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The Ph.D. Student Life

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The Ph.D. Student Life [#permalink]

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The Ph.D. program

  • Brand: Brand does matter in that there is a strong correlation to the quality of faculty, funding, industry partnerships. However, the Ph.D is the students responsibility. The brand will help you get noticed, but if you cannot publish or are too dependent on your advisor for ideas, it will hurt you.
  • Responsibilities: Expect no one to offer you help in the program. I like to think of the Ph.D as starting your own small business. It is your baby. Expect to do everything from cold-calling your customers to picking up the trash. You will need to survive the first two years. In fact, it is very important that the first two years be challenging. It is very difficult to learn anything new once you start your dissertation or go on to a faculty position. You will be expected to take a lion's share of the responsibility of doing research. The faculty and the univ. do provide a formal support system, but they have a thousand other things to worry about.
  • Coursework: Discipline and timeliness will matter a lot as you balance your coursework , your research projects and your personal life. You have to very efficient at doing what you do. At most schools, you will very easily be spending 50-60 hrs per week on school. Of course, you should ensure that you hit the ground running. Be sure to review all relevant math coursework in the summer prior to joining school and get to know your colleagues.

    Also, even if the professors dont "require" you to read material before coming to class, its usually a great idea to do so. A Ph.D is much more than excellent grades. The more effort you put into mastering the material, the better off you will be. This could mean an extra 2-4 hrs of reading per course per week. This is on top of the assignments and/or coding.
  • Completing the program: Remember that even though it is a 4 year program, you really only have 3 years to prepare yourself for the job market. The 4th year is the time you look at your research, your dissertation and ask yourself if you are ready. Publishing in a top journal is a big IF. You will definitely need the advice and support of your advisor. Many students take an extra year and complete their Ph.D in five years. This allows them to build up a nice portfolio of papers accepted or under review by the time they are ready to go onto the job market. I personally think taking an extra year is a great idea. Its much better to go into the faculty position with a paper or two under your belt. The process of tenure is probably 10 times as difficult.
  • Advisor Reputation: Finally, definitely try to work with a well known professor in the field. Reputation means a lot of academia. Careers are built on it. In some cases, it is possible to work with a professor from another university. But nothing like someone on the inside. The challenge you will run into when working with a genius prof. is that you have to be really at the top of your game to keep them interested.

Paying for School

About paying for school, almost all top schools have decent financial aid packages. Its common for schools to pay your tuition and give you a stipend between $1300-$1800 a month. Some schools also offer to pay for teaching a class. If you teach throughout the year, that is a very nice addition to the stipend.

Publishing your research

If everything goes right, this is what should happen for a student interested in publishing in a top journal.

  • End of First year - Have a written research proposal ready for the first paper. It is difficult to know what your dissertation topic is going to be right in your first year, but you should make every effort to ensure that this research will form a part of your dissertation. It will help you a lot.
  • In the Fall/Winter of second year - Complete the paper
  • In the Spring of second year - present paper at a conference and include it in the conference proceedings. -- A great way to get early feedback on the quality of the paper.
  • Summer of second year - Incorporate feedback and revise paper. Edit/ Re-edit paper to make it more readable.
  • In late summer/ early fall - send paper for publication to a top journal.
  • Early Spring of third year - Accept/ Revise and Resubmit/ Reject decision. Lets make the optimistic case and say "Revise and Resubmit".
  • Submit revisions by Summer of third year
  • Late Summer/ Early Fall of 4th year - Decision on paper. (hopefully an accept)
  • Early Fall - Hopefully, you did not forget about your dissertation that you should have been working on. Defend your dissertation proposal if required by your university BEFORE going on to the job market.
  • Fall of 4th year- Go on the job market. Preliminary interview with Big Name Schools at conferences. Explain dissertation work.
  • Spring of 4th year- Hopefully that leads to a campus visit.
  • Late Spring - Accept job offer.

Dropping out of a Ph.D. program

Unfortunately, many qualified students never complete a Ph.D. program.

  • Failing to meet Academic Standards: Some unfortunately drop out because they fall short of the academic standards of the institution. This is usually a result of performance on the comprehensive exam, usually conducted after the second year of the program.
  • Research Ability : Some students are interested in research, but do not understand the nuances of what it will entail. Reading journals in the students area of interest is very very important. Also, I think a lot of student underestimate the emphasis that universities place on academic research. You will hear the "Publish or Perish" slogan often in academia. As an academic, you are on the faculty to teach, but high quality research is a primary component of getting tenure.

    The rewards are not immediate. Academic research sounds easy. Define the problem, show how your paper contributes to current literature and show that you indeed made those contributions by using models and experiments. However, a typical student fails at the first 2 attempts in writing a paper. A student belongs to one of these three categories.

    a) Not good at math, not good at discovering interesting research questions and not good at writing either. This is unlikely, but it does happen. As you can imagine, such students do not stay long in the program.

    b) Good at math, not good at discovering interesting research questions, but good at writing. This is probably the average student.

    c) Good at math, good at discovering interesting research questions, and good at writing, but the student cannot convert the research question and intended contribution into a model that adequately incorporates the richness of the problem without oversimplifying it. This is probably the standard for a student attempting research for the first time.

    If you can get to phase c) by the end of your first year, you are my hero.
  • Motivation: It takes a lot of motivation to keep going. 4 years is a long time. Things change. Changes in personal life or professional ambitions can play a very very significant role in such decisions. Most are married and the Ph.D is an acid test for any relationship. For single students, its probably not as difficult, but a supportive spouse can have a dramatic impact as far as keeping your sanity is concerned. It will be a great support system as you navigate through the emotional roller coaster.
  • Time Commitment: Others simply find the time commitment too much. It puts a strain on relationships and finances. Most expect to graduate in 4 years. But its no longer enough to graduate. IF you are interested in getting hired to a top school (who isnt?), an acceptance of a journal article at a top journal in the field is fast becoming as important as the Ph.D itself. Very Very exceptional and lucky students can complete this publication "requirement" in 4 years. By exceptional, I mean a student who hits the ground running as far as research is concerned.

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Last edited by Praetorian on 21 Oct 2010, 10:43, edited 1 time in total.
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The Ph.D. Student Life   [#permalink] 20 Oct 2010, 12:03
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