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The PhD Experience : Phase by Phase

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This is Part 3 of 5.

By end of this article, you will should be able to answer this question : Am I Making progress with my research work?

 

Choosing an area and an advisor

It is never too late to change areas. If you don’t like where you are now, switching to a different area or advisor can make a marked difference. Try to explore before settling down.

You should feel you have some understanding of the importance of the area you choose, that it is worth your investment of time in it. Your advisor should be able to inspire you about the work and give you a sense that it is worth it and worth your time.

When you pick an advisor, ask yourself why you chose that person. Good reasons include that you like that advisor’s area, that he or she can inspire you, that you understand each other and get along. A poor reason is that you are afraid you won’t get through and maybe this person is your best bet to make it.

Gauging progress: am I on track?

The best way to know is to ask. Progress is measured in a number of ways. Direct output, like papers is the most obvious. I also look at how your understanding and knowledge of the materiel is developing.

What’s PhD student’s job?

Nothing, really. Students sometimes view a project suggested by an advisor as a “job” they need to get done.

That may be appropriate for systems work; it is not in theoretical work.

There is really no “job” I need you to do. You are working for yourself, not for me.

When I suggest projects they are only suggestions for things we can do together or that you might do yourself.

PhD : Phase by phase

Referring to the research path above, my minimal expectation at the end of Phase 1 is that you have a deep understanding of the subject of your first project.

You should know it inside out.

You should know what happens if something in your construction is twiddled, and how it compares to other constructs.

This phase should typically take at most a year from when you begin research.

By the time you are in Phase 2, you should be “swimming” fairly comfortably in the materiel.

You should be able to pick up new concepts rapidly and do simple proofs in your head.

You should be able to make connections across different sub-areas, have some sense of what is known and not known, and be at ease with basic techniques.

Related : PhD Timeline and Coursework

By the time you are in Phase 3 you should have a sense of taste, critical sense and maturity in addition.

Research Publications versus thesis

The quantity and quality of publications you should look for varies with your Ph.D goal.

If you want to head into research, whether at a research lab or in academia, they will look at your publication record, not your thesis.

You want more than a minimal Ph.D.

You want to have had recognized publications and exposure.

Students headed this way shouldn’t really even be thinking about a “thesis”: this is only a formality for the university and less than you need.

Try to do good research and get recognition in the research community.

What is enough?

The minimal Ph.D is probably about four papers, but there is no hard and fast rule.

Sometimes you may have stronger papers, or a larger contribution to co-authored papers than in other cases, in which case fewer papers may be enough.

In other cases you may have more minor results or a lower contribution to co-authered papers, in which case you may need more.

Remember if you want to head into research, whether at a research lab or in academia, they will look at your publication record, not your thesis, and you want recognized publications and exposure in the research community.

In addition to papers I expect you to develop communication skills, both written and verbal. You should be able to plan and give clear talks and to write clear and correct technical papers. There is no under-estimating the importance of communication.

When is PhD Research enough?

Accomplishment is measured by output, not time.

For time, one can only talk about the typical.

The typical time-frame is five years, assuming the first year is spent in coursework and you start research the second year.

Finishing in less time than that is neither unusual nor unusually difficult.

If it looks like you may take more than five years, it is not a good sign. At that point, funding and lab space start getting denied, so beware.

Questions

With regard to my rate of progress towards my Ph.D goal

  1. I think I’m ahead of the game
  2. I think I’m about on track
  3. I’m worried I’m behind
  4. I haven’t a clue: why doesn’t someone tell me?
  5. Don’t ask now, because tomorrow I’m going to work twice as hard

With regard to understanding and knowledge of the materiel

  1. I think I’m ahead of the game
  2. I think my accomplishments and understanding are about where they should be
  3. I’m worried my accomplishments and understanding are below where they should be
  4. I haven’t a clue: why doesn’t someone tell me?
  5. Don’t ask now, because tomorrow I’m going to work twice as hard

PhD Experience Series:

7 Comments

  1. abhijeet on November 12, 2013 at 9:19 AM

    Thats a nice one really giving the jist of pursuing PhD…publications reflect the real research potential…great work. raghu

  2. Ellei on October 31, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    Thank you HSB for this useful article..

  3. Naveen on October 29, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    This is a great article from HSB. I recently graduated from Johns Hopkins with a Masters Degree in Computer Science. I did a thesis during my masters. My prof had offered me a PhD but I rejected it due to some personal circumstances and not a day goes now without regretting this decision. Anyways great article. Kudos..

  4. Nikhil on October 28, 2013 at 10:05 PM

    Great post HSB…. thank you for the insight….

  5. manasa on October 28, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    Excellent posts on PhD degree! It is absolutely useful.. thank u HSB for sharing it!!!!

  6. Anik on October 28, 2013 at 2:40 PM

    Is GRE score 297 (V141 Q 156 AWA 2.5 ) a decent score for pursuing PhD in Mechanical Engineering ?

  7. Raj on October 28, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    The funding part is of big concern as it will be difficult to focus on a research whilst your basic funding needs arent met. (5 years!)

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