Saturday, August 29, 2015

advice for would-be PhD students

I recommend the article 10 steps to PhD failure in the Times Higher. The authors are based in Canada and are in the social sciences, but their list of 10 things to avoid, is something that would be useful to many prospective doctoral students I’ve come across. The most important ones, appropriately listed first, are
  • Stay at the same university
  • Do an unfunded PhD
  • Choose the coolest supervisor
In what follows, I’ll assume you have read the article, and I just add some more notes. That first item, “Stay at the same university” refers to the practice of doing the PhD at the same university where you did your previous degree(s). My take on this is slightly different from the authors of the article. It’s not so much that staying the same university is intrinsically a weakness, but it raises the concern that you may have started on a doctoral degree for the wrong reason, i.e. geographical inertia, rather than the right reason which is that the research topic is of consuming interest. At the point that a prospective student is applying for PhD places, it looks a bit weak to only apply at one’s current university; a student who is bent on doing research should communicate that by maximising his chances of getting to do research — i.e. apply more widely, rather than maximising his chances to continue to live in the same town.

Concerning the “coolest supervisor” point, similar to “same university”, it is not necessarily wrong to end up with the coolest supervisor, but there exists the risk that the coolest supervisor was chosen for the wrong reason (coolness) rather than the right reason (you have a good working relationship, and the supervisor is good at what he does). Of course, finding the right supervisor is a notoriously hard problem and is very hit-and-miss. The risk is best mitigated by applying at multiple institutions, which gives you the opportunity to go for interview and meet potential supervisors, which gives you the opportunity to see whether you have a rapport.

(added 2 days later:) Some follow-up: I followed the steps to PhD failure and came out with a doctorate, and an older article said to be “trending”: 10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you.