Ph.D.s from the Faculty's Perspective

Jason Hong

November 5, 2012

One professor's reflections on succeeding in PhD programs.

User Comments


I am a Carnegie Mellon PhD student, I agree with most of the article. I also thing you left one important piece of advice and is to have a goal. Without it time will vanish in task that are not important. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


YES! I defended my dissertation after 5 semesters (first one was a dead end) while my best friend only took 17 years, although we got our master's together. At the time, I didn't recognize the above points, but I do now.

One thing I would add it that when you have passed your preliminary exams and present your research plan to your committee, consider it a binding contract. Do what you agreed to, and graduate.

Great article, and fun to read as a current PhD candidate!

I have to say, based on my experience, the points made in this article are very good. While I'm only a M.S. student and just finished my thesis I've noticed that in order to be really successful I have had to really dial it back on my course work. There has been a constant theme of, "Is this good enough?" in an attempt to maximize my takeaway from the course while not significantly impacting my time for research work.

I see that of the listed skills the one that seems to be lacking in most other students, at least among my group, is the ability to work independently. For example, our group had a new PhD student who, while he was getting up to speed on our research area and learning the needed skills (he was from an E.E. background and had little to no experience with a number of key C.S. concepts), was assigned to assist me with my work. I attempted to give him a simple task, "build a class that meets these requirements." In the end I spent more time telling him how to do every aspect of creating this class that I spend probably three times as much time as it would have taken me to develop on helping him. The end result didn't even come close to meeting the requirements that I set out. It hasn't been my experience that students are very quick to learn this and, due to the busy lives of both professors and other students, this is probably the most vital skill to develop early on.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that, if your adviser doesn't welcome push-back about what you are working on there are a number of factors to consider. The first thing to consider is, as mentioned in this article, whether or not your idea is well thought out and has merit. If regardless of this you always end up having to do things their way it may be best to look for a new adviser. It could just be that you don't communicate well but you're not doing yourself any good by always buckling under and this will be harmful to your academic career in the long run. You need to be careful here though, as you should welcome feedback from anyone and if you're shutting down their ideas just because they are not yours you're still harming yourself. This situation in general is a tricky one.

In addition to almost all the agreeables, I think a good research starts with being 'challenged with a good problem', accomplished with 'sustained never-say-die efforts', 'self evolutionally rather revolutionary approach' and 'rigorosity overall in all the stages'; and finished with 'acceptable answers and other challenging problems'. Though commonly thought to be as output, it appears mythical to aim and windup by publishing. The dissemination and sharing may be immediate/intermediate gain only but not 'fine-grains' to be looked upto.
K. Mustafa, JMI

I think this applies to a lot of fields, but not exactly to bio or medicine related. The concept here relies on the hidden assumption that someone is right someone is wrong; which implies decidability. However, when decidability cannot be reached, playing the politics, sucking it up, not really arguing with people, and kissing up are all very important. Coming from a decidable field (cs, math, physics undergrad) and going into an non-decidable (cancer biology) is one of the most frustrating thing ever. Nevertheless, what is mentioned here is a baseline requirement. I think it's important to note, phd is not for everyone. If you like to get recognition from the general public, masters then entrepreneurial work is much better. If you like to have select people appreciate your work, but appreciate it a lot, then a phd is definitely good. If you hate reading (phd is not for you). I think that is also another good section that can be added, when not to do a phd.

I only listed a few reasons why I had such a horrible impression of science and phd, but they are all subjective. Shortest, phd is 2 years, longest 10 years, I am lucky to finish in 3, but don't waste unnecessary time doing something you may not use. Also, carefully consider the job market too to make sure your not doing a post doc for another 10 years.

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