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On Urgency and Importance in Doctoral Studies

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

In his “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” bestseller, Stephen R. Covey defines the third habit as “Put First Things First.” There are two insights behind this habit: (1) all the tasks that we have on our plate possess different degrees of urgency and importance. Urgency is the metrics that defines how strict the deadline is for completing a task. Importance is the metrics that defines how much impact the task’s completion will have toward achieving our long term goals. (2) effective people make sure that urgent but unimportant tasks do not take precedence over important but non-urgent tasks.

I often witness how this habit is playing out in the lives of doctoral students. The following diagram gives examples of the tasks typically performed by Ph.D. students and how these tasks rank in terms of their respective urgency and importance.

In essence, all the multiple tasks performed by doctoral students roughly fall into one of the four groups: (1) not urgent and and not important, (2) urgent but not important, (3) urgent and important, and (4) not urgent but important.

Groups 1 and 3 present clear cut cases. Graduate students take care of urgent and important tasks right away, and they are likely to postpone not urgent and not important tasks indefinitely. For example, because the Ph.D. qualifying exam commonly must be taken within a certain deadline, doctoral students typically take great care to pass this important and urgent milestone as early as possible. Publishing one’s research is universally considered the most important and urgent task for any researcher. As a result, students rarely postpone publishing their research.

I had difficulties deciding which tasks can be safely considered as not urgent and not important for doctoral students. Some students like to print and bind their dissertation documents. I think that in the age of electronic publishing this is unnecessary. It is considered customary to print and bind one’s final dissertation manuscript, but no harm will be done even if this task is never completed.

The biggest issue for graduate students I have observed are the difficulties of properly distinguishing between urgent and not important vs. not urgent and important tasks. Case in point, completing course assignments and passing one’s Ph.D. proposal exam. Because the goal of Ph.D. training is to expand knowledge in one’s area of concentration, taking classes is universally considered an auxiliary activity at best. Nevertheless, courses have assignments with strict deadlines. I see students spending an inordinate amount of their time and effort working on class assignments, often neglecting their research. Because most graduate students used to be superb undergraduates, they cannot simply fathom how it is possible not to excel in classes. Sometimes a student must choose whether to work on a course assignment or try to make a research paper submission deadline. Oftentimes, I am appalled hearing a graduate student complaining: “Because of this difficult class, I missed this important paper submission deadline.” It is hard for some graduate students to realize that it is their research publications rather than their grades that will determine their success after graduation.

The ultimate example of an extremely important but not urgent task that I witnessed being mistreated in academia is the Ph.D. proposal exam. I have seen it many times: a Ph.D. student passes his qualifying exam, starts publishing, and keeps postponing the tedious task of putting together a proposal document. “Yes, I know I must pass the proposal exam to get my Ph.D., but now is just not the right time.” Because doctoral program rarely impose strict deadlines on Ph.D. proposals, this milestone often gets a short shrift. Back when I was in grad school, we called this condition “a proposal trap.” I have seen graduate students postponing their Ph.D. proposal almost until the last year of their studies. Oftentimes proposing that late added unexpected extra years to their studies.

A Ph.D. proposal is more-or-less a contract between a doctoral candidate and her Ph.D. committee. In this contract, the candidate defines the scope of the work she proposes to do , and the committee agrees that if this work is indeed completed, the candidates should be granted her Ph.D. Before the proposal is accepted, no doctoral student can be sure how long it will take them to get their Ph.D.

With my own students, I have found an effective formula with respect to Ph.D. proposals. I like to tie Ph.D. proposals to publication submission deadlines. I usually reach an agreement with a student: let’s submit a paper to this venue, and while we are waiting for the reviews, you’ll put together your proposal manuscript and schedule your proposal exam. So I am solving the problem of procrastinating with an important but not urgent task by tying it to an important and urgent task. I am curious about how others manage this issue.

Categories: academic enterprise

My 9/11 Story

September 11, 2011 1 comment

I started my Ph.D. studies in August 1999, and my first year did not go well at all. When I started my Ph.D., I was a competent software developer with 4 solid years of industrial experience and several publications in professional software development periodicals. I just had completed an M.S. from NYU and had plenty of exciting career opportunities in industry.

My first year in grad school was very disappointing.  I tried working for two different research groups but did not like the problems I was working on at all. Despite admiring my research supervisors, I could not see myself working in their research areas long enough to earn my Ph.D.

So at the end of my first year, I left the Ph.D. program and spent the summer of 2000 working for a startup in NJ. I joined the project as the DotCom boom was starting to dissipate. I worked as part of a great technical team that created a state-of-the-art technical solution for an idea that, alas, had no solid business basis behind it. By the end of the summer, the investors stopped funding the company, and all the developers were laid off. Nevertheless, I immensely enjoyed the experience working with top notch technical professionals creating innovative technical solutions.

Even though by the end of summer 2000, I did not have a job anymore, I was not sure whether I wanted to go back to my Ph.D. studies. Administratively, it was easy—because I was only gone for the summer, I could come back in the fall and continue my studies. In addition, right before I left for the summer, I had started talking to a new professor, who’d just joined the department, about working on one of his projects that involved building programming language tools for distributed computing. I was quite intrigued with that project and felt compelled to give it a try. Nevertheless, it was not clear at all whether that project held enough promise to become my dissertation topic.

So my options were either to go back to school and continue my Ph.D. or look for an industry job in the NYC area. To explore my industry options, I e-mailed several acquaintances of mine who held software development jobs and asked them if they knew of any openings that could fit my profile. Within days, a couple of them replied.

One reply looked particularly compelling. Dan, a former co-worker, just became a technical team lead in a large financial company. He cut through the chase right away: “I have worked with you; I have seen your code; I have read your programming articles; you can pass our interview with flying colors; I know because I’ve been interviewing people almost daily. As far as the compensation goes, this is a financial company, and they compensate competent and productive people well. Trust me your salary will make you glad that you have this job. Think it through carefully, and let me know when you are available for an interview.” Even though Dan did not identify his company by name, I trusted him that I had the technical background and expertise to pass their technical interview. A couple of days later, I left NYC  to continue my Ph.D. studies without ever getting back to Dan, which was rather inconsiderate of me.

About a year later, Dan e-mailed me asking if it’d be alright if we talked on the phone. It was early September 2001, and I had just spent an exhausting summer prototyping an ambitious research project. During the entire summer, I worked 12-14 hour days, coding non-stop, but at that point still had no publishable results. I asked Dan to call me in the evening at home.

Dan called me around 10pm and we chatted for a while. He asked me whether I was happy with my decision to continue my Ph.D. studies. I was not sure at all. The hours were long, the work was exhausting, and I had no social or personal life. Furthermore, it was not clear at all whether my research project would pan out and engender enough quality publications for a decent Ph.D. dissertation.

I shared my doubts and frustrations with Dan, who as it turned out, called me to seek my opinion on some technical issue. I distinctly remember him asking me whether I regretted declining his offer to interview to join his team the year earlier. And I remember replying that at that point I was really frustrated with my life and was not sure whether I’d persevere with my Ph.D. studies. To which Dan replied that unfortunately at the moment there were no more openings on his team, but that he’d keep me in mind for future openings. His last words were: “Remember no matter what you decide, we are still friends. When you visit NYC next time, make sure to visit me in my office. You should see the view from my office window.” Then he apologized for having to cut our conversation short—he had to be back in the office next morning at 9am sharp for an important meeting.

This conversation took place in the evening of September 10, 2001, and Dan had less than 12 hours to live. Daniel Ilkanayev worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in World Trade Center, Tower 1, on the 104th floor. All the employees of the company who reported to work on that fateful day perished. Since Dan never mentioned his company by name, it took me weeks after 9/11 to connect the dots. For some time, I hesitated whether I should contact his family, but since I had never met his family in person, I decided against that.

Dan was a highly talented IT professional and a great guy overall. That’s how he will always stay in my memory. The more I live, the more I realize that life has no coincidences. Why did he have to call me in the evening of September 10? That was our first (and alas last) conversation in more than a year. Why that particular night?

This tragic episode had a profound impact on my life. I persevered in my Ph.D. studies having overcome tremendous difficulties against all odds.  However, no matter how I’d feel during my Ph.D. studies, I no longer had any doubts that completing my Ph.D. was my destiny. And this was enormously helpful. I did finish my Ph.D., producing a strong dissertation backed up by several quality publications. My research record enabled me to get a tenure-track position in a research university despite the very tight academic market at the time. This year, I am up for my tenure review, which I hope will lead to a positive outcome making me a tenured professor.

Now I am even more convinced that you cannot escape your destiny. If you are pursuing a hard-to-attain goal, it can be quite hard to keep your doubts away, particularly if you have other, perhaps easier to pursue, options. My decision to decline an attractive job offer to pursue the tenuous goal of completing my doctorate did not seem logical at the time. In fact, taken in isolation, it does not seem logical now.

On this 10 year anniversary of 9/11, my heart goes to Dan’s family–his memory will never be forgotten. But now I can say in all certainty that my irrational decision to persevere with my Ph.D. studies was the right one, and I feel fortunate that I made that decision.

Categories: careers, Uncategorized