Home > academic enterprise, careers, teaching > On doing a Ph.D. revisited

On doing a Ph.D. revisited

My recent post has generated quite a lot of traffic to my blog and a good number of comments, expressed both publicly and privately. In that post, I expressed my take that if the purpose of Ph.D. training is to prepare individuals for unforgiving careers in research, the strategy of breaking down Ph.D. trainees and building them back up stronger, more determined and thick skinned seems like a reasonable one. The purpose of this follow-up blog is to reply to some of the common themes I have seen in the comments.

  • Research is fun, so your argument is baseless. At first, I was wondering if I should even merit such a facetious comment with an answer. However, since this issue keeps coming up, I may as well address it. I agree with Einstein, who said that “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” I do not find the word “fun” appropriate for describing the essence of a professional research career. However, I agree with Philip Guo in that research is fulfilling, despite all the frustrations of dealing with the research enterprise.
  • Isn’t the research enterprise itself due for a major revamping? As an admirer of the Hegelian philosophy, I subscribe to its central notion that only a crisis can precipitate a major change. What would a crisis in academic research in Computer Science look like? It would take nothing short of CS faculty leaving academia in droves for jobs in industry. It is just not happening. The few occasions when it does happen (see references 1 and 2) receive that much attention only because they are so exceptional.
  • I am in denial about the need to improve the specific problems with the current Ph.D. production system (e.g., low pay, lack of structure, advisor advisee relationship, poor graduation rates). All of these issues are real, but they won’t change unless precipitated by a crisis. U.S. grad schools keep receiving hundreds and hundreds of Ph.D. applications, most of them from oversees. Faculty searches for the Assistant Professor positions receive hundreds of applications from newly minted Ph.D.s, a good portion of whom are well-qualified for the advertised positions. Let’s look at the specific problems mentioned, one at a time.
    • Wouldn’t it be nice to pay graduate students better? Of course, but the issues of compensations are determined by the market (i.e., supply and demand). Until there are enough applicants willing to compete for the meager Ph.D. stipends, the compensation will not increase. There are some positives here as well. From my personal experience, six and half years of making a typical Ph.D. student wage, which amounted to about the minimum wage when divided by the number of hours put in,  has instilled in me the virtue of frugality probably for the rest of my life.
    • Shouldn’t Ph.D. training be more structured? I am afraid it is impossible when you need to produce a substantial body of new knowledge for a dissertation by engaging in research. There are no well-structured milestones students can set for themselves and meet with any degree of predictability.
    • Don’t Ph.D. advisors have too much power over their advisees? You can always switch advisors if things don’t work out. Choose carefully, but remember that your relationship is not that of indentured servitude.
    • Isn’t it a shame that every other person never finishes their Ph.D. studies? It is probably not a good use of scarce research funding, but when one engages in a long process with hard-to-foresee outcomes, this dropout rate is almost inevitable.
  • The Ph.D. training process should encourage more communal support, primarily from fellow students. No argument here. However, it does not contradict anything I have said about not changing the way Ph.D. training is conducted. Even if the process remains long and rigorous, Ph.D. students should get as much support as they can from whatever resources available to them. In that light, universities should encourage informal groups whose aim is to support Ph.D. students in their difficult journeys.
  • Well, is there anything you would change in the way Ph.D. training is currently conducted?! In fact, I have done something to that end in my own department. In the last couple of years, I have taught a course that introduces graduate students to research in CS. Because knowledge is power, I strongly believe in informing Ph.D. students about what will be expected from them early on. In one of the first assignments in my class, I ask students to learn about their advisors’ expectations for them. In other words, students get a clear statement from their advisors as to what they will be expected to accomplish (e.g., external publications, research artifacts built and evaluated, etc.) to be granted their degree. Thus far, I received very positive feedback both from my students and their advisors regarding this and other aspects of my course.
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