Monday, November 18, 2013

How to finish a Ph.D

How to finish a Ph.D.
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 some of my thoughts made a difference to you.
"Matt Schonlau's Great Tips - the most detailed, honest and useful advice you can ever find on how to finish your PhD, written by Matt Schonlau; he provides you with a concise but thorough insight into all major aspects of doing and finishing your PhD. What you have to keep in mind doing a PhD: how to focus on your goals for a longer time, how to plan your life in accordance with your research and how not to lose track in order to finish your PhD within a reasonable timeframe. (2003) Start with this one!"www.phdtips.com (accessed March 6, 2010)

  • 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

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