PhD Program Success and Survival Tips

Are you thinking about applying to a PhD program? Are you already a doctoral student? PhD is a huge investment of time and money. So make sure you spend 15 minutes of your time reading this blog devoted to PhD program success and survival tips. I'm confident that these tips can save up to 10 years of your life, up to $1,000,000 of your money, and, most importantly, your physical and emotional health.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Finding Yourself

Many people go into grad school because they don't know what to do after they get their bachelor's degree. They think that grad school will help them to figure out who they are, what they are good at, and where they should work. They believe that a graduate degree (especially a PhD) will also help them to work anywhere they choose. Unfortunately, these hopes may not materialize. Many professors went to grad school for the same reason: they were smart but didn't know what to (or didn't want to do anything in the real world). These people will not help you out where you should go with your life. Moreover, a graduate degree is not a pass to employment of your choice. Just think about this: if you were a business owner thinking about hiring someone to develop a software for your business, who would you hire - someone with a PhD in Computer Science or someone who has successfully developed similar software solutions in the past?

I propose a less expensive and time consuming way of figuring out your interests, abilities, and possible path in life. Think about the time when you were a kid. At that time you obviously were not burdened (hopefully) by any economic and social pressures. You went with your natural instincts. So what did you like to do when you were a child? What were your hobbies? What were you good at? What did you dream about? After answering these questions, try to project that picture of yourself into some modern-day career.

For example, my brother has been crazy about bikes, motorcycles, and cars since he was a child (and I think he still is). I know he could have become a great car mechanic or a car salesman. But instead he went into finance. I think he still considers transitioning into the automotive industry although now he has years of successful experience in finance.

Friday, February 26, 2010

You need to go out!

Many PhD students decide to abandon their social life at least at some points of their program. For me it was the time before my prelims. I didn't go out almost two months. The second period was during dissertation stage. I would probably go out no more than once every month. I always felt - how can I go out and have fun when I have prelims/dissertation proposal/dissertation defense coming up soon?

Now that I look back I think this was the most serious mistake I made as a PhD student. PhD program is a marathon. For most people the marathon lasts more than 4 years. If you deprive yourself of social life at any point, you may be more productive for a week or two. But this will hurt your motivation and emotional health in the long run. Here's why. First, you have to take your mind off your work regularly. This is the most obvious reason for not isolating oneself for more than a week. Secondly, if you don't go out for too long, you may lose your relationships with friends. And then when you are ready to go out, there will be no one to go out with. Everyone would move on with their lives and you will be on your own. Not only this will deprive you of fun, it will also deliver a serious psychological blow. You will start thinking "I've lost everything because of the program: time, money, friends!".

So don't make this mistake. By the way, I've known quite a few people who survived through their programs in spite of everything being against them simply by getting drunk like a pig every week. Although you have to be careful with this, as you well know.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Academic Elitism

Economist Dan Klein shows that the worldwide top-35 economics departments pull 76 percent of their faculty from their own graduates. He argues that the academic culture is pyramidal, not polycentric, and resembles a closed and genteel social circle. Meanwhile it draws on resources from taxpayers, foundations, endowments, and tuition payers, and it judges the social service delivered. The result is a self-organizing and self-validating circle

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Myth of Freedom in Academia

Bright, inquisitive, and free-spirited minds are often lured into academia by the promise of intellectual freedom they will enjoy. Starting my first year in my PhD program I began noticing that censorship in academia is even more rampant than in the corporate world.

I've seen quite a few cases of someone in the corporate world telling his or her boss that he is an idiot and slamming the door in front of his nose. I think this is largely due to the fact that employment is much more fluid and dynamic in the corporate world. If you are a good specialist, you can always find a job in your field no matter where you live. The boss does not control the entire industry. Moreover, a few years from now he may not be a top dog anymore.

But I've never seen an academic doing anything of this sort. Academics are afraid to criticize senior scholars and administrators. Even criticizing a well-established theory may be impossible due to the fact that people to assigned to review these papers are often the ones who build their careers around it. This is due to the fact that even a good professor may have to spend years and relocate to another part of the world to change his or her job. Another factor is that senior scholars stick around for decades. And they are the ones controlling the publication processes - the backbone of any academic career. Once you get on their bad side, you will have to wait for 20 or 30 years for them to leave the field so that they are of no threat to you.

Those at odds with the system feel like they are not just losing their jobs in this specific school. They are ending their careers. I knew a professor who was threatened by his dean with the following words: "Finance is a small field. If you don't do X, I will make sure you will never find another job in finance!". And I'm sure he could do this if he wanted to. That's why shooting sprees are so common in academia. People feel like their life and career is over once they get into an argument with the system.

I started to think about this today after reading a few articles from the Chronicles of Higher Education website. I was surprised to see so many people writing under pseudonyms. And I suspect that many of those authors writing under pseudonyms actually have tenure.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stability of Employment in Academia

Our dean once told us that it's good to be in academia because of employment stability. "Even if you are an adjunct, you can't be fired in the middle of a semester", he said. Yes, but if you do get fired, then you may have to spend at least a semester looking for another job (at least a year if you are looking for a tenure track job).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

PhD students are not trained to be good teachers!

Even in top research schools professors spend a considerable portion of their working time teaching classes. Yet, from what I know, PhD programs typically do not require their students to take any courses on pedagogy. This seems to be a bit strange. But we all know why, right? Nobody cares about teaching in research schools - it's all about publishing. But students are paying big bucks for tuition. Don't they deserve to be taught by people who are well-trained on how to teach?

The circus is coming to town again!

Friends, the circus is is coming to town again!! I took a long summer vocation to clear my mind out of all that PhD crap. Then I moved to another country, taking on a challanging but very high paying job. Haven't had much time to write anything. If you are still following this blog, please leave a comment below. Thanks!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Selling my car

I've been trying to sell my Honda Civic. Posted an ad on craigslist. I've been contacted by approximately 10 people. And 7 or 8 of them were Indian graduate students. What's so special about Honda Civic that makes it so attractive to Indian graduate students? Any ideas?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Poor Academics

I've noticed that society is quite accepting and often sympathetic towards graduate students and academics who can barely make ends meet. I think that the reason behind the sympathy is that people think that academics are involved in something that that is beyond monetary reward:

  1. Academics contribute to the society by creating valuable knowledge
  2. Academics help students to improve their lives through education.

Having spent in academia many years I see how flawed these arguments are.

First of all, academia is no better than any other field. In fact, it can be much worse in terms of positive societal impact compared to other fields. While 1% of academics do push the boundaries of knowledge and help the society to solve its nascent problems, 99% are engaged in useless and trivial research and irrelevant teaching. Moreover, many high-impact inventions come from outside of academia: aspirin (Bayer), cars (Ford), copiers (Xerox), etc. Heck, even if we are talking about purely intellectual products, such as influential books, we see that many of those books were written by people without PhDs. So I just don't see how academia is somehow better in terms of its contribution to the society.

Secondly, professors are not providing education for free. Schools charge ridiculous amounts for tuition. The reason that many educators generally receive less money compared to the industry is due to the fact that education system is often very wasteful and has to pay less in order to compensate for the waste. Moreover, students often discover that the time and money spent is largely a waste and does not lead to any better lifestyle.

So, again, I don't see how the act of committing one's life to educating the young is more heroic than, let's say, committing your life to providing people with good food. Being sympathetic to a struggling academic is like being sympathetic to a store owner who doesn't sell anything that people are willing to buy.