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.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Selling my car

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

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Poor Academics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 3, 2009

Don't Jump into a Hot Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Academic Altruism

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

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