Finishing your Ph.D. (written, March 4, 2010)

After I defended my Ph.D. dissertation in March 2010, I sent my friend an email summarizing what I learned during that experience. As I read this email 13 years later, there is little I would change about the advice I would give to a new Ph.D. student. Indeed, I give very similar advice to my own students, some of whom are now professors at great universities themselves.

Here is the text of the original email:

So, now with a Ph.D. (well, enough signatures to get me a Ph.D.) in hand. I thought I should write down some of my thoughts about what I learned throughout the process. Primarily, I learned that “research” is much like any other job, perhaps even akin to making “widgets” in a factory. There is a process. Although I haven’t figured out the entire process, particularly the publishing part, which will now be the primary interface between me and the production of widgets, I have come up with an outline for a theory.

Before I started graduate school, I read the website below even before I started my MS (I think). It gave me the best advice regarding a general framework for how I should think about acting/behaving during graduate school. It helped me get admitted, finish, and find a job.
I would recommend any graduate student read it and take it to heart. When I started graduate school for my master’s degree, I tried to model myself after these suggestions. Though others might argue otherwise, I think, for the most part, I worked an average of around 5-6 hours of actual work per day, for at most 6 days a week – putting peak times aside. I mostly worked at school. Most faculty knew my name, and I asked almost all faculty to come to my presentations.

Expect to work significantly harder during my faculty job. Raising the average hours worked a day to 7 or, at most, 8.

Some observations about “poorly” performing students:

The students who do the worst in graduate school are not regularly present on campus and in the office. This conforms with the visibility hypothesis. Being on campus is essential. First, you work. Second, you can talk with other students to resolve your problems. Talk to faculty and be a part of the intellectual life of the place. That means attending talks and giving talks. Even the “mindless” chitchat often contains essential knowledge, gossip, tips, tricks, and linkage into critical networks that will provide guidance and encouragement during your Ph.D. and beyond.
Students who perform poorly often reinvent the wheel. They do not take good advice from others – straightforward advice and what would I consider “implicit” advice (e.g., modeling yourself after the best of the cohorts above you.)

This includes writing papers. The structure of research papers is relatively standard. This includes how to write introductions, results sections, etc. However, it also consists of due diligence on statistical procedures, etc. I have learned this through trial and error. But I often look at other good papers that try to do “similar things” (broadly defined) to see what types of other tests, etc. I should do this before I wrap up my paper.
It also includes presentations. Particularly glaring is the absence of students at other people’s presentations. I am often surprised by this since academic output consists of two tangible products: papers and presentations. Just as writing good papers requires reading good papers, giving good presentations requires going to good presentations. And much like how writing good papers require the ability to take and give productive criticism, so does presentation.

Read. I am often just in AWE of students’ lack of knowledge in their field of study. I have encountered many students who are totally unaware of the basic – that is, core – papers or ideas in their field. Not that I am the most well-read person in the world or even the program, but I work pretty hard to keep abreast of recent literature (less so these days), the news, and the classics (putting a lot of time into this right now.) Reading and digesting the literature puts ideas, especially theoretical ideas, in context. Reading is essential, as is remembering what you read. We all make mistakes. I might cite Smith’s 1975 paper, while it might be Smithe’s 1975 or 76 paper. But my “hunch” is that even when we make mistakes, these are good heuristics for remembering papers, linking names to concepts (Granovetter -> Weak Ties) to eras (the 1970s), and linking these with each other into a “network” of sorts of concepts, authors, and eras. Knowing these basic things will give individuals a good lay of the land concerning the holes in the research, where the interesting problems are, and where your research can fit in. It also goes back to “re-creating the wheel.” A good knowledge of the current and past literature will give you, in addition to a better theoretical lens with which to view your research, ideas about data, survey instruments, methods, and framing research. – A good quote about the importance of reading can be found here:

“My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies, and was: Read. Read everything you can lay your hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.” – Michael Moorcock.

Do not wait for feedback to do work. I often notice students with a paralysis of sorts when doing anything that they have not gotten explicit directions from their advisors or approval from them for some reason. Keep playing with your data and your ideas. Feedback is slow, people are busy, and even when you get feedback – remember that no one knows your data and the methods you used to analyze it better than you. Keep plugging away. I kind of have a heuristic about “regression analysis.” Once I get a “main effect” to be significant – I try (though I increasingly notice that I often fail on some dimension) to do all I can to make it disappear (in theoretically justified ways, of course). If I do get it to stay, then I am more confident. If it disappears, you have to start searching for theory again (especially if you didn’t include the variable that made the effect disappear for a theoretically justified reason.)

Listen to only some of the advice you get from your advisors. They are busy, and they are human. Take all the comments, make appropriate changes, and argue back when you have you. You will have to do it with reviewers for the rest of your life anyway. “Critiques” are not always correct.

Don’t TA too much. I see some students overload with TAs even in their 8th or 9th year (yes!). A manageable number of TAs per semester is three if you got your research organized and are in your 2nd or third year. If your research is messy, keep it to 2 TAs a semester. Here is a simple formula. Assuming that an average student can TA three classes per semester (not all unique) – that is 6 total classes a year, earning $28,800 per annum without significantly extending their time in the Ph.D. program. Now assume that any additional TA above these 6 TAs per year will increase the length of time you stay in the Ph.D. program by 3 months (that’s just 1/4 of a year) and that your opportunity cost of staying in the Ph.D. program is 80,000 (an above average salary for a master’s student). That decision to TA just that one extra course will cost you 20,000-4800 = 15,200. That is probably the low end of the estimate. Increasing the number of extra months you might stay because of an extra TA by another month will increase this to over 20k lost. Bump up the salary… and you see the point. TAing, even if it just adds a “few” months, will hurt your pocketbook. The next point is related more to time in the Ph.D. program.

Little rules, big rules. Making sure you don’t break the little rules will help you meet your deadlines on time. Finish your classes, first and second paper, ON TIME. That is like the first commandment of the Ph.D. at Heinz. The little rules at Heinz are pretty simple. These are the significant milestones of the Ph.D. here and are almost sacred. Doing this will provide you with enough structure in the formative periods of your Ph.D. that will take you along through your proposal and defense. The more important thing coming out of finishing your FP and SP on time is that this will give you the “meta-skills” to get you organized for your proposal and dissertation. Finally, as a secondary note regarding the FP/SP deadlines is that there is an organizational memory. Everyone knows who didn’t finish their papers on time. Faculty have long memories as well. They are more lenient (with risky topics, etc.) when people make sure they obey the little rules. So, if you follow the little rules, you can break the big ones. Breaking the big rules is where the fun is.

Again, time. The academic job market penalizes “long” PhDs. This is a qualitative observation. Though there may be a handful of PhDs who finished after 9 years and ended up with jobs in academia, it is really looked down upon. Six years might be the peak of the neutral point at which it is OK not to have finished your Ph.D. by this time; after that, your prospects of landing a good academic job decline quite dramatically, and it snowballs to almost nil by the 8th or 9th year.

Be nice to other students. Word spreads about “assholes” (this is a technical term – see Van Maanen 1978). We all have made faux pas’ in our lives. Probably tons of them. But consistent “assholeary” is terrible. Be trustworthy; others will trust you and even let others know they trust you too.

Everybody here is pretty smart. It is not just you. Hard work creates the gradient on which good graduate students vary. Hard work is demonstrated by being on schedule, writing, reading, and working every weekday for at least a few hours on your research (on average.) I am often surprised at how easy this is and how some people do not get it.

Know when to quit. Get real advice. Don’t stick it out longer than you have to because of your ego.