3 qualities of successful Ph.D. students: Perseverance, tenacity and cogency
A better question to ask is, "What makes a Ph.D. student successful?"
Fri Jun 24 07:01:10 2016 - permalink -
Having watched Ph.D. students succeed and fail at four universities, I infer that success in graduate school hinges on three qualities: perseverance, tenacity and cogency.
You can take classes and read papers to figure out where the boundary lies.
But, when it comes time to actually extend that boundary, you have to get into your bunker and prepare for the onslaught of failure.
A lot of Ph.D. students get depressed when they reach the boundary, because there's no longer a test to cram for or a procedure to follow. This is the point (2-3 years in) where attrition peaks.
Finding a problem to solve is rarely a problem itself. Every field is brimming with open problems. If finding a problem is hard, you're in the wrong field. The real hard part, of course, is solving an open problem. After all, if someone could tell you how to solve it, it wouldn't be open.
To survive this period, you have to be willing to fail from the moment you wake to the moment your head hits the pillow. You must be willing to fail for days on end, for months on end and maybe even for years on end. The skill you accrete during this trauma is the ability to imagine plausible solutions, and to estimate the likelihood that an approach will work.
You just have to hope that you'll eventually figure out how to get your work published. If you stick with it long enough and work at it hard enough, you will.
For students that excelled as undergraduates, the sudden and constant barrage of rejection and failure is jarring. If you have an ego problem, Ph.D. school will fix it. With a vengeance. (Some egos seem to recover afterward.)
To become professor, you can't have just one discovery or solve just one open problem. You have to solve several, and get each solution published. As you exit graduate school, an arc connecting your results should emerge, proving to faculties that your research has a profitable path forward.
You will also need to actively, even aggressively, forge relationships with scholars in your field. Researchers in your field need to know who you are and what you're doing. They need to be interested in what you're doing too.
Science is as much an act of persuasion as it is an act of discovery.
Once you've made a discovery, you have to persuade experts that you've made a legitimate, meaningful contribution. This is harder to do than it seems. Simply showing experts "the data" isn't going to work. (Yes, in a perfect world, this would be sufficient.)
Instead, you have to spoon-feed the experts. As you write, you have to consciously minimize the amount of time and cognitive pain it takes for them to realize you've made a discovery.
That's why I recommend that new students start a blog. Even if no one else reads it, start one. You don't even have to write about your research. Practicing the act of writing is all that matters.
Unfortunately, the only way to get better at writing is to do a lot of it. 10,000 hours is the magical number folks throw around to become an expert at something. You'll never even get close to 10,000 hours of writing by writing papers.