needs another google, not because google is the best or anything, but because the model of centralization and massification has reached its potential and fails for too many people.


I was on a pretty tight schedule for my MSCS, get in, write thesis, get out. I changed advisors once, but I probably should have done so again and worked on the robot instead of the image steganography.

I regarded my thesis as an interesting failure. I took a new approach that didn't quite make it up to par with existing methods. I made it just far enough in those 16 months to figure out how far behind I was.

It wasn't a waste of time. I learned some academic tools, I got my feet wet, and it was marginally related to my emphasis. But I was glad to cut my losses and move on.

There are a lot of ways to cut your losses. If you have something to show for your work (publication record, recommendations from your supervisors and coworkers, new skills and thinking modes), so much the better. If you can find another project, that sounds like a good way to go. You obviously care about doing good research. Don't give up.

I am on the fence about going back for a PhD, but only because of time constraints, not because I think I wouldn't enjoy it...


Typically a first-year grad.student has other projects around in his/her lab and can actually switch to one of them if required. I think it might be an option for you. At least, I never recommend to continue working on something that you simply don't care ... Also, especially if you are doing CS-research: do an internship and ideally right now (I mean - find a good one, apply for, and get it; well, I know, there are not that many internships in winter time but some are certainly available). Assuming you do the internship it allows you to see the "real life" and just compare it with your academy life and other stuff.


I think the way you idealize research is not naive by any means, and you should stick to your view.

By all means, one year is not too late - you should change your research project to something that's your very own. If your advisor doesn't let you, change your advisor too.

I think you're exactly the type that needs to lead a project, and be the first author, instead of contributing bits here and there, implementing somebody else's "vision". Leave that for those that think academic success is putting their names on the maximum number of papers.


My own life situation is pretty messed up, so take this with a grain of salt. But:

> I have always dreamed of becoming a scientist. I always loved maths, sciences, puzzles, theory but also programming and engineering.

For hope, keep in mind that there are other people like you. And that some of them do achieve the kind of goals you state.

> I find it the most soul-crushing experience to continue working while pretending that the whole thing is getting anywhere.

If things have gotten to this point, you definitely need a change. Take it from someone who did not make the change: Continuing in such a situation leads to a downward spiral. I guess there can eventually be some learning value in the experience, but it is a brutal journey and the return ticket is not guaranteed.

Evaluate what you have, and what is missing from achieving your goals -- or (they say it's the journey, not the goal, that matters) from making progress towards your goals.

It sounds like you have a pretty stable financial and professional position. One that also provides you access to a lot of useful tools. How much time, effort, and "spirit" do you have to give to the organization in return for this? If you strike off on your own at this point, do you have a plan or some idea of how you will get these things: Self-sufficiency and the tools you need?

Not that lack of a detailed plan should necessarily stop you. But do you know your next steps and have some comfort with them?

I should add, too, that although some aspects of your current professional community suck, it can be easy to undervalue one's participation in such a community until it is gone. Sounds like there are people there who you respect. And there is likely professional and social contact you would miss. Being in such an environment can almost inherently help one to remain "plugged in" to one's field, as well as providing exposure to things one might not otherwise encounter or consider.

So, you have yourself, and you have the situation you are in. What is stopping the progress?

Is it the situation? For example, a heavy weight of demands for your assigned work may leave you with insufficient time and/or energy left over to pursue your interests.

Is it you yourself? Do you need more external guidance to follow your desired path? (This isn't necessarily a bad thing, although it can have a bearing on the kind of work you may want to focus on. It may be painful, but it is a question that eventually needs an honest answer.) Are you a person who fundamentally cannot accept situations that you find "wrong"? (This, also, is not necessarily a bad thing. People who have refused to accept the status quo and/or incomplete or faulty reasoning, have eventually forced very valuable re-evaluations. This, too, can be a painful process and require fortitude.)

While you are in your current position, you might focus on -- I kind of hate to use this word, not being the most social person myself -- networking. Try to get to know the people you do respect, and their work, better. Learn what other people are doing both at your institution and elsewhere. I imagine it's true in academia and government organizations as well as in business, that people hire people. If people you like and respect come to like and respect you, this may lead to new opportunities, and those will be with people you know and trust.

Finally, I was recently in touch with an old friend who's part of the a very large research project. And, for all the intellectual brilliance you might imagine is there, some of the individual qualifications, or lack there of, and a lot of the personal behavior, as described to me was a bit stunning. There are some people there -- researchers -- for largely political or even bedroom reasons. There apparently is A TON of self-interest, and competition.

Some of this appears to be inherent in research these days. Resources are limited, and the type A personalities will push hard to get what they can. People become very territorial. Aggression plays a significant role in at least some people's success. I say this looking in from the outside, based on this friend's comments; it may not be an accurate and/or an entire picture, but it's the one I've gained.

My friend is one of those "brilliant" people who's always had to find his own path -- hardly mainstream and without the pretty, mainstream CV/resume some might be looking for. But, he can figure anything out, if it interests him, and is amazingly effective at "getting shit done". People who get to know him learn this and trust him. When someone else wasn't working out, one of those people brought him in to this project.

My point is not to ramble on, but to say that for all the assholes, there are also good people out there, who "get shit done". And some of them get to know each other. It doesn't erase the bullshit, but it compensates. And apparently it lets them achieve their goals, if with some aggravation.

Some of those people who "get shit done" will do so regardless of the environment. If there is an obstruction, they will find a way around it, or a way to obviate it. Or they may simply ignore it, come up with a minimum effort to supply required reporting, and get on with the things that matter (to whatever project they are officially on and/or to them). My description is, I guess, a bit simplified and even romantic. But in essence, it's how some people work.

I'll try to tie this back to your situation. What do you feel are the real stumbling blocks? Is it the environment and what it demands? Or do you find yourself needing more direction?

Regardless of whether you remain or not, you'll need some direction to pursue. Preferably one you are passionate about. You may not remain passionate about it forever, or even past the next year. But once you own it, environment becomes a means to an end. Hopefully not one you simply exploit entirely to your own ends -- sounds like you've already seen some of the effects of such an attitude in what you currently face. But one you turn, as best you can, to your purpose. And one where you contribute, because a better environment helps you meet your purpose.

And if you do stay, perhaps a bit of that attitude might encourage your colleagues and improve the atmosphere a bit.

Then again, I myself am currently in the pits. Take this with a grain of salt. But I'll submit my response nonetheless, in case there's any value either in or between the lines.

P.S. I would avoid actively opposing people or engaging in hostility, even where justified. Senior researchers can burn you with a lasting mark. Rather, if you stay, I'd be tempted to think of it as more of a guerrilla campaign. One where you are out to achieve your goals while leaving any ignorant powers that be as blissfully unaware as possible.


What's the shortest line between you and graduation?


I was in Law School for 2 years... It actually worked out quite well. One of the things that you forget about when you are a student is that professors love looking for real world examples that they can incorporate into their curriculum's and classrooms. I had professors, students, and even librarians helping me collect everything from incorporation papers to market research. Eventually, as the company began moving a million miles a minute, I took a step back from my education and decided to get 'the baby out of the crib' before I return.

My point? Utilize what you can from where you are... engage fellow classmates, professors, and faculty. My number one suggestion is pull a professor aside and talk to him, can't hurt can it?

At the end of the day... everyone loves helping a student.




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