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Christopher VanLang’s answer to Graduate School

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Christopher VanLang, Chemical Engineering PhD Student at S…

16 votes by Anon User, Katy Pearce, Michael W. Long, (more)

The answers so far mean well but have been extremely judgmental and forget a simple concept: the PhD is the process of taking an individual and nurturing them to be an intellectual productive expert. Most people focus on the end product but forget that the 4-10 years of the PhD are long and dark periods where you feel quite stupid at times.

I’ve been there. There are many moments where I feel that I’m not pulling my weight, feel mediocre, not working hard enough, and outright dumb. At one point you were probably the cream of the crop in High School and College and now you’re struggling to stay afloat among superstar prodigies who published Science and Nature papers during their sophomore year of college. As a PhD student, you’re probably working on some project where your advisor happens to be the world expert on and all of your lab colleagues have been happily studying for the past X years. Of course you’re going to be stupid. My advisor thinks I’m stupid all the time. If I wasn’t, I would have a PhD.

But fear not, there are ways out of the hole and apparently a degree comes after you get out. Assuming that you still want a PhD here are a few suggestions that have worked for me and my peers.

  • First off is figuring out why are you so mediocre. Michael W. Long hints at the most important factor: interest. Sometimes, its not that simple. It could be your sleep schedule, your technique, your lack of knowledge on a subject. On the more extreme side, it could be your advisor or your lab environment. Setting aside some time to figure out what distractions, physical, and mental hurdles exist will help you get back on the path of productivity.
  • The most important thing is pure hard work. Its one thing to be mediocre, its another to be LAZY. See Graduate Advisors & Advising: What is it like to have a lazy grad student under you? Lot of problems in grad school can be solved but pretty much all of them can’t be solved if you’re not willing to work through them.
  • Finding a group of mentors and peer advisors is a humbling but valuable experience. A knowledgeable mentor (including your advisor) should be able to give you perspective on your progress, your habits, your demeanor. Maybe you have outside emotional distractions that are preventing you from focusing on your PhD work. Having the ability to verbally voice your thoughts, concerns, and proposed steps to get back on track is extremely important not only for your PhD but also your own mental health. Good suggestions would be your significant other, roommates, older graduate students, young like-minded professors, and people on Quora.
  • Rebuilding confidence is a challenging process and is essential to the PhD education. In the early years of your PhD, you probably had safe and doable experiments or problems where your advisor or an older grad student figured out many of the nuanced details for you. In the midyears, those crutches are taken from you and you’re often in a sink or swim situation. You’re placed in an environment where you will fail. However, by breaking down your problems into smaller achievable goals, taking time to critically examine your dilemmas, and pure hard work you’ll be able to chip away at these problems and small successes will add up.
  • Realize that one field’s idiot is another’s expert. True story: my friend really wanted to study fluid mechanics. FAILED QUALS because they weren’t good enough at fluid mechanics. Left for a different department. Is now the other department’s expert on fluid mechanics. A common example is when a frustrated mathematician decided to leave his field of managerial economics and realized that his mathematical talents can be applied to all sorts of challenges in biology[1]. You bring in valuable knowledge that other members in your group/department don’t have. The challenge is recognizing what you do know and being able to apply it to your work.
  • Take ownership of your work. Mediocrity comes when you don’t have full command of your work. Leaning on the laurels of other students and your advisor makes you dependent on them and in doing so, makes you stupid. Part of the PhD is recognizing that you are supposed to know every single detail about your work and by either reading about it or thinking a lot about it, you should be the expert on said seemingly meaningless detail.
  • If all else fails, work on something else. If you’re just struggling with a project, shift your efforts. This is a big reason why graduate students are given multiple projects. One is to learn how to multitask and prioritize, but the other is the gateway to get out of a stalled project fast. Your experiments not working, write a grant. Theory isn’t working out, code away. This goes along with rebuilding confidence and while it may annoy your advisor, sometimes detours may provide valuable insight on why everything else is going poorly.

Going from productive to mediocre is a very upsetting process. However, regardless of the fact that you’re in a PhD, the real world will require you to break out of a slump and getting back to a productive state is an important but challenging process. However, in the real world, you would have a manager whose job is to make you productive. In the PhD world, its only you trying to stay alive long enough to graduate.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/0…

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Written by sunupradana

January 4, 2012 at 7:11 am

Posted in Science

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