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, 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.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Don't Jump into a Hot Field

Many prospective PhD students are lured into PhD programs, at least in part, as a result of them thinking that their field is very hot right now and there are plenty of employment opportunities inside and outside academia.

For example, when I was thinking about joining our PhD program, I was told by a PhD program coordinator that in 4 years I will have a six-figure job. This prediction was based on some of the recent graduates getting several offers well-above $100K.

Another example is my professor, who told me that one of the reasons he decided to join a PhD program was because a PhD student he knew got a $95K job offer at a very good school.

But here's the trick. Even if these numbers are accurate, you have to keep in mind that it will take you 4-6 years to get your PhD. The fact that your field is so hot right now is most likely a sign that a peak has been reached and decline is on the horizon. So it may be too late to exploit this opportunity. By the time you get your PhD, the market will be saturated and you will have great difficulties finding ANY employment, unless you are in the top 5%.

Another interesting implication of that theory is that students who fail to complete their PhD programs are usually the winners. They may find industry employment with a masters in that hot field and enjoy at least a couple of years of good earnings. When the market cools off, they will either keep working at their jobs or have enough savings sail through the decline.

So don't go into a field just because it is hot right now. It may be very cold in a few years from now.

In my personal experience, some of the most successful professors jumped on board when a field was not hot - it was in an emerging state. Because the field was so immature, they published a lot of low-quality papers in newly created journals in the field. After several years, the field reached its peak and these journals became top-journals. So they were the ones to exploit the opportunity, and not the students who decided to enter the field at that time. Their success may be a combination of insight and luck, with luck probably playing a much greater role than insight.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Academic Altruism

Yesterday I talked to one of my advisers about the state of economy as a whole and our school's financial situation in particular. He told me, with pride, that, despite the global economic turmoil, the school is expecting to raise professors' pay by a few percent this year. And just a few days earlier I saw an article where it was announced that our school, once again, raises tuition. I asked him how he felt about struggling families being forced to pay even more despite that many of them are struggling financially. His response was like: "Well, this school is going to lose its top-notch faculty members if they stop paying well. For example, I constantly get good offers from other schools and if I the pay I get here doesn't satisfy me I may leave".

And then they tell doctoral students that people who decide to pursue PhD are not interested in money...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Disgusting Professors

I consider myself to be an intellectual. I read heavily since the age of 6. I'm fluent in three languages. Based on my standardized test scores, I can say that I have above average intelligence. I've always liked studying and have been a great student.

Nevertheless, I've always had a certain level of disgust towards professors. I think the disgust is on the physiological level. I don't like how most of them look and act. I don't like their haircuts. I don't like their body built. I don't like the kind of clothing they wear. I don't like their nerdy humor.

Sometimes I think that physiologically I'm just not one of them. I'm 6.0 and well-built. I don't wear glasses - I have a perfect eyesight despite years of reading. No one ever picked on me at school - I look like a person who can fight back. At conferences I always feel like I don't belong there, although I'm an outgoing person. I prefer to hang out at bars with local people rather than participate in those boring conference events. Sometimes I think me being physically different from most academics produces a bit of mutual antipathy between me and male professors.

There was a professor in our department who resigned a few years before I joined the program (he got a better offer from a better school). This guy is not the nerdy type either. He is tall, athletic, and very handsome. To make things even worse, he is rich and well-known outside of the academic community. When he came to our school to give a talk, I just couldn't help noticing how much he bothered our professors. I had heard them saying things like "he is not a real researcher" (although he has a publication record comparable to that of many top professors in our department), "he is a clown" (he has a great sense of humor), "he is only interested in money" (his books sold very well), etc. At the same time, these professors would never say anything bad about a nerdy, top 10 professor - they would be all over him or her, making compliments, and joking around.

Well, I guess in order to be a part of academia, you have to be one of them both mentally and physically.

Thank you, Walmart!

Business school professors like to talk crap about Walmart. But Walmart helped me and numerous other slaves of academia to survive over all these years. When shopping at Walmart late at night, I ran into so many PhD students, postdocs, or even assistant professors from our school. Many of them acted like they didn't see me, LOL :)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Minimum Wage Work = Success ?

From the Chronicle of Higher Education Forum:

Well, I don't know if it counts as a success or not, but I did manage to land some academic piecework for the coming year. My job hunt as an ABD only managed to accumulate (if I was fortunate) a collection of rejection letters, but mostly silence. Wal-mart was looking to be the serious contender.

Three days after I defend, the department chair offers me a lecturer slot (2/2) at graduate assistant wages per course. Plus, these are frackin huge sections -- more students than many SLACs.

Did the math: worked out to be slave wages, but I jumped at the job. Like I had any reasonable alternative -- and it is a teaching job at a research university.

Even so, that wouldn't pay the bills. I ran into a friend who was teaching a DL graduate course for a federal agency, and got a contact. It turned out that they needed some guest help, and my mix of experience and new PhD was just the ticket. So now I have an on-line job as well (and not at a for-profit school).

As I said up front, I don't know if this counts as success -- it's probably more accurate to describe it as a way station. Hopefully I'll be able to chisel out enough time to get something from my dissertation published, and that plus PhD in hand may slightly up my chances. Not that I'm expecting the market to get any better next time around, but any ray of light at this point is a good thing.

Conversation with my Advisors

I had a conversation with two of my advisers today. They kept telling me that the best thing to do in my situation is not to look for any job. Instead, I should live off my parents and work on papers with them. They said I should not look for ANY jobs until I have at least one paper published with 2 others in the pipeline. They told me that getting a job will distract me from my research.

The only thing they forgot to tell me was how to live on zero money. But they don't see this as a problem.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

PhDs in Philosophy Make Zero Money

I've noticed that someone came to my blog by googling something like "how much do PhDs in philosophy make". Dude, there are virtually no jobs in this field. I think this degree is even less valuable than a PhD in English (and a PhD in English is often not worth the paper it is printed on). At least, I can see some ways of making money outside of academia with an English degree. But I just don't see why would anyone hire a philosopher. So here's the answer: PhDs in philosophy make close to zero US dollars per year. So you should pursue the degree only if your love for philosophy is so great that you are willing to live in poverty your whole life.

But here's a tip for you that may be a somewhat better compromise between your interests and the sad reality where people cannot live without money. Think about majoring in Management/Business Ethics. I think this area is becoming hotter and hotter. But hear me loud and clear: this may be a better, but by no means a good idea. I doubt the employment prospects for those with a PhD in Management are very bright, although they are definitely better than those with doctoral degrees in humanities. Moreover, it may be easier to get a non-academic job with this degree. But make sure you go into a business school for your degree, and not to a Psychology/Sociology department.

The Best Way to Quit a PhD Program: Taking a Leave of Absence

The best way to quit a PhD program is to take a one-year leave of absence. During the year, you can try to put your life back on non-academic track. If, after one year, you want to come back - you are legally entitled to do so. Quite a few PhD students in our program took a leave of absence and came back to finish their degrees.

There are a few things you need to know in relation to taking a leave of absence:

  • When you request one, don't burn the bridges by saying that you are sick of the program. Cite personal issues instead: health, the need to take care of your family member, financial situation, etc.
  • Make sure you know the rules associated with leave of absence. For example, you need to find out whether you will lose one year of funding if you decide to do so
  • Don't come back into the program because you haven't succeeded in finding a decent non-academic job. If you think that hiding out from real life for a few more years will solve the problem of figuring out your place in life, you are up for some serious problems in the future. You should only return when you are hundred percent sure you want to continue your academic career

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Power of Long-Term

Below are a few things I've learned as a result of my PhD studies. I call them "the power of long-term":

  • You don't complete your dissertation by pulling a few all nighters. Only incremental work will get it done. Not years of hard work (it will kill you), but years of a couple (a few) hours a day
  • You don't ruin your health overnight. It takes months of do a significant damage to your health. And it doesn't have to be months of heavy drinking or drug abuse. Just months of, let's say, bad sleeping habits.
  • You don't get your health back overnight. It takes months of work to get it back. Again, I'm not talking about months of hard work, just months of doing little things right.
  • You don't land a job by sending out a few resumes. It takes months of consistent search to find a job.
I think my undergraduate habits (the ones that made me so successful in my undergraduate program) played against me in my graduate program. By my senior year as an undergrad, I became so good in taking exams (yes, taking exams, not being an expert in my field) that all it took me was one day of studies to go over several textbook chapters and get an A on a multiple choice exam. I attended classes only to figure out what's going to be on an exam and not to learn the material.

But a PhD program is a marathon. Sprinters always lose in a PhD program. You shouldn't try to spring with anything in a PhD program (e.g. comprehensive exams, dissertation). Those things are done incrementally. Again, not by working intensively, but by working consistently.

Searching for a Job Outside of Academia

Searching for a job outside of academia when you have a PhD can create a dissonance inside your head because of the following contradictions:

  • The emotional part of your brain (left side?) tells you that your education, intelligence, and persistence qualifies you for a high-level high-paying job
  • At the same time, the rational part of your brain tells you that your skills and experience qualify you only for an entry-level job

When to Quit your Doctoral Program II

Here's one thing you need to understand in relation PhD experience. Having ups and downs during your PhD program (and especially during your dissertation stage) is absolutely normal. However, if one or more of the following is true, then you probably need to quit:

  1. You suffer from depression (inability to concentrate, insomnia, feeling sad all the time, having no energy when you wake up in the morning, constant feeling of fear and anxiety, etc) for more than a few month
  2. You did thorough research on the amount of time, money, and energy it will take to get a PhD and you think that, given the employment prospects, it's simply not worth it
  3. You don't think you want to be a professor. Again, every researcher, no matter how successful he or she is, has some periods when he or she feels like quitting. However, if your attitude towards the profession doesn't change for more than a few months, then you should consider quitting.
  4. You feel your work has an irreversible negative impact on your health. Trust me, losing your health to be a professor is not worth it. This career is not that lucrative and important to justify the sacrifice.

When deciding on whether to quit your PhD program, here are a few things I think you need to avoid:

  1. Don't listen to your friends and family. Don't continue your PhD program simply because you feel obligated to them to get the degree. Despite having your best interest in mind, these people often have no clue what academia is really like. They are as naive as you were when you started your PhD program. They think that a PhD is a ticket to wealth and status, BUT IT'S NOT! I often meet quite intelligent people from outside of academia who think that a person with a PhD can land any high paying job he or she wants.
  2. Don't be stubborn. I think most people who come into a PhD program are of the type who don't give up easily. They are used to finish everything they started despite all kinds of hardship. The thing is that you stubbornness may lead you to the same state of despair years and thousands dollars later. I would applaud a person who year after year keeps trying to become a millionaire, discover a drug against AIDS, or pursues some other big dream. But I would think that a person who is doing the same thing to get a hard, low-paying job of an English teacher is simply crazy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Corruption in Academia

I applied for two academic jobs for which I was clearly qualified. In both cases they were looking for a person with exactly my research/teaching interests. A few words on my qualifications:

  • I've managed to publish 12 papers during my PhD program
  • I have exceptionally high teaching evaluations
  • I have experience developing new courses
  • My adviser is a top 10 professor in my field
School one is a decent school. Well, they didn't even invite me for an interview. The school hired a PhD student of a professor who was a buddy of the school's department chair.

School two is a crappy teaching place. I have better qualifications than most of their existing faculty members. They did invite me for an interview. Immediately, it was clear that they were just wasting my time. The department chair kept saying things like "well, this is going to be a good practice for you in your job search". Guess who they hired? A son of one the school's administrators. Interestingly, one of his sons is already working for the department. Now they hired his second son.

So if you think that academics are not like the evil corporate types, your are being naive. Corruption in academia is even more rampant than in the corporate world. When I see discussions on ethics on our field's mailing list, I just want to tell those hypocrites to shut the fuck up.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Chains of Habit

I have a friend who graduated from our PhD program almost a year ago. He is still unemployed. He travels from thousand miles away to see his advisers every few months since he is still working on some papers with them. Yesterday, he was telling us he needs to go to another state for personal reasons. And then he said: "Oh, I need to tell my adviser that I won't be available for a while". One of my friends said: "Dude, you graduated a year ago. They are not paying you any money. And you still feel like you need permission from your adviser to be gone for a month". That's some crazy shit indeed.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Grad School as an Escape from Reality

This blog already talked about some of the wrong reasons for getting a PhD. It occurred to me today that there is another dangerous rationale for deciding to pursue graduate education. I think that many people decide to attend grad school because they want to escape the reality.

Here's a case in point for you. One of my friends was a double major in his undergraduate program. He got a bachelors degree in political science and biology. After getting his bachelors degree, he decided to go into a law school to get a JD. After he got his JD, he worked as a lawyer for a couple of months and then decided that being a lawyer "is not his cup of tea". So he went into a business school to get his MBA. After getting his MBA, he went into a PhD program in business. It took him almost seven years to get a PhD. After he got his PhD, he couldn't find employment in academia and, being 40 years of age, started looking for other jobs. During all those years his parents had been proud of him. They had been very pleased with their son's passion for knowledge and education and proud of his academic success. Now that I think about him it occurs to me that placing him into a drug rehabilitation facility instead of supporting him could had been a much wiser choice. This guy was addicted to education. He was using education as a means to escape the reality.

Discovering your strength and weaknesses, finding your passion, setting your life and career goals and taking the responsibility for those decisions is often an exhausting and nerve-wrecking experience. Some people decide to postpone the time when those choices have to be made by going into a grad school. Graduate schools serve as a safe psychological harbor for those who are not brave enough to face those choices at the present moment. Society looks down on those who remain unemployed for prolonged periods of time, change jobs often, and fail regularly at their endeavors. At the same time, the society looks at those who decide to continue their education in grad school with approval. Thus, graduate schools often serve as a drug that lets one escape the real life for a few years. I think this addiction has, at least, caused an irreversible damage to his life.

But the truth is that while graduate schools will let you escape the real life for a few years, it may not solve your problem of figuring our who you are and what you are good for. Professors won't help you with this, since they are the people who opted out of real life. Once the drug effect wears out, you will be faced with the same kind of problem, yet you will be older and beating around the bush to find answers to those questions may be even harder psychologically. By the time you graduate, at least some of your friends may be done with the period of soul searching and pursuing their dreams. And you will be among the group who is still struggling with those questions.

Finding your own path in life instead of going into graduate school may be a much better route. You cannot become successful simply by getting a Masters or a PhD. Who do you think will look as a more attractive employee - someone who got his or her masters degree in marketing or someone who has sold millions of dollars worth of cars? Just like drugs, graduate education may give you a mere illusion that your are growing and finding yourself in life. In many cases, the drug effect will wear out and you will see that you are still standing where you left years ago.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Professor of Desperation

If you want to pursue a doctoral degree in humanities, there's a big chance that you will end up in a situation similar to Larissa Tracy's. Make sure you read this article before applying to a PhD program in humanities.

Professor of Desperation

Bad pay, zero job security, no benefits, endless commutes. Is this any way to treat PhDs responsible for teaching a generation of college students?

By Eric L. Wee

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Business Education

Business education has a fundamental problem which, in combination with the ever increasing tuition, is likely to lead to its demise. The problem is that many classes in business schools are taught by people who have never set their foot into a real business. How can those people possibly teach aspiring managers how to manage organizations? Would you ever take driving lessons from someone who has never driven a car? I think most people would agree that managing organization is a far more complex task than driving a car.

Warren Bennis and James O'Toole do a great job articulating this problem in the article titled "How Business Schools Lost Their Way"

Monday, June 1, 2009

Time in Academia

Time flows differently in academia. Years and months go by without getting anyhere. This is probably due to the fact tenured professors are not in a hurry and they set pace for academia as a whole. They gonna get their paycheck today, a year, ten years from now. Even if nuclear war breaks out, they will still get their paycheck.

I remember reading a blog of an MBA graduate who got his degree from a top school. In one of his blog entries he grieves about sacrificing two years of his life to get an MBA. Even though he did get a great job shortly after graduation, he thinks that those two years had a significant price tag in terms of him loosing valuable experience and promotional opportunities. Even though he had a valuable degree in hands and good employment prospects, he felt like he needed to catch up with his peers on the career ladder.

There was another interesting thought in his blog. He suggested that an MBA graduate should not spend more than a month or two after graduation seeking a position. He says that you should take the best offer you can within the first 1-2 months. Otherwise, you may delay your career to the point where you, again, won't be able to catch up with peers.

I wonder what this guy would say about someone who spent 5-6 years getting a degree and then another 6 years trying to find an average payin job... This is probably something beyond his analytical abilities.

Research as a Cult

I remember reading a book by Boris Bazhanov, Stalin's long-time secretary, where he explains what lead to his disillusionment with the Bolsheviks and his eventual decision to defect to the West. Bazhanov comes across as a man with limited intellectual horizons yet very strong common sense. He explains that the turning point in his life was his disillusionment with Marxism. He writes that he found much of Marx theories to be erroneous on logical grounds. But the major evidence supporting fallacy of Marxism was found in his empirical observations. He saw that Marxism wasn't practiced by the communists in their daily lives. It wasn't practiced because it didn't have any practical value, according to Bazhanov. All communist leaders preferred to use the old and true approaches of capitalists and dictators to get things done. The only value of Marxism, he concludes, was to serve as some sort of cult used to justify their power and exert power on others. One had to be knowledgeable in Marxism not to become a better leader, but to become a member of the "club". And, of course, communist leaders would twist and contradict Marx's theory if their personal agenda required to do so.

Sometimes I think that the same can be said about the role of research in academia. Oftentimes, it is obvious that even research published in top journals is pretty useless. It doesn't have any practical value. Yet research is something that has to be practiced to be a member of the professorial club.

Research can be used to built a somewhat artificial position of power, just like being knowledgeable in the Bible puts someone in a position of power. But just like a preacher may not necessarily be a better person compared to an average atheist, a professor with a dozen articles of management may not be worth squat as a manager.

Research can also be used to exert power on others. Review process can be twisted to keep someone out of the club and deprive those people of living in academia. Reviewing standards are often inconsistent and ambiguous - they are often a function of the personality, mood, and personal agenda of editors and reviewers.

Will Higher Education Be the Next Bubble to Burst?

This article does a good job of articulating the feeling that I've had for the last few years. I've been thinking that education is a service with a price tag way above the value it delivers to its clients. The only thing that keeps the education industry afloat is the fact that the need of education is engraved within the minds of the public. The decision to "go to school" is often based on no pragmatic economic justification.

Yes, we all have heard the "college graduates make $1 million more over their lifetime than high school graduates". But this statistics has been questioned numerous times. The major argument is that those who go to college are generally more responsible and capable individuals who are likely to succeed without a degree as well. In other words, this justification may be similar to "successful people wear Rolexes". Having been exposed to all facets of higher education, I cannot help but think that education is not completely useless yet the value it delivers to students is vastly overrated. Higher education will have to initiate "perestroika" or it will collapse just like the Soviet Union.

Will Higher Education Be the Next Bubble to Burst?

The public has become all too aware of the term "bubble" to describe an asset that is irrationally and artificially overvalued and cannot be sustained. The dot-com bubble burst by 2000. More recently the overextended housing market collapsed, helping to trigger a credit meltdown. The stock market has declined more than 30 percent in the past year, as companies once considered flagship investments have withered in value.

Is it possible that higher education might be the next bubble to burst? Some early warnings suggest that it could be.

With tuitions, fees, and room and board at dozens of colleges now reaching $50,000 a year, the ability to sustain private higher education for all but the very well-heeled is questionable. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent — more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care. Patrick M. Callan, the center's president, has warned that low-income students will find college unaffordable.

Meanwhile, the middle class, which has paid for higher education in the past mainly by taking out loans, may now be precluded from doing so as the private student-loan market has all but dried up. In addition, endowment cushions that allowed colleges to engage in steep tuition discounting are gone. Declines in housing valuations are making it difficult for families to rely on home-equity loans for college financing. Even when the equity is there, parents are reluctant to further leverage themselves into a future where job security is uncertain.

Consumers who have questioned whether it is worth spending $1,000 a square foot for a home are now asking whether it is worth spending $1,000 a week to send their kids to college. There is a growing sense among the public that higher education might be overpriced and under-delivering.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Faculty on Food Stamps

By Marc Bousquet

Andy Smith describes his ten years as a contingent faculty member. Starting with a low pay while doing dirty work is common for many professions. However, you should keep in mind that PhDs start so low after years of grad school - something that costs a fortune in tuition and lost wages. Moreover, this "entry period" may drag for years.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Stay Focused!

In order to be successful in a doctoral program, you have to stay focused. And your focal point should be to graduate (that is write a dissertation) and get a job. Everything else should be secondary.

When I joined my doctoral program, I was encouraged to produce papers from the get-go. I had been quite good at it. By the end of my third year I co-authored a dozen papers with faculty from our department. I was praised for being so productive and was regarded very highly in the program.

And then the reality hit me. As it turned out, you had to write a dissertation to get your PhD... Something that I didn't really think about. I was too focused on producing papers. After all, this is what I was encouraged to do. I was too young and too ignorant regarding the ways academia works. I also thought that writing a dissertation shouldn't be a problem, it was going to be just another paper, albeit a big one.

Well, at that time I was already burned out from taking classes, teaching, and writing so many papers. I was hoping that I could sort of staple a few papers together and that would be my dissertation. I know that many programs allow their students to do this, and this practice makes a lot of sense.

However, I was told explicitly (together with other PhD students who were doing pretty much the same thing) that I could not use my prior published research towards my dissertation. My dissertation had to be a totally new project. The justification for this decision was that using published research towards dissertation was against the rules of the doctoral program. Needless to say, I couldn't find this rule anywhere. I think the real reason was the faculty wanting additional papers out of me. The fact that I was burned out from all that work and very demotivated due to constant poverty and me gaining a realistic picture regarding my future employment prospects didn't really bother anyone.

I remember at one point of my dissertation work I was so burned out, so depressed, and so concerned with lack of money for even basic things like food that I didn't write a line for a few months... I told my adviser that I need him to help me to get moving. His answer went like this: "Well, this is your project. You have to prove us that you can do research in order to get your PhD ". I thought to myself, "Fuck, I have 12 published papers behind my belt. I received above average student evaluations for my teaching. What the hell do I have to prove to you????". Well, technically, he was absolutely right - you need a dissertation written by you to get a PhD.

Anyways, I hope you understand what was my mistake and will avoid going down that path. Of course, you have to bribe your profs with a couple of publications before you start your dissertation. But don't make it your priority. Your priority is to graduate and get a job.

Thinking About Grad School? Think Again

By Marty Nemko

A Rand Corporation report concluded that universities granted 25% more doctoral degrees in science and engineering than could be absorbed by the workforce..."Rand charged that universities are oblivious to the job market...Thousands from other professions face the same situation.... An amazing 16% of newly minted MBA graduates of Stanford University were unable to find jobs. Less prestigious business schools fared even worse... Experts project that of the millions of university graduates, only a mere 20% will find the well-paying, challenging jobs for which they were trained." (Phi Delta Kappan, October, 1997.) Now, graduate schools admit even more students.

Caveat emptor.

The Case Against Graduate School

By Marty Nemko

Colleges’ PR flaks relentlessly trumpet that the more education you have, the more money you’ll make.

That’s terribly misleading--it varies so much with the individual. The question is, “Is grad school right for you?”

In my 20 years as a career coach, among my saddest feelings have been hearing the fears of the many people who gave years of their lives and mortgaged their financial futures to get a graduate degree only to still find themselves so poorly employed they’re unable to pay back their backbreaking student loans, let alone earn a decent living.

This article presents arguments against colleges’ propaganda so you can make a more eyes-open decision about whether to go back to school.

Read more

Play PhD Casino!

Getting a Ph.D. is like playing the lottery, explains Monica Jacobe. After a median 10 years of study, and perhaps four or five years of job hunting, 40 percent of language PhDs will not have tenure track jobs anywhere.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Professors function in a system which is incredibly inefficient, political, and deceitful. They are the cause and effect of this system. And yet they teach managers how to manage their organizations.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Faculty Compensation

Schools posting faculty job ads do not even bother posting salary information. Most universities are non-for-profit, state-run institutions and have salary levels regulated by law. So revealing this information should not be a problem. But why post salary information when you know you will get a few hundred applications from people willing to work for any kind of pay?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Faculty and Administration; Teaching and Research Schools

Here's one thing I've noticed from my own experience. Professors in teaching schools are usually very easy to get along with. It's administrators who give you a lot of trouble with all the rules and their enforcement. In research schools, professors are usually very hard to get along with, since most of them are stuck up jerks. Yet administrators in research schools do not seem to care about anything and don't enforce rules much. So they usually don't give you any trouble.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

PhD Programs are like Casinos

The more I think about PhD programs, the more I realize that casino analogy is very appropriate here. As a PhD student, you are making a huge investment of time, money, and energy. But the odd are really against you, just like the odds are always against you in a casino. So admiring people who succeeded in academia is like admiring a gambler who, after many years, won a rather small fortune (academic jobs do not pay that well) in a casino. This kind of luck is rather something to laugh at.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Seeking Approval of Committee Members

Being new to the world of science and research, you may think that science is objective. You may think that you can come up with a paper or dissertation that has bullet-proof theoretical logic and superb empirical rigor. And if you succeed in doing so, the faculty in your department will have no choice but to accept your work.

This naivety can be dangerous. Science is socially constructed (read Kuhn). Any research, no matter how influential it is, has many dark areas and can be ripped apart by anyone wishing to do so. So when you do research, you have to seek approval from your committee members. Sometimes it's not even about them offering you suggestions how to improve your work. They may have no clue. It's more about them feeling that they provide some kind of input in your work. Because if they feel like they have put something of their own into your work, they will be less likely to criticize your final product.

So make sure you don't work on anything in isolation. Even if you feel that your committee does not really help you, you still have to seek their approval in the process. And not after you finish. Showing up for meetings with your committee members is at least as important as doing superb job on your own.

Dissertation = Depression + Guilt + Glory + Motivation

This post from another blog provides a very accurate description of how I felt while working on my dissertation:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

An interesting discussion on PhD program length from New York Times

Exploring Ways to Shorten the Ascent to a Ph.D.

For those who attempt it, the doctoral dissertation can loom on the horizon like Everest, gleaming invitingly as a challenge but often turning into a masochistic exercise once the ascent is begun. The average student takes 8.2 years to get a Ph.D.; in education, that figure surpasses 13 years. Fifty percent of students drop out along the way, with dissertations the major stumbling block. At commencement, the typical doctoral holder is 33, an age when peers are well along in their professions, and 12 percent of graduates are saddled with more than $50,000 in debt.

These statistics, compiled by the National Science Foundation and other government agencies by studying the 43,354 doctoral recipients of 2005, were even worse a few years ago. Now, universities are setting stricter timelines and demanding that faculty advisers meet regularly with protégés. Most science programs allow students to submit three research papers rather than a single grand work. More universities find ways to ease financial burdens, providing better paid teaching assistantships as well as tuition waivers. And more universities are setting up writing groups so that students feel less alone cobbling together a thesis.

Important Question

So what is my profession?

I think that people who decide to quit academia and get a normal job are often puzzled by the following question: "What is my profession?". The thing is that even though you have a PhD in let's say marketing, you are not really a marketing professional. The sad reality is that PhD programs do not prepare knowledgeable programmers, managers, accountants, or marketers. In a PhD program you learn how to do research. So your profession is doing research. You may know much about a particular field, especially if we are talking about the practical aspects of a profession.

For example, I've seen quite a few accounting PhD students who do not know even basic things about accounting, the things that any practicing accountant with a bachelors degree would probably know. The reason for this ignorance is that those accounting PhD students do research in perceptions and do not have time to look at some of the practical aspects of the profession.

Sometimes I even think that once you get a PhD in social sciences, it doesn't really matter in which department you work afterwards. For example, if you get a PhD in psychology, you can do research in such fields as management, marketing, or even accounting and finance. I often see professors from one discipline supervising research in other disciplines. The fact that they don't know much about the field does not really matter. They know how to do research, and it doesn't really matter what field they are looking at.

I can say the same thing about myself. Having learned about experimental design, very often I don't have much problems reading a scientific article in marketing - the field I don't know much about. But I know experimental design and associated statistical techniques, so me not being familiar with the subject matter of research does not prevent me from understanding that article. But obviously, there's no way I can be a marketer - I don't know even basic practical things about the profession. Unfortunately, this may be true not only for me, but also for people who have PhDs in marketing . They don't know much about the profession of a marketer.

Of course, you probably know more than an average undergraduate. However, those 4-5 years that you spent learning about research is largely a waste. The thing is that the real world is too fast-paced to use those scientific methods.

You may be tempted to think that at least you've learned how to think and write. Unfortunately, I don't think business owners will appreciate an employee with academic thinking and writing style. A typical academic approach is to take a trivial thing and make it sound very complex. Sophisticated language is often one of the tools to make that trivial thing sound complex and important. Practitioners often strive to achieve completely the opposite - to take a complex issue and make it sound very simple by ignoring many of the issues and using simple language. I'm pretty sure that the way normal people handle some very complex issues (i.e. "terrorism is bad", "abortion is a sin", "racism is stupid", "capitalism is good", "progressive tax is fair") is giving headache to PhDs studying those issues.

I often think that the only useful thing you learn in a PhD program is survival skills. You know how to work hard despite the fact that you have no motivation, no money, no friends, no personal life, and no energy. You are somewhat of a veteran of psychological warfare. But just like fighting in Vietnam is probably not the best route to a managerial position, your psychological warfare may not be a good route to a normal life. You may have sustained too much damage and may need a rehabilitation period to integrate yourself into normal life.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Research as an Intellectual Exercise

One of the worst mistakes that you can make as a PhD student is seeking pragmatic justification for your research. It is a mistake because usually there's no immediate value behind it. Therefore, seeking pragmatic justification will only lead to dissatisfaction with your work. Instead, you should view your research as an intellectual exercise with no immediate value but with possible valuable side-effects.

For example, think about a sport, such as soccer. Obviously, there's no immediate pragmatic justification for devoting your entire life to perfecting the art of chasing and tossing a ball. In fact, the whole task is somewhat absurd from a pragmatic standpoint. Yet, there's value in soccer. First, it's a physical exercise. A side effect of playing soccer is that you improve your physical condition. Such qualities as stamina, speed, reaction can be useful in your daily life. Second, soccer invokes certain valuable emotional responses from those who consume the art of soccer: joy, frustration, pride, sense of belonging, etc. This is how soccer becomes valuable.

Similarly, you should view research as an intellectual exercise. By conducting research, your are exercising (usually within somewhat artificial environment) in logical thinking, problem-solving, and argumentation. From this perspective, the subject matter of your research does not really matter, just like it doesn't matter whether you play with a soccer ball (as they do it in Europe) or a dead goat's body (as they do it in Afghanistan). When others consume research, they may not learn anything of immediate value. Yet, your research may stimulate thinking, curiosity, etc. in those who consume research. Thus, no matter how absurd your research is, it may produce valuable side-effects for you and those who consume your research.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why it is hard to stay motivated in a PhD program

Completing a PhD can be one of the most difficult tasks in your life due to the fact in many cases it's simply impossible to keep yourself motivated to do the task. Here's why:

  • Research is hard. It is hard to come up with something even marginally novel. It is very hard to adhere to the high standards for theoretical/logical strength of your arguments and empirical rigor of your field work. You have to work very hard, sometimes 7 days a week to adhere to those standards.
  • Despite the fact that those standards are high, they are often ambiguous and subjective. It is not uncommon to receive completely orthogonal evaluations of your work. Some people will say that what your wrote doesn't offer any valuable contributions and lacks the rigor. Others will say it is great work and should be published immediately. I once wrote a paper that my adviser thought was worthless - it did not offer anything new. I sent the paper to a well-known journal and the senior editor told me it was very interesting and she will publish it immediately. The bottom line is that no matter what you do, you will be criticized.
  • Despite the high standards that most researchers try to adhere, deeply inside you understand that most of the research produced in your field is really worthless. Deeply inside you understand that much of research is highly regarded only because it is produced by people who have a lot of power in your field. Nobody really reads those papers outside of your field, so there's no market validation of their value. The only people who read those papers are the ones who have to read and cite those "ingenious" papers if they want to get their own stuff published. So you start to doubt yourself and the field as a whole. If the most respected people in your field produce worthless crap, how can you produce something valuable?
  • Despite the fact that you have to work hard and deal with lack of any intrinsic motivation, you have to live with no extrinsic motivation as well. You are paid peanuts for what you do. You are worth as much as a minimum wage laborer. Even if you succeed in completing your PhD degree, you will not be paid millions for your work. Most likely, you will end up with an average paying job, just like millions of other people.
In the light of these issues, one cannot help but ask himself or herself: "Why am I doing this?". Sometimes I think that in order to be successful in academia, you have to be somewhat of an arrogant imbecile. A person with deep intellectual and emotional understanding of these factors will never complete his or her PhD. So if you wonder why so many professors are arrogant and self-centric, this can give you a possible explanation. People who are not like that do not survive.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bill Gates on Education

Today I watched a TV interview with Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft. In this interview he mostly talked about his work at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The show host asked him what he thought was the toughest mountain to climb for the foundation. His response went something like this: "Fighting AIDS is tough. Resolving financial problems in poor countries is also tough. But the biggest challenge we are facing is changing education". Than he elaborated on his last statement by saying that education often involves a lot of political agendas as well as conservatism that is engraved in people's minds. He said that resistance to change in education is common to all countries, whether it is China or United States.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dissertation strategies: One page per day

There's no general recipe for writing a dissertation. But there's one useful strategy of mechanical nature. Just get into the habit of writing one page per day. Don't worry if your writing is of poor quality - you can edit later. Don't worry if you are not sure how this fits into your dissertation. Just write one page per day. In a few months you may have enough stuff to put together a very rough draft. Of course, you will have to throw away a lot of those pages. But you may end up using some of them too. Moreover, this one page per day habit may benefit you psychologically. You will feel that, at least, you are doing something every day. I think it gives you an illusion/feeling of some kind of progress.

Taboos in Academia

Most professors will never admit that:

  1. They are wrong
  2. They don't understand something

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Motivation in Academia

From the perspective of extrinsic motivation, academia can be the most demotivating place to work in.

It's not uncommon for newly hired faculty members to get paid more than faculty who has been with the department for many years. This is the kind of reward you get for giving your whole life to the school.

PhD students experience this too. In fact, it's even worse in their case. Unlike professors, doctoral students do not get annual pay raises, so the difference is often even more drastic. I remember when I joined the PhD program, I was making twice as much as doctoral students who had been with the department for 3-4 years. The irony here is that a senior doctoral student not only deserves to get paid more by most human standards, he or she has a much greater objective need for money. After spending several years in the program most PhD students are usually broke and in desperate need for money. After I spend several years in the program, I discovered that new PhD students were paid 50% more than I was making....

So I've been on the serving as well as receiving end of this wonderful motivation scheme. Does miracles to your motivation and loyalty to the department!

Friday, April 24, 2009

On research

Academic research is hard, boring, and useless.

Why schools do not hire their own graduates

Most graduate programs (with the exception of such schools as Harvard) do not hire their own PhD graduates as tenure-track professors. A common justification of this unofficial rule is that schools want to prevent "academic inbreeding". Gathering people with different academic backgrounds in one department, they argue, is likely to produce better synergies. Another justification of this unofficial rule is that a newly minted assistant professor will always be perceived as a "dumb PhD student" by other faculty members if he continues working for the same department he got his or her PhD from.

One can argue that this noble purpose of creating better synergies and improving well-being of newly minted professors is really a mask for some much more earthly and pragmatic causes.

First, by the time someone gets his or her PhD degree he may have a lot of hate towards professors in the department and simply may not want to continue working with them. I rarely meet a PhD graduate who doesn't hate his or her committee members and the department as a whole.

Second, given the scarcity of tenure-track positions, a second-tier school can easily hire someone from a top-tier school as a tenure-track faculty member. So there's no point in hiring their own graduates when they can easily hire someone much shinier.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Academic Hypcrisy

This article from the Chronicle of higher education is a good example of academic stupidity and/or hypocrisy.

The article starts out by making a case that many PhD students, despite spending years in grad school, have very bleak employment prospects:

It is the best of times and worst of times to start a science career in the United States.

Researchers today have access to powerful new tools and techniques — such as rapid gene sequencers and giant telescopes — that have accelerated the pace of discovery beyond the imagination of previous generations.

But for many of today's graduate students, the future could not look much bleaker.

They see long periods of training, a shortage of academic jobs, and intense competition for research grants looming ahead of them. "They get a sense that this is a really frustrating career path," says Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

And then they propose some "solutions" to the problem:

Mr. Walker says that American graduate programs train students to be superb researchers. But they need to do more, he argues. Departments and students must recognize that the majority of science doctorate recipients no longer become professors, and that realization should cause a shift in the culture and practice of graduate education. "There's a mismatch between the opportunities available to students as they complete their work and their expectations and the nature of their training along the way."

Graduate programs, he says, need to help students learn how to be nimble — to work at the junctions of disciplines, to collaborate as part of a team, and to be able to move from one topic to another. All of these skills, he says, are becoming increasingly important as careers evolve, both within and outside academe

I have a much simpler solution:

  • Do not recruit so many doctoral students
  • Do not lie to prospective doctoral students about their employment prospects

If there are no jobs for PhD holders, then stop recruiting so many PhD students!!! This sounds like the most logical solution. But they won't stop. They need cheap labor to churn out research papers. And to get an educated and smart person working for them for minimum wage, they need to lie about employment prospects.

How many people would agree to join a PhD program if they are told openly: "Look, you gonna spend 6 years forking 50-70 hours a week for less then minimum wage and then you are likely to have very bleak employment prospects". You have to be insane to agree to that kind of a deal. So schools will continue lying (or simply avoiding this subject).

Being a doctoral student is not the worst thing in the world...

If you think that being a doctoral student is a frustrating, depressing, and exhausting experience, wait until you start your job search. This is when all the real "fun" begins...

Tenure is not Heaven

One of our PhD program coordinators used to tell incoming PhD students:

"There are three reasons to be a professor: June, July, and August!"

He was implying that if you become a tenured professor you will have a lot of free time on your hands to do whatever you want.

I don't think this is true. If you become a tenured professor, you still have a lot of things to do, such as conducting/supervising research, committee work, teaching etc. Many tenured professors do manage to slack off (e.g. coming to work 3 times a week, taking the entire summer off, etc.). However, this is done at the expense of their responsibilities. Therefore, if you are a responsible person, I doubt you really have that much time on your hands to do whatever you want.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

One thing I've learned in PhD Program

One thing I've learned in academia is to stay away from anything volunteer-based or state-controlled.

On quitting PhD (some case studies)

The more I stayed in my PhD program, the clearer was my undersanding that quitting a PhD, especially in the first 2-3 years, is not such a bad idea.

Below are some case studies of people I actually new.

  • Guy 1: Quit after his first year. Got out with a masters. Landed a 100K job immediately. He was a smart guy, that's probably why he quit so soon and got such a great job
  • Guy 2: Quit after 3 years in the program. Immediately found a 80K job in the industry. He lives in a nice place and swears that he doesn't work more than 9 hours a day (and of course, doesn't work on weekends)
  • Guy 3: Quit after approximately 5 years in the program. He wanted to finish, but since he had a family and funding had been lifted from him, simply could not afford to stay any longer. Found a 60K government job within a few month. Needless to say, works 8 hours a day max, great benefits, and has almost bullet-proof job security
  • Guy 5: This guy was an independently wealthy retired businessman. A millionaire. Joined the program because he wanted to teach at a university. After he quit he told me he never worked so hard even in his glory days as a businessman.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Flexible and Rewarding Career

Our college used to run an ad aimed at attracting applicants to their PhD programs. The ad argued that having a PhD is a road to a "flexible and rewarding career).

I'm not going to touch on the "rewarding" part of the ad here. But I will talk a bit about the so-called flexibility.

Flexibility is definitely not a part of a professor's career. In many fields, there are only a couple of dozen openings in the entire United States. Needless to say, you don't have much to choose from in terms of location. Moreover, not all of those openings may be a good fit with what you do in terms of teaching and research. So, in any given year, you are lucky to see a few job ads that seem to align with what you want to do and where you want to live. Given the level of competition for those openings, there may be like 1-2-3 hundred applicants for every position. The applicants pool consists of new PhD graduates, faculty members who got denied tenure and numerous adjuncts. So most people are happy to land a permanent, tenure-track position ANYWHERE, even if it means moving from let's say California to North Dakota.

Now, if you do land a permanent position, you cannot hope for regular and substantial pay raises throughout your tenure. Pay raises at universities may only compensate for inflation, but are not likely to give you any boost to your financial situation. If you stay in one place for too long, new hires are likely to make more money than you, after 10-15 years with the school. Situations like that are very common.

So the only way to improve your financial situation is to change jobs every few years. Again, given the small number of jobs available, getting a new job usually means relocating thousands miles away.

My adviser, a very accomplished professor, lived in 14 different states and 2 different countries throughout his career. Because of his nomadic lifestyle, he didn't have a chance to start a family until he was like 50. The only reason he kept wondering around like a gypsy was pay!

Unless by flexibility they mean that you have to become flexible like a gypsy, you shouldn't buy into that flexibility crap they advertise.

Employment Cycles in Academia

Academia recruits people through lengthy and bureaucratic procedures. The bottom line for anyone who wants to find a university position is that you just can't be hired at any time.

For example, if you are looking for an adjunct position, you won't be hired in-between semesters (for obvious reasons). Therefore, if you don't find a position before a semester starts, you will have to wait for another 4-6 months. Moreover, department chairs usually don't know whether they will need someone from outside to teach a class until 1-2 weeks before a semester starts. So at least some people end up teaching classes or find out that they will be unemployed on a short notice.

If you are looking for a full-time, tenure-track position - there's usually a one year recruitment cycle associated with these positions. So if you hope to start working full time in let's say August 2010, you will have to apply in Summer 2009. Applicants may have through a series of interviews, campus visits, etc. throughout the entire year. Anything can happen during that year. For example, some schools will just suspend their candidate search due to funding for the new position not being approved. If you are not successful in landing a job (and given the oversupply of PhDs this seems to be the case for most candidates), you have to wait another year if you hope to land a full-time job. Even right now there are people who are "looking for work" since 1990s.

What a great field to be in!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

How long does it take to get a PhD?

This question has to be carefully investigated by anyone planning to pursue a PhD.

My impression is that many programs advertise themselves as "4 year programs". The reality is that 4 years often seems to be an ideal that most program do not live up to.

On average, I think, the length of a PhD program in social sciences is 5-5.5 years. Obviously, some programs may be in the lower quartile and students may have to put in up to 10 years of hard work to get that piece of paper called diploma.

Make sure you do a very thorough research on the subject. Just ask specific people in the program about their tenure with the department and about the number of years it took the program's recent graduates to get their degrees. You may be surprised!

It's not about discoveries, it's all about publishing!

Some people want to pursue a research career because they hope to make exciting and valuable discoveries. Unfortunately, being a professor is is not about making discoveries. Academia is all about publishing!

So what's the difference between research many aspiring PhD students hope for and publishing? I think the reality is that a scholar may only have 1-2 useful ideas/discoveries in his or her life time. In fact, many people are not that lucky.

Despite the fact that most researchers do not really have anything new to offer, they have to publish regularly. Because of that, they often publish things that are not even worth reading. I'd say that in many fields about 95% of top publications are not even worth reading, since they don't offer much beyond common sense or what has been said in the past.

Academic Conservatism

One would think that academia is home to the most innovative and free-spirited people. After all, in the absence of market pressures, people are free to do whatever they want.

The reality is that academia is one of the most conservative fields in existence. Absence of market forces seems to do completely the opposite: there's very little incentive to change.

How much does online degree cost?

Online degrees seem to cost even more than offline degrees. Or, at least, there's no substantial price difference between online and offline education. You would think that online delivery would bring down school's costs, resulting lower fees for students. But this doesn't seem to be the case. They justify high costs by saying that students have to pay the premium for the convenience.

Adjuncts: Hope Springs Eternal

I talked to my friend today. He has been an adjunct for several years now. Every year he tells me his school is going to offer him a permanent position. But it doesn't happen...

He applied to a nearby school for a tenure-track position (a crappy teaching school). Then he talked to one of his former professors about the job. The professor told him that he is not likely to get this job. One of the school's existing adjuncts is going to get it. The reason they advertise the position is because they are required to do so by law. In reality, this position is already filled...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Education is an Attractive Industry

Education is the kind of industry Warren Buffet would love to invest in:
  • Everyone thinks he or she needs eduction. It's just a part of our value system. People who don't have education are often looked down upon (unless your are Bill Gates, of course)
  • There are very smart people willing to sacrifice 10 years of their lives just to get a minimum wage job as a lecturer at a university.
  • People are always willing to pay for eduction. Money is often irrelevant to the decision. They will go into all kinds of debt just to get education. Very often, there may not be a strong economic rationale behind this investment - but people want it no matter what. Even if they end up in a situation where they clearly see that their investment hasn't paid off , they may still be happy about it. "Well, at least I'm an educated person!".
  • Many educational products (knowledge/information) are very scalable - there's little or no marginal cost involved in producing these products. For example, if you create an electronic textbook, the cost of burning each additional CD with the textbook on it is not substantial.Yet the education industry manages to charge a lot of money for those products.
  • Education industry players are often able to sustain their competitive advantage for decades, despite the fact that their products can be replicated with ease. For example, one can easily set up a school with a curriculum identical to that of Harvard. Yet it will probably take decades and billions of dollars to steal some of the market share from Harvard. Objectively, quality of education may not be that different - but it is very different in the eyes of the public.
But the irony is that despite being in a very attractive industry, many schools still demand a lot of funding from the government. They just waste the economic potential that they have.

PhD Program Shrinkage

Here's an interesting article from the Inside of Higher Ed:

Several colleges have recently announced that, regardless of application quality, they plan to admit fewer Ph.D. students for this coming fall than were admitted a year ago. The economics of doctoral education are different enough from those of other programs that some universities' doctoral classes will be taking a significant hit, with potential ramifications down the road for the academic job market, the availability of teaching assistants, and the education of new professors.

I suggest that they cut both: PhD students and tenured faculty. Getting rid of 20% of tenured faculty would probably save 10 times as much money as cutting 20% of PhD students. And I doubt it will have any impact on school's performance. Tenured faculty members often come to work 2 times a week. Sometimes they are gone for an entire semester "doing research in Paris".

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On Irrationality of Doctoral Student

I remember my first day in the PhD program. Two senior PhD students invited me to go have lunch with them. They were chatting about jobs. One of them (he later became one of my best friends) said something like that:

"Man, look at Mike. He spent 6 years in the program and got a 60K teaching job! I know a guy who went to a nursing school and he makes about the same after like 2 years in school". Shortly after this lunch, this guy quit our PhD program and got an 80K industry job in a few months.

For some reason, I didn't pay attention to what he said. There's just something about human nature that prevents people from understanding simple things. Some people can solve extremely complex math problems, yet lack the ability to make very sober judgments. May be emotions get in the way of rational thinking. Or may be people just like to gamble.

I think what I should have done when I heard that interesting rumor is extensive research on employment prospects in my field.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Know the rules of your PhD program!

Make sure you become well-versed in departmental, college, and university rules applicable to doctoral students. Don't waste your time at a PhD student orientation daydreaming about the scientific discoveries you will make (you will make none) or trying to meet other PhD students (they will not become your friends anyway). Listen to the rules and policies instead. Create a folder where you keep all the handbooks. Make sure you take some time to go through those handbooks. You don't wanna be caught off guard with an accusation that you have violated a rule.

Professors usually don't know those rules themselves. They have their own problems and knowing PhD program rules is the least important (or non-existent) thing on their priority list. Their legal nihilism is often replaced with legal fundamentalism when they want to find a formal reason to kick you out of the program. So don't put yourself in a vulnerable situation because of your own ignorance.

Just to give you an example. We had a lot of doctoral seminar classes where we would usually get "incompletes" instead of a grade at the end of a semester. This had to do with the fact that faculty always wanted a publishable paper as an outcome of every doctoral seminar course. They marketed this requirement as rigorous training. However, it was more due to them wanting to get papers out of us. Well, as you know, writing a publishable paper in a new area may take you much longer than one semester. Moreover, after the class is over, your prof may be too busy to get back to you and grade your paper. As a result of that, many doctoral students in our program would have several incompletes after 2 years in the program. There's a rule that after certain amount of time an incomplete becomes an "F". There's also a rule that that a PhD student who gets three grades of C- and below is automatically dropped from the program. So quite a few students would find themselves with 1-2-3 Fs on their transcripts. Which is not really their fault yet a violation of PhD program rules.

We had a guy who was an exceptional doctoral student. He was very hard-working. Had a few papers already published. Did excellent job teaching. However, he was too independent (didn't kiss up to people much) and some faculty members did not like him. So his "bad grades" (mostly due to incompletes) gave them a perfectly legal reason to drop him out. There was nothing he could do. He violated the rules.

Of course, this is a rather extreme case and this probably doesn't happen too often in PhD programs. Still, keep those things in mind. Do not make yourself vulnerable. You can recover from the outcast state only if you are not terminated from the program.

Employment for International Students in the United States

International graduate students often find themselves in a much harder financial situation than locals. This has to do with the fact that they often have no where to go if they run out of money. Their folks back at home may not have sufficient money to help them out. What makes the situation even worse is that international students often think they cannot get the money through legal employment.

This is not true. Usually most schools have programs that would allow international students to get authorized to work off campus. For example, there can be a thing called "practical training" (I'm not talking about OPT here, it's a different kind). This practical training thing usually requires you to register for a class (with a minimal fee) and then you can work off campus (even full-time). Moreover, you can do this for a long time (I think at least for several semesters). They usually require the job to be in your field of studies, so that you can make a strong case that this will benefit your education process. Usually, this requirement is not strictly enforced and you can always prove that working as a janitor will be beneficial to your education as an architect.

Why are PhD programs so stressful?

It's a known fact that in order to get a PhD one has to go through years of stress, depression, humiliation, and financial hardships.

This is something I simply don't understand. I understand why surgeons may have to go through a lot of hardships to get their degree. I understand why navy seals may have it the rough way before they are sent on a sabotage mission. I even understand why lawyers may be under a lot of stress in law school. After all, peoples' lives often depend on doctors, soldiers, or even lawyers.

Why do you have to go through so much stress to get a PhD in, let's say English? To write a book that will sell 4 copies and qualify for a minimum wage job as a part-time lecturer??? There's just something wrong with the system and, unfortunately, the system is not likely to change within the next few decades.

PhD in Accounting

PhD in Accounting has been one of the hottest degrees to have in terms of employment prospects for the last few years. I think Sarbanes-Oxley act is what gave accounting such a push. The act created an unprecedented demand for accounting graduates and consequently, Accounting PhDs. I've seen quite a bit of statistics on that and I personally saw quite a few newly-minted accounting PhDs getting decent jobs even without any publications behind their shoulders. Moreover, I think that accounting is a profession which is not going anywhere in the nearest future. There may be ups and downs, but there's always going to be a demand for accountants.

So if you are thinking about majoring in accounting, this may not be such a bad idea, especially in comparison to such majors as English or Math. However, you have to keep in mind that it may already be too late to jump on board. You don't know what's going to happen five years from now. Chances are high that in five years there may be on oversupply of accounting PhDs. So don't assume that the demand will persist. You may be gambling!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

PhD Employment: Horror Stories

A story from the Chronicle of Higher Ed forum:

I'm sorry if this is really just a vent but any advice about how to sort my head out with this would be much appreciated because it's like some horrible itch I keep scratching until it really, really hurts...

I'm in my second VAP and have been teaching full-time for almost 5 years now - PhD 6 years ago - a book on the way, most of another one developed, two edited collections (both with big cheeses in my humanities discipline), three international conferences organised, plus quite a few articles - plus I've supervised something like 20 MA dissertations, several of which have gone on to do PhDs (though necessarily with other people because I'm temporary and can't supervise them). I love my current department where I now have several close friends among my colleagues (all of whom are at least bearable even genial), I love the city it's in though it's hundreds of miles from the place my longtime partner and I own and where I now only visit on the odd weekends, and I love my discipline. I'm a great teacher, a great colleague, and I work as hard as I can to be a great scholar. I have a strong reputation in my field as a new voice, and apparently I have excellent references. People tell me to keep publishing, keep publishing, keep publishing and "I'll definitely get a job eventually".

The flipside of all this is that I have the obvious complete lack of longterm job prospects and the longer I'm hanging around out here, the worse they seem to get. I argue regularly and horribly with my partner about what and where our future is going to be (and not least whether we are going to have any children - because I'm now close to 40), drink too much wine when on my own (which is now most of the time since I'm here and he's there), wake up in the middle of the night riddled with worry, and generally suffer from bouts of depression which increasingly seem to be interfering with my writing. I am so incredibly sick of hearing that "I'll definitely get a job eventually, you're so great, how could you not, it's unthinkable..." I feel like I'm actually in the middle of my career and yet somehow I've managed not to have a proper job yet. I'm too exhaused and too old to slum it and rough it through life any more. Unless something comes up, I will be unemployed as of June, with big debts, some of which I incurred in moving to where I now work. There have been no jobs (permanent or otherwise) in my field this year. Of the many jobs I've applied for over the years, I invariably come second. I'm so close to the end of my tether with it all, and just think maybe I should go home, get pregnant (if indeed I can) and put all the degrees etc. behind me as a wrong turn made years ago from which I should recover by starting in some new career doing something completely different. I.e., wipe the slate clean, stop asphyxiating myself with anticipation as I wait for life to begin, and start breathing and living for the first time in my thirties...

Anyway, that's my life as it has stood for a while. Now lady fortune has dumped on my eiderdown some more, in a manner that really feels like it's going to tip me completely over the edge. My department recently made three permanent appointments, none of which was in my area or close to it - understandably given that they need faculty to cover key areas that aren't currently taught, though I keep hearing over and again from colleagues how desperate they are to keep me, how there's going to be a post for me soon, blah blah blah. So I didn't apply for any of these posts, and yet somehow feel as depressed as the losing candidates must feel - because all of them went to completely new PhDs, in fact one of them doesn't even have a PhD yet, in their first job interviews. And one of them is a former student of mine. I just feel totally and utterly eclipsed, crushed, ashamed of myself, old and useless. What did I do in a former life to deserve this one?! To top it all, my lovely head of department came skipping in to my office, asking whether I was as excited as she was about these new appointments...

I'm not suicidal - but I feel like I'm close. I've got lots of writing to do in order to get some articles done before the summer but I'm really beginning to wonder whether it's actually worth it. It seems like somebody out there is trying to tell me something: "give up".

Sorry for this rather long pointless message - but any advice on how to jig my brain back towards something like acceptance or neutrality (even if not contentment) would be wonderful.

Benefits of Education

Many people believe that education is something that is supposed to improve your lifestyle and increase your employment prospects. This may be true for a bachelors or masters degrees. Unfortunately, a PhD degree tends to damage your life and decrease employment prospects.

Please leave a comment!

How come no one is commenting here? No registration is required! It will take you only a few seconds to drop a line or two. I'm really curious what you have to say about the PhD stuff....

Freedom of Speech!

Got banned from the Chronicle of Higher Ed forum for trying to promote this blog and "being offensive" ;0)

Tenure-Track Job Search

Gosh!!! Went to the Chronicle of Higher Education forums. Apparently, being "on the market" for 3 years is considered to be normal. There are people who are searching for a TT position since 1990's. Those people remind me gamblers who lost all of their money in a casino and still continue placing bets. There are people who have full-time jobs (outside of academia) and are still attending conferences and trying to publish papers in hope that they will land a TT job some day at ANY school. I don't know how about you, but the word "insanity" comes to my mind when I read about those people...

I would understand someone sacrificing years of his or her life in an attempt to become a millionaire. It can be a gamble, but the potential payoff may be worth it. But I can't understand people sacrificing so much of their lives to get a job which pays as much as a job of an average American worker!

Friday, April 10, 2009

No Money - No Work!

Hoping to please my professors, I got myself into a state of things where I would perform a number of duties many of which were not directly related to my responsibilities as a doctoral student. I soon found myself not only doing research and teaching classes, but also managing a student organization, helping graduate students from other departments with my lab's equipment,and doing guest speaking gigs at places where my professors didn't wanna go. In addition to that, I was doing some analytical work for organizations in exchange of them giving me data for my dissertation.

Needless to say, in order to do all those things I had to work 24/7 and borrow time from my personal life and my main responsibilities as a doctoral student. Obviously, I wasn't paid for doing all those things. I was paid as much as any other doctoral student who did nothing but dissertation work.

At some point I realized that this is not working well and I need to stop. It wasn't pretty - some of my profs became a bit hostile towards me. But this worked out quite well, eventually. I acquired a reputation of a person who doesn't do any favors, so professors stopped bothering me with their requests.

Despite academia positioning itself as a very altruistic place where people don't care for money, I think it's very useful for a PhD student to think in economic terms when asked to do all kinds of favors. You always have to ask yourself:

  • Am I paid for this?
  • Is there, at least, a potential for being paid for this in the future?
If the answer is no, you probably shouldn't do it. Your goal is to graduate and get a job, and not be someone's servant.

Getting a PhD to Become and Expert

Some people decide to go into a PhD program because they think that they can become an expert in a particular field. Yes, you will become an expert. But not the kind of expert you think. Most likely, you will become an expert in something nobody outside academia cares about.

For example, if you get a PhD in management, most likely you will become an expert in a set of esoteric psychology theories.

I even heard from IT people that they don't hire Computer Science PhD's because they usually have expertise in areas that don't have any practical applications yet lack skills in essential areas of programming.

Tips for finishing PhD by Matt Schonlau

Some very useful tips from Matt Schonlau:

A few years ago I was asked by several Ph.D. students what advice I could give to finish a Ph.D. While I don't think there is only one answer I do have some principles that worked well for me- if you are a current PhD student hopefully you will find this useful also. If you have any comments or suggestions, I'd love to hear from you.

Over the years I have received many positive comments from Ph.D. students from the U.S., Canada, and as far as China and Korea. Several students have linked this site form their sites. Thank you so much for your feedback. It means a lot to me that I some of my thoughts made a difference to you.

  • Begin with the end in mind
    I found it always helpful to know I what my overall goal was. During my PH.D. I aimed to finish in my Ph.D. in 3 years. I didn't make that in the end - it took 4 years - but that isn't important. The important thing is that I knew in order to make 3 years I had to do a certain course load in the first and second term , I had to take the comprehensive exam the first time it was offered, I had a rough idea of how much time I had to write the dissertation. There are road blocks along the way and things turn out different than you expect. But if you know your overall goal obstacles won't through you off the course, you are just taking a detour.
  • You have no obligation to write an important or even useful thesis
    Sometimes students set out to write this all-encompassing break-through thesis and then fail because they try to accomplish too much at once. Very few researchers achieve fame because of their dissertation work. Try to write a good dissertation, not a great dissertation. Further, don't insist on writing a useful thesis. Your primary goal is to get a Ph.D. , not to change the world. There is enough time for changing the world after your dissertation when you have less constraints about what criteria your work has to meet.
  • Write!
    A psychology student told me once that he spends the entire day doing research and then forces himself at the end of the day to summarize what he found - even if he doesn't think he found anything that day. This is important for several reasons : (a) writing helps your thoughts to crystallize (b) you accomplish your daily task which will make you feel good (c) you can track your progress (d) when you write your thesis you have material to draw on (e) you won't forget what you were thinking two weeks ago. In my opinion most students start too late putting their thoughts into words.
  • Exercise regularly
    I have always found I can work better when I am physically in good shape. During stressful times such as exams, I exercise more often rather than less often. The energy I get from exercise more than compensates for the "time lost".
  • Enjoy your "play time"
    There is a time to work and a time to play. I try to work hard when I work, and not to think at all about work when I don't work. For example, every year I fly home to Germany for Christmas. I never take work to Germany. All that would accomplish is that I would feel bad the whole time about not doing the work. When you have worked hard all week and can afford to take the week-end off, try to get out and do something fun. Try not to think about work at all.
  • Talk to others about your problems
    After finishing his Ph.D. a social scientist at an Ivy League university told me once that at some point during his Ph.D. he had so much dissertation anxiety that he went to see a psychologist at the medical center. To his surprise the waiting room for the psychologist was packed and he recognized several other people. Everyone was there for the same reason. He later emailed one of the students he saw whether he wanted to talk about it . Within 10 minutes he got a reply email : the other student was just as desperate to talk about it. Most Ph.D. students at some point or another have problems - talking to fellow students or professors almost always helps. You are not alone. (The above mentioned student graduated smoothly and now excels working at a very prestigious institution).
  • Record your progress
    Sometime during my second year of my Ph.D. I started writing down every week-end what I had accomplished during the preceeding week. I took great care in this and I often reread what I had done in the past few weeks. This weekly ritual became very important to me and motivated me a great deal. Sometimes in the middle of the week I would realize that I hadn't accomplished anything to be recorded at the end of the week and I would make sure I would get something done.
    In addition, I kept a list of things to do at the white board and marked each item off once I had done it. I wouldn't erase it until a few days later though - because that gave me the satisfaction of seeing what I had accomplished already. I still follow this habit to this day.
    During a Ph.D. you often try something and it doesn't work in the end. That can be frustrating - but I feel that tracking what you have done helps to overcome this frustration. The path to success has unexpected twists and turns in a Ph.D. - and while a failed attempt looks like no progress it really is.
  • Don't find excuses - don't do too many other important things.
    Some of the brightest students sometimes have trouble finishing because they are so successful doing other things that may reasonably also be considered important. A very bright young fellow I know kept taking on temporary consulting jobs working for the UN in Brazil and all kind of other exciting and useful jobs. Working for the UN in Brazil is a great experience and you may not want to pass it up. But at some point finishing your Ph.D. outweighs taking on extra consulting jobs.
  • Choose a dissertation topic you are passionate about
    You will do your best work when you work on a topic that you really care about. This not always possible - but if you have the choice go for it. Also, it is better to come up with your own thesis topic rather than having your supervisor find you a thesis topic. You will find it easier to care deeply about a thesis topic that you came up with yourself.
  • Work on your strengths, not on your weaknesses
    I was once fortunate enough to have a brunch with the famous statistician Erich Lehman - organized by Agnes Herzberg in Kingston, Ontario. Dr. Lehman had an unusual career and had many things to say. I will never forget the following advice he gave : when in England the professors noticed that his background in mathematics was much stronger than in physics. They therefore forced him to take extra classes in physics. On hindsight Dr. Lehman felt that that was a big mistake. He didn't have any passion for physics and he claims he wasn't good at it either - so there was an extraordinary effort going into something that wasn't necessary.
    There may be situations where our passion requires us to work on something we are not good at. For example, my friend Fiona was never interested in any handyman work. However, she was a theatre major and some point she had to know technical theatre operations. And when it was relevant to theatre, she all of the sudden took an interest in handyman work as it related to theatrical set construction.
    Unless necessary though I always thought that it was good advice to work on one's strengths - because otherwise we'll be constantly disillusioned and frustrated.
  • Take charge - it's your life not your supervisor's
    I have always found taking an active role leads to better results than a passive or reactive role. It makes life more exciting. For those of us who like playing computer games - it's like the difference of playing the game and watching the game. Playing is just more fun.
  • Do what is right for you - including the choice of discontinuing your Ph.D.
    A Ph.D. is not for everyone and I think not to continue a Ph.D. ought to be one of your options. I am most impressed with Judy whom I met during my time as a student. She successfully mastered the comprehensive exam, and then decided that she wasn't really all that interested in research. I still hear her say "You know, it's not for everyone" - not disappointed but just matter of fact. She is happier now. However , I do think you should only quit because you have come to the conclusion that you do not enjoy research, not because "it's overwhelming", "it's too much work", or "I don't know whether I can do it" or "I don't like my supervisor". People can do more than they think - they just have to really try.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Befriending College Staff

If you are a PhD student, your success in the program will depend on your school's staff as much as it depends on your own effort and support from your professors. Trust me, there will be at least one occasion in your career where things will depend on nothing but a decision of one of your school's clerks.

Make sure you are friends with people like:

  • IT support staff (if you are nice to them you can always get hardware and software you need)
  • Cleaning staff (they can help you to get access to building if you lost your keys)
  • Secretaries (they will give you insider knowledge about some of the things that are going in the department; won't report you if you violate some of the department policies)
  • Records people (they will help you if you miss registration deadlines for example or fail to submit some needed papers)
Make sure you are nice to those people. It will certainly pay off. I've seen quite a few PhD students who look down on staff, thinking those guys are not at their intellectual level.

I didn't have a problem with building relationships with staff - I think I'm a very friendly and down to earth person. I did make a mistake though. At one point our IT folks just drove me nuts with their screw-ups and incompetence. We were like enemies. But then I took time to apologize and do some damage control. The result - I got a bunch of software by putting it on the department's tab as opposed to paying for it myself.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Teaching: You do the math....

If you think teaching is your calling, I strongly encourage you to look at the following statistics:

  • The estimated average salary of all public elementary and secondary school teachers in the 2004–05 school year was $47602 (Source: United States Labor Statistics,
  • According to a 2004-05 survey by the American Association of University Professors, salaries for full-time faculty averaged $68,505. By rank, the average was $91,548 for professors, $65,113 for associate professors, $54,571 for assistant professors, $39,899 for instructors, and $45,647 for lecturers

Don't forget to factor in the following when comparing those two salaries:
  • It takes, on average, 4-6 years beyond your masters to get a PhD degree.
  • Your chances of getting a position of an Assistant Professor can be as low as 5% in some fields.