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.

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.