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.

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.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Crappy Majors: Math and Physics

I think math and physics are some of the hardest fields to get a PhD degree in. Yet those fields have some of the worst prospects in terms of pay and employment. I remember my math professor told us that a starting salary of a PhD graduate in their department was like 27K (I think he meant post-doc). I personally knew a PhD graduate in physics who was happy to find a job as a car salesman after 7 years in grad school!

Can someone please explain me this? You really have to be "one in a million" to be good in math in physics. I would think that those who are willing and able to do this would be in short supply and would get paid a lot. But this doesn't seem to be the case, right?

Interested in Psychology? Try Management Instead!

If you have interest in psychology, I suggest you major in management or marketing instead. Many areas of these two business disciplines are nothing but applied psychology. Yet both marketing and management are in business school. You may have much better employment and earning potential if you get a degree in one of the fields. As for psychology, I think there are more psychologists in the United States than dogs and cats combined.


Make sure you don't put too much effort into teaching.

You may be tempted to do a great job teaching your classes. I think two factors may lie behind this drive. First of all, somewhere deeply in your mind you think that university is all about teaching. In fact, this is what you did as an undergraduate student - you took classes. You admired good teachers, and you loathed crappy ones. So you, as a teacher, may want to be among the good ones. Second, just like any responsible person, you may be too embarrassed to do a crappy job in front of several dozen people.

Putting a lot of effort into teaching is a big mistake. What really counts for your reputation in the program and your future employment prospects in academia is your research. I remember one of the top professors in our field told us the following:

"If you are one of the best teachers in the college, your dean may stop by and say 'you need to improve, buddy!' If you are one of the best teachers in the college, your dean will stop by and say 'great job, buddy!' And that's about it"

Of course, you shouldn't do a really crappy job teaching. Just make sure you do an OK job, may be even slightly below average. I think that some of the most successful students in the department did a really crappy job teaching. To the point where their students would go to out department chair to complain about their teachers dismissing them early from the class or hiding from them outside of classroom hours.

Sounds like a shady advice, but this is the sad reality my friend!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Academia is Business!

Academia is business. It's not your average American business. But more like an average Soviet business. It's big. It's usually state owned (or controlled). It's oligopolistic: schools use accreditation, strict licensing requirements for employees, etc. to keep others out the industry. Nevertheless, its business.

You, as a PhD student, is an employee of that business. Obviously, because it's a very inefficient business (mainly because it operates in the absence of free market) it cannot pay a PhD student what a personal of his or her qualifications would demand in the real world. So what is school's marketing strategy to attract PhD students?

First, academia creates this exclusivity aura around PhD. Their marketing message is that having a PhD is like having a Rolls-Royce. It's a sign of exclusivity. The reality is that you don't really need a Rolls-Royce. Hey, if Warren Buffet can get around in a Lincoln, so does everyone else. Pragmatically, the only reason to have a Rolls-Royce is to impress someone, to have that feeling of exclusivity. Similarly, the only reason to have a PhD is to have the privilege to be a professor.

Academia also promises you "eternal life" of a tenure professor. This will mean high pay for little work until you die. The trick here is that this offer is as alluring as a lottery prize. Very valuable, yet you are not likely to get it.

Very often this marketing message doesn't work well and schools have problems attracting PhD students. In this case, there's another source of PhD students: international students. For an international student PhD can be a valuable platform for immigration. Also they don't sacrifice as much financially. In countries like India, China, or Russia, 20,000K per year is really a salary of young professional. That's why there are so many international students in U.S. PhD programs. However, as the standard of living is rising in BRIC countries, there will be a dry-out in the stream of international PhD students (I think there are already signs of the dry-out).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Don't do anything unless you are reminded about it 3 times

Don't take your professors too seriously. They talk a lot, they do little. Don't try to put up with all their requests and suggestions. You will end up in a mental hospital. Ignore some of their requests. They don't have the mindset to follow up. They just don't care. They talk for the sake of talking. Then they forget what they told you. They may even ask you to do completely the opposite if you were stupid enough to do what they told you. So here's a useful tip for you:

Don't do anything unless you are reminded about it 3 times

You have to master this skill if you are to survive in academia. Your professors are experts in this, haven't you noticed? They won't do anything unless you remind them several times. This is how they survived in academia.

Staying Focused

You have to stay very focused in the graduate school. And here's what your focus should be:

"Graduate! Get a job!"

Your goal is not to change the world. Your goal is not to come up with innovative ideas. Your goal is to:

"Graduate! Get a job!"

Your professors want you to develop a new course?

"Graduate! Get a job!"

Your professor forces you to attend guest speaker presentations (usually by a his or her buddy on a topic you don't care about)?

"Graduate! Get a job!"

No matter what kind of stimulus you get from your PhD program, repeat this mantra three times before you think of anything else:

"Graduate! Get a job!"
"Graduate! Get a job!"
"Graduate! Get a job!"

When to Quit your PhD Program

The best time to quit your PhD program is no later than 1-2 years into the program. This is a perfect time to quit:

  • You haven't wasted too much of your time and energy
  • You are still healthy and motivated
  • Your are still young and you don't feel guilty about starting all over (e.g. getting an unpaid internship)
  • Usually, there a "golden parachute": you can quit after 2 years with a masters degree in hands. Some schools don't like students to get a masters instead of a PhD. This usually means that you got your masters for free. But there's very little that prevents you from doing so. What you can do is simply quit the PhD program and take a couple more classes to get your masters.
Many of my friends quit our program after 1-2-3 years and I think they made the right choice. All of them have high paying jobs in the industry and exciting personal life.

The longer you stay in the PhD program, the harder it becomes to quit. Here are some of the factors that make quitting hard:
  • You feel guilty about writing off those 3-4-5 years... Actually, this may be a typical example of irrational economic thinking. Read about sunk cost in economics. The thing is that those years is a sunk cost. You will never be able to get those years back. If those years is a waste, there's no reason for putting more years into the degree. Here's a good analogy for your. Let's say you lost one million dollars in a casino. That money is a sunk cost: it's gone, you cannot get it back. So if you lost 1 million dollars, placing additional bets is not a good idea. Leaving the casino immediately is the best choice. Most PhD students are smart, but they can't understand this old and true principle. Emotions usually get into their way.
  • The thought of staring everything over (e.g. getting an internship in your field) is very disturbing. Most people your age already have established careers, houses, families. You know you were smarter and more hard-working than those people. Yet you are forced to start working as their apprentice.
  • You got brainwashed. You became persuaded that working long hours for minimum wage s the best deal in the world.
  • You just don't want to change. You are afraid of the uncertainty. You realize that your life and career suck, but you are afraid of the unknown. You think it can be even worse if you quit.
  • You have a low level of self-esteem. You had so much problems with your dissertation, you are not sure whether you can do well even working at a convenience store.
I think that many of these factors are simply irrational. Try sober yourself up a bit. Look at people around you. Many of them have cars, houses, boyfriends/girlfriends. And they don't have a PhD. You are probably not any worse than they are. You can live like that too. In fact, after so many hardships and sacrifices, you have become much smarter and experienced in life. You wanna work hard/play hard. If someone offers you a decent job with a decent pay, you will work much harder and smarter than people around you. You are hungry for life, which is a good engine for success.

Wrong Reasons for Getting a PhD

From Deaniel Lemier's blog:
  • I’m building a business as a consultant and a Ph.D. sounds cool. Do not even think about a Ph.D. for this reason. Consultants with a Ph.D. do not, in my experience, earn more money.
  • I already have a job and my current project would make a great Ph.D. thesis. You think so? Very few industrial projects make a good Ph.D. thesis. In fact, it is extremely hard to reconcile industrial interests with Ph.D. work.
  • I would earn more money if I had a Ph.D.: this is false. Earning a Ph.D. means you are using up a lot of your time to make an entry into the academic world. Financially, it might not be a complete disaster, but it is hardly wise.
  • I want to impress my friends. A Ph.D. might impress your friends, but so would earning 1 million dollars by the time you are thirty, or becoming a top lawyer or saving lives in a hospital. Consider that many people who go for the Ph.D. have to go live in cities they wouldn’t have otherwise chosen. There are many ways to impress your friends, but a Ph.D. is probably the worst option.
  • I’m so smart, it is my destiny. Actually, really smart people choose easier paths. If you are down to the Ph.D. path, well, something is a bit wrong with you to begin with. But that’s ok, there are many of us.

There's only one reason to get a PhD!

Here's a very good quote from Deniel Lemire's blog:

There is only one reason to get a Ph.D. — because the career path you want to pursue requires it. Do not do it because you think it will make you feel important, because it will do the opposite. Do not do it because “there are a lot of things you could do with it”, because there are plenty of things you can do without it. Do not do it because you think it will be an intellectual adventure, because you’d do much better with a library card.

What They Don't Teach You in Graduate School

A good article full of tips published by Inside Higher Ed

November 30, 2005 4:00 am
What They Don't Teach You in Graduate School

Paul Gray and David E. Drew offer rules for finishing up that dissertation and finding a first job.

Each year, Ph.D. candidates and young faculty members come into our offices and sheepishly ask us to tell them what they really need to know about building a career in academia. We usually take them to a long lunch at the Faculty House and give them the helpful hints that we share with you here. We start with tips for getting out of graduate school and into your first job. Subsequent pieces will offer tips for later stages of academic careers.

I. Understanding the Meaning of a Ph.D.

1. Finish your Ph.D. as early as possible. Don’t feel that you need to create the greatest work that Western Civilization has ever seen. Five years from now the only thing that will matter is whether you finished. If you don’t finish you are likely to join the ranks of “freeway flyers.” holding multiple part-time teaching jobs.

2. Be humble about your Ph.D. You don't need to flaunt the degree. Everyone has one. Many of your colleagues, both in your institution and outside it, will be put off if you sign everything "Doctor" or "Jane Jones, Ph.D." In fact, the main use of “Doctor” is in making reservations at a restaurant. When you call in and ask for a table for four for Dr. Jones, you will get more respect and often better seating. One of us recently received a letter from “John Smith, Ph.D. (candidate)” Don’t do that.

3. Remember that a Ph.D. is primarily an indication of survivorship. Although the public at large may view your doctorate as a superb intellectual achievement and a reflection of brilliance, you probably know deep in your heart that it is not. It represents a lot of hard work on your part over a long period of time. You probably received help from one or more faculty members to get over rough spots. Your family, be it parents or spouse, stayed with you over the vicissitudes of creating the dissertation. You stuck with it until it was done, unlike the ABD's who bailed out early.

4. A Ph.D. is a certification of research ability based on a sample of 1. The Ph.D. certifies that you are able to do quality research. Unlike the M.D., which requires extensive work with patients, followed by years of internship and residency, it is based on a single sample, your dissertation. The people who sign your dissertation are making a large bet on your ability to do it again and again in the future.

5. A Ph.D. is a license to reproduce and an obligation to maintain the quality of your intellectual descendants. Once you have the Ph.D., it is possible for you (assuming you are working in an academic department that has a Ph.D. program) to create new Ph.D.'s. Even if your department does not have a Ph.D., you can be called upon to sit on Ph.D. examining committees either in your own or in neighboring institutions. This is a serious responsibility because you are creating your intellectual descendants. Recognize that if you vote to pass someone who is marginal or worse they, in turn, have the same privilege. If they are not up to standard, it is likely that some of their descendants will also not be. Unlike humans who have a 20 year inter-generation time, academic intergeneration times are 5 years or less. Furthermore, a single individual may supervise 50 or more Ph.D.'s over a 30-year career.

II. Finishing the Dissertation

1. Finding a dissertation topic is not as easy as it looks. In fact, for many students it is the most difficult part of their dissertation work. Some students go to a professor they want to work with and ask for a topic. Usually they wind up desperately unhappy because they don’t “own” the topic yet are condemned to work on it. Often these students spend the rest of their life ABD.

2. Don’t assume that if you are having trouble defining a dissertation topic that the entire dissertation process will be that arduous. Once you define the topic, you are in problem solving mode, and most people do well in solving a problem once they know what the topic is.

3. Put a lot of effort into writing your dissertation proposal. The proposal has two important payoffs:

  • It is usually one or more chapters of your end product, the dissertation.
  • It is a contract between you and advisory committee on what you have to do to receive the degree. In general, if you do well what you promise in the proposal, the committee should sign the final document. If, because of circumstances, you cannot accomplish all you set out to do, you have the basis for a negotiation.

4. If little or nothing is written on your dissertation topic, don’t assume that an abbreviated literature review is acceptable. Thesis committees are used to having a minimum sized review and will insist on it. If only three previous papers even touch on your subject, reviewing them is not considered an adequate literature search. Furthermore, the new data you expect to obtain, even in a specialized topic, can affect a lot of intersecting fields. Those fields have to be identified. In short, a literature review not only discusses what has been done and why but it also points out the areas in which your work has implications.

5. Be skillful in whom you select for your dissertation advisory committee. The worst possible approach is to pick people because they are famous in their field. Rather, recognize that the role of the advisory committee is really to advise and help you. Therefore, choose people who can help you over the rough spots. If your thesis is experimental and requires expertise in two fields, pick an expert in each field and someone who knows about experimental design and statistics. When push comes to shove (and it will at some time while you are working on your dissertation), the person you need will be there to help you because he or she made a commitment to you. Simply hoping that the expert will contribute their time to your problem without being on the committee can prove naïve.

6. In doing a literature search, use the “chain of references”. Begin with one or two recent articles (a survey article helps!). Look at the references that are cited there. Then read those publications that seem apropos and look at their reference lists. Some things will pop out often. These are usually (but not invariably) the classics in the field that you MUST reference. Proceed from reference to reference until the law of diminishing returns takes over.

7. Couple your literature search (typically Chapter 2 of your dissertation) closely with the discussion of results and the conclusions (typically Chapters 4 and 5). You may find that as your dissertation progresses, some parts of your literature search are really irrelevant to your research. In this case, you have to be ruthless. Despite the brilliance of your prose and the long, tedious hours you put into creating the material, you have to delete these pearls. Of course, you should save the work as part of your file of references so you can use it over and over in future publications.

III. Hunting for Your First Academic Job

1. Job hunting is a research project and you should treat it as such. Gather as much information as possible. Read the ads. Contact sources. Follow up leads. Be aggressive. Use your contacts. See next rule. The chance of landing a good appointment is higher if you search broadly than if you sit in your office waiting for one or two possibilities. Begin job hunting early and make it a project done at the same time as your other work. If you are a graduate student, don’t wait until your dissertation is finished to start looking. (But if you find you simply don't have the time and energy for both the dissertation and job hunting, focus on finishing the dissertation.)

2. Most academic fields are dominated by fewer than 100 powerful people. These people know one another and determine the course of the field. Early in your career you should get to know as many of them as possible. More to the point, they should know who you are. You want them to see you as a bright young person on the cutting edge. Although important, there are dangers associated with this tactic. You should not begin the process until you have mastered the literature (particularly the papers they wrote!) and developed some ideas of your own. If they get to know you and conclude you have no ideas, you’re finished.

3. Pick a place where you and your family want to live and which matches your lifestyle. City people are not happy in isolated college towns and small city people have a hard time adjusting to a megalopolis.

4. To get a job (and later, to get tenure) you will need references beyond your dissertation committee. Build a reference pool. That is, identify people who will say nice things about you. They don’t have to be famous or distinguished but they should hold impressive titles or be employed at prestige places. References from abroad are particularly desirable since they show you to be a world figure. Remember that colleges are lazy. When references are needed, they will ask you for a long list of names from which to choose. Pick your friends.

5. Résumés are important. They are the entree to the process. Invest in having them done professionally. They should be neat but not gaudy. Include everything that is remotely relevant in your resume. Some search committees have a checklist of skills, experiences, and other criteria they expect for this position. Do you know something about, say, medieval literature or data bases, since they want that course covered. A committee may blindly drop you from consideration if you don’t have a check next to each of their items. Your problem is that the list of items is different at every institution.

6. When applying for a position, interview your potential boss just as they interview you. You will have to live rather intimately with him or her for a long time. Make sure you are compatible.

7. If you are a new Ph.D. or an active researcher on a campus visit, many, if not most of the senior people who interview you have less, not more research productivity in the last three years than you have. This is particularly true for older faculty members who were granted tenure in easier times. When you are interviewed by such people, be kind. Stress the importance of your research but don’t overwhelm them with the details. You don’t want them to perceive you as a threat to the comfortable position they now hold.

8. Find the best possible institution for your first job. You can only go down the pecking order, not up, if you don't make it at your first place. If you are a success, you can go up one level at a time. Stanford doesn't hire from WinsockiState.

9. Unless you are starving or homeless, don’t take a tenure-track faculty position without the Ph.D. in hand. We estimate the odds are 2 to 1 against your ever finishing your degree. Even if you do finish while on the job, your chances of being tenured have gone down because you have reduced the “seven-year“ clock. Furthermore, without a Ph.D. you will be offered a significantly lower salary and you may never make up the difference. If you must work, the only defense you have is to negotiate with the institution that the clock does not start until they legitimately call you “Doctor.”

10.Non-university research organizations offer the challenge of research without the need or the opportunity to teach. They include industry laboratories, major consulting firms, government laboratories, and nonprofit think tanks. Each has a distinctive culture. Many involve military work. In the not-for-profits and the consulting firms, you are only as good as the last contract you brought in. As a result, these organizations experience a high burnout rate among people 45 or older. If you want to go back to academia at some time in the future, you will have to create your own portable wealth by publishing. Many of these organizations encourage and require you to publish, at least to publish research monographs. Unfortunately, publishing is counter-culture in some of these organizations. In some industrial laboratories it is said that if you write F=ma or E=mc2, someone will stamp your report Company Confidential.

11. Avoid taking a job in a college that you attended, no matter how strong your loyalty as an alumnus. You will always be regarded as a graduate student by the older faculty and will be treated as such.

12. If your field is one in which there is an oversupply of people, one strategy is to seek a job as an assistant dean. This approach is quite tricky. Colleges are always looking for such necessary but non-glorious jobs as assistant dean for student affairs or assistant dean of administration or assistant dean for summer school. You, as an applicant, insist that you also have an appointment (even if not tenure track) in your field of specialty, say, history. You must also insist that you teach one course and that you have some time for research. Unless you do so, you will never have a crack at a tenure-track position. You must then be active in your department and be seen by the department as a member in good standing who gives them access to the Administration. Even then, you may never be fully accepted. However, you will gain experience that can be used later and you will have had the academic title (and the teaching and research experience) needed on your resume when you look for a job involving full-time teaching and research.

13. The law of supply and demand applies to academia as much as to other fields. You are playing a futures game on the job market, no different from a high roller in the stock market, when you select a field of study for your Ph.D. Since it takes 4 to 7 years or more to acquire the degree, you make the assumption that your services will be in demand several years from now. They may be, but then again they may not be. Fields move in and out of favor over time. When a hot new field or specialty opens up, it is an exciting time. Lots of people wander in from adjacent fields.They form departments or concentration areas and begin training Ph.D.’s in that specialty. There is a shortage of people and good salaries are offered. However, what usually happens is that within a relatively short period of time, the Ph.D. market saturates and jobs become scarcer. Furthermore, other new specialties emerge and colleges and universities cut back on the previous fad. A classic example is operations research (also known as management science). In the 1960’s, new departments were formed. By the 1980’s, the job market was saturated. In the last decade the supply exceeded the demand, and this in a field where there is industrial as well as academic employment. The obvious implication for graduate students is that fields with an oversupply of applicants, both initial jobs and tenure are much harder to achieve. Furthermore, the academic level of the school where you will be hired will, on average, be lower and so will the salary.

14. Institutions have their own cultures and, in large institutions, different schools and departments may have different cultures. The culture will range from cooperative to cutthroat. Often the culture will change when a new person is appointed president or provost or dean or department chair. That is what makes these appointments so critical to the quality of your life. A cooperative culture should be treasured. It will help the young faculty member. Conversely, a cutthroat culture is particularly difficult for the young faculty member because they come in not knowing the culture of the place nor being prepared for it. When interviewing, try to find out whether the members of the faculty like one another and try to assess from what they tell you what the cultural norm is. Asking graduate students about faculty infighting won’t help because they are usually insulated from it. Remember that, in addition to trying to assess your capabilities and fit with their needs, the interviewers are trying to present as good a picture of themselves as they can so that you will accept their offer if they make one. Thus, always assume that actual conditions are much worse than they are painted during the interview. If you are lucky enough to have multiple offers, investigate the cultures involved in your choice by speaking to people (if any) who are there whom you know and to people who have recently left there.

15. Two pieces of data about an institution which are important to you are whether you are being offered the right amount of money and the chances of your achieving tenure. To this end, obtain information on the salary levels for people in your field. The American Association of University Professors publishes salary averages for many (but not all) colleges.

16. Tenure levels are a little trickier. First, the number of tenure cases per year in an academic unit tends to be small. You need data for your specialty. However, knowing the tenure fraction for the institution as a whole is also important. If a college tenures 1 in 10 it is a far different place than one that tenures 8 in 10. Just knowing success in the tenure process is not enough. Some colleges weed out at the three year point. Others make tenure so tough that faculty “self-destruct” by resigning early. Talk with people who recently made tenure in the department. They will usually have the best view of what the current situation is.

17. Evaluate a postdoc carefully, particularly if you are in the sciences. You should think of a postdoc in cold, hard economic terms. It as an investment (or speculation, depending on your point of view) just like buying stocks or real estate. You will certainly be paid less than if you took a teaching position but you may gain additional knowledge and experience to make more money in the long run in your chosen field. The anticipated benefits must exceed the short run costs to make the investment worthwhile. Some conditions under which a postdoc is appropriate are:

  • You are in a field where jobs at good places are scarce and you did not get one or you failed to follow Rule 1 and delayed too long in starting your job search.
  • You feel you need to gain specific research tools (or, if a scientist, experience with specialized equipment) to be able to move your research past your Ph.D. thesis.
  • You want to work with a specific individual (preferably one of the powerful 100, see Rule 2) who will further your growth.
  • You want to build up your publication list without using up your seven-year clock.

A postdoc is not appropriate if you are afraid of teaching or talking in front of people. You are merely delaying the inevitable. A postdoc is also not appropriate if you lived on a shoestring for years and/or have a family to support.

18. Ask about the retirement system when considering an institution. It is really not too early to worry about retirement when interviewing for your first job because it can affect your mobility economically from then on. Recognize that you will most likely be in a state retirement system or in the TIAA retirement system. TIAA is subscribed to by most private and some public institutions. In TIAA, once vested (usually, these days, at once) you keep what you have when you move to another institution. State retirement plans are portable within the state but not from one state to another. The major problem comes when you move from a TIAA college to a state institution or the other way around.

David Drew and Paul Gray are professors, respectively, of education and information science at Claremont Graduate University.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lazy Professors

I remember I once wanted to invite one of my advisers to my dissertation proposal. So I asked him: "How about November 14th?". He was like: "If it's in the morning I cannot come!". So I said: "No, it's at 2pm!". And he was like: "So you want me to get stuck in traffic???". What a jerk!!! He made it sound like coming to work for more than 3 hours is a heroic act on his part.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Professors are PAID to help you!

Here's something that simply blows my mind. Professors are PAID to supervise student research. It's a part of their job description. Moreover, they get publications out of the students they supervise. So why do they act like they are doing you a big favor when they agree to meet with you once a month a read through your stuff???

How to Bribe a Professor

There's only one way to bribe a professor: to put his name on a paper that you wrote and publish this paper in a good journal. The more bribes of this sort you give, the better for you. But know where to stop. Don't let your prof become too greedy. It may get to the point where he or she will not want to graduate you. Nobody wants to kill the hen that lays publications. What you can do is promising your professor that you will continue laying publications for him or her even after you graduate ;)

Getting Help With Statistics

Many social sciences are dominated by quantitative researchers. Because of that, many doctoral students are pushed to do quantitative research for their dissertation. Unfortunately, doing statistical analysis is very hard for many students who go into social sciences. Moreover, your adviser may not be able to help you with stats. He may be too busy or may not have knowledge in the specific techniques that you end up using for your dissertation.

So if you are left alone with your statistical problems, you have several options:

  1. Trying figure everything out on your own. The disadvantage of this approach is that you are likely to waste a lot of time and make a lot of mistakes. But the advantage is that you may end up being an expert yourself. It may be beneficial for your career in the long run.
  2. There are a bunch of online forums where people talk about their statistics problems. Usually, those forums are also visited by people who have advanced degrees in statistics. These people may know more about stats than any of your advisers. But the disadvantage of this option is that there's no guarantee that someone will actually help you. It's all volunteer-based. And, of course, you can never be sure in the quality of the advice that you are getting. Me personally, I was able to figure out quite a few things by talking to people on one of those statistical forums.
  3. Your school may have a special unit providing consulting services in statistics. I don't know whether those services are free or not.
  4. I saw many web sites advertising consulting services in statistics. I've never tried those. I suspect that at least some of those companies are probably based somewhere in India. May be worth trying...

Using GoogleBooks to Access and Search Free Books

Let's face it - going to the library sucks. First, you have to PHYSICALLY go there. May not be a good idea if it's snowing outside or you just don't feel like going anywhere on that particular day. Second, you have to carry you laptop and a bunch of other crap to the library if you are to work there productively. And if your leave your work place to take a piss or have a smoke, someone might just steal your stuff. Third, undergraduates often hangout in libraries, creating so much noise you cannot concentrate on anything. But the most important reason against going to the library is that you will have to sit around the library types. Usually, a few hours in this environment is enough to put into the state of depression even the most cheerful and optimistic person.

So if you don't like going to the library, you can use GoogleBooks to search and access a bunch of books online. Of course, it may not have all the latest stuff, but who needs new stuff for the dissertation? You probably need old and boring books for that. For example, I found a lot of good statistics books in full text. Many books are not available in full, but usually all you need is to read a few pages from a book. The most important feature of this service is that you can search book text, so it will save you a lot of time. GoogleBooks is an excellent tool to pimp up your dissertation with book citations.

How to get accepted into a PhD program

Pragmatically, there's only one reason as to why a professor would want to have you as his or her PhD student. And that is to get some publications out of you. Publications is the most valuable thing in the world for a professor, because his or career largely depends on the quantity and quantity of publications.

So if you want to get into a PhD program, you must demonstrate that you have a great potential for conducting and publishing research. Preferably, you should try to publish a paper or two before you apply to a PhD program. Even a trade press publication might help.

So everything that you write and say during the application processes should be geared towards making a strong case that you can co-author a lot of papers with professors in the department.