Three Qualities of Successful PhDs

After reading this article and having gone through the process myself, I have to agree with all the points raised. I also end up giving similar advice to my friends, if they ever tell me that they want to do a PhD and I have complained similarly on my old blog about it. Read this thread on a lot of similar advice.

I’d like to just quote one section of the entire piece:

To escape with a Ph.D., you must meaningfully extend the boundary of human knowledge. More exactly, you must convince a panel of experts guarding the boundary that you have done so.

You can take classes and read papers to figure out where the boundary lies.

That’s easy.

But, when it comes time to actually extend that boundary, you have to bunker down and figure out how. 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.

[The classic 2nd year slump. Ouch! – Shawn]

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.

[Finding the door in an infinitely dark room with no walls! – Shawn]

If you persevere to the end of this phase, your mind will intuit solutions to problems in ways that it didn’t and couldn’t before. You won’t know how your mind does this. (I don’t know how mine does it.) It just will.

[Bashing your head against the wall until the wall breaks! – Shawn]

As you acquire this skill, you’ll be launching fledgling papers at peer reviewers, checking to see if others think what you’re doing qualifies as research yet. Since acceptance rates at good venues range between 8% and 25%, most or all of your papers will be rejected. 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.)

[Not quite sure, but I hope that mine has. – Shawn]

This phase of the Ph.D. demands perseverance–in the face of uncertainty, in the face of rejection and in the face of frustration.

That is the reason why Google hires PhDs and that is the same reason why I am going to do the same. The PhD is not a stamp on how smart a person is – there are plenty of idiots who finish a PhD. It is merely a stamp on how disciplined and determined a person is to completing a goal.

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Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered/Professional Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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