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Sunday, Apr 30, 2017 - 20:33 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

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A For Academia (Part I)

Seeing as that I'm a over a year out from somehow escaping with my doctorate, it might be appropriate to dispense some scattered observations, thoughts and advice on the experience.

To provide some context, I'm not someone who naturally picks these things up through conversations with peers and advisors (largely due to being light on the "conversation" bit - mostly lone-wolfed it through the ten years total), which I'd say has its advantages and disadvantages. Thinking back, there are probably a few things I'd have done differently had I known, but on balance it turned out mostly ok, so...

Why Do Grad School?

This is my life now.
(Source: r/GradSchool, reference)

There's a website dedicated to providing a hundred reasons as to why not, with money (and jobs) being such a broad underlying concern that I'll cover it in its own section later. Since it should be a duty to scare off bright-eyed prospective grad students (those up for professional Masters perhaps excepted), to avoid them from signing up for more than they bargained for, I'll list a few of the most pertinent:

  • "Fads" and Trends: Oftentimes, there will be some hot new topic or technique in any particular discipline (that said, likely for a good reason). One could hold out and keep with whatever one likes/is familiar with/is good at/one's advisor has been doing for years, and in all honesty, it might well be extremely worthy and challenging work. However, a more worldly realisation would be that "difficulty" and "demand/impact" are probably at best very weakly correlated...

  • Politics: No, no escaping this, not even in the ivory tower. As Sayre's famous quip goes, "the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low". As the usually-cynical (but generally clear-headed) anon commentators on the venerable Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) board love to note, much of the game is "protecting turf" (with empirical macro singled out for special mention). As might be expected, this effect is more pronounced in fields with fewer objective results available, as there's almost no way to conclusively rebutt another viewpoint (and it's tricky even in the hard sciences...)

  • Prestige Does Matter: If, after all this, one still insists on going down this route, it's best to keep in mind that where - or, at least, under whom - one obtains one's degree matters a lot, particularly if one intends to continue in academia (the Germans take those titles very seriously, and you don't wanna mess with them)

    Now, I'd like to say that a certification from a random decent college measures up to one from the Ivies in the academic reckoning, but in practice, it simply ain't so. Definitely, if you're expecting to rack up multiple Nature features, Econometrica papers, or prove that P != NP, then none of this matters a whit, but for the hopeful plodding strivers who make up the other 99.99%, I'd say that this at least merits consideration.

  • Advisor & Lab Culture: That said, if there's anything that trumps the school's name, it would be the advisor(s). Given that one's advisor is the person with the single (overwhelmingly) largest influence on when (or whether) one gets out with the golden ticket, choosing the right one might be the biggest determinant of success, outside of one's own work. Indeed, common wisdom is to prefer a great advisor (in terms of compatibility) and okay project/fit, over an okay advisor and great project/fit.

    A similar argument goes for the lab environment, given that one will likely be there for years - if the culture is f-ed up, it's going to be tough to get through tough times. Standard advice here is to inquire with the existing lab members, and/or try it out on a temp basis. Sure, some labs are intense, with the tradeoff of very good odds for high-impact publications - important thing, I suppose, is to know what to expect.

    Big shot but distant Full Professor,
    or hungry up-and-coming but underfunded Lecturer?

    (Source: phdcomics.com)

(No) Money

I won't sugarcoat it - if maximizing wealth is your objective, graduate school and a doctorate is probably at best a very inefficient way of going about it. While grad students probably won't starve, ramen for days is real, and then you get recountings by tenure-track professors on how they're selling blood plasma to pay the bills (interestingly, he appears a D.F. Wallace scholar, who's also been quoted by Gorsuch)

A natural reaction might be to dismiss such tales as Fake News - aren't university professors rich? - and the sad answer is, all too often, not really. Sure, it can work out financially... if one makes tenure, and if his field was lucrative to begin with. From the University of California's public salary information, yes, you can pull in three hundred grand a year as a full professor in CS, but that's for arguably being at the pinnacle of the profession, and doesn't compare to what approximately the same talent and effort would get in private industry (which may explain why new entrants are from developing countries, and why we're getting shafted on technical know-how)

Further, this is for the "ultimate winners", and glosses over the far more populous academic underclass - the adjunct faculty, visiting A.P.s, postdocs, grad student grunts, etc, who work for a relative pittance. Sure, there are the perks, mostly a certain degree of scheduling and intellectual freedom... in practice, often limited due to the necessity of winning and fulfilling grants (which always struck me as a bit of a paradox; if one already knows how an investigation is going to turn out, is it really research? Personally, I imagine the "tinkering" mode more likely to drive big developments than directed research, but in reality what I guess more than a few labs do is to perform the research first, and bill for it later)

Grant funding season is upon us!
[N.B. Still the most effective way to ask for cash]

To be fair, one can look at it from the perspective of the grant-giving organizations. Particularly if they're held accountable for the outputs by the ultimate funders (i.e. taxpayers, for government grants), there has always got to be the question of what's in it for us (and yes, there's a fair bit of slightly-kooky research). Looking at it this way, it's understandable if regrettable why humanities and the basic sciences are especially under-budgeted for. From Economics 101, if you can't capture the profits, it won't be valued.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of how crocked academia is, money-wise, is the publishing system. You have scholars working, oft for years, on their masterpieces, and assuming it passes review (by other scholars, who are donating their time and energy unpaid), they get the privilege of paying for their work to be published... and to top it off, their colleagues also get to pay to read it. A more pathetic deal, one could hardly imagine (and which burnishes my faith in GOD-EMPEROR TRUMP, promoter of women in STEM)

That said, money is indeed probably of questionable incentive in promoting good research, and direct compensation would likely shape it even more strongly towards flashy findings, than it has already been (and leads down a very slippery slope). But still, while there's the romance of being a Zhang Yitang or Thomas Royen and tackling big open problems for the heck of it, it has to be said that this idealised notion of research is neither likely to build a career, nor pay the rent.

A refreshing aspect of trading and finance, I feel, is that it can sometimes be even more of a pure meritocracy than academia - do your homework, put your stake down, and the market will inform you whether you were accurate; no rank to pull, no face to give, no worrying about offending others with critiques, no pontificating about why this theory doesn't apply even if the field leaders are insisting so. Certainly, when one watches one's portfolio fluctuate by the next few years of one's projected salary over the course of a normal market day, it's easy to wonder: what the heck am I doing?!

I'm Still Doing It

"Dissertations are not finished; they are abandoned."

- Fred Brooks (from Azuma's guide)

First off, congratulations for committing to a high-stress, near-minimum wage job for the better part of a decade! More seriously, if you aren't talking to those who're already in the game, do at least Google for their experiences. For example, for Computer Science, there's Philip Guo's The Ph.D. Grind, and Ronald Azuma's earlier classic (interestingly, both took six-plus years), among many others.

I'll further cut it down to three simple rules:
  1. Research is paramount (and if it ain't published, it doesn't really count)
  2. Research that goes towards one's dissertation is the highest priority of all
  3. Finished is better than perfect (mainly because perfect isn't even attainable)

Definitely, these aren't set in stone, but if you're a fresh graduate student who's not sure what's up, I don't think you'll go too far wrong keeping these in mind.

Basically, save rare extenuating circumstances, I'd say that one consideration should at least be in the back of one's head, when deciding whether to devote time and effort to some task: does this directly help me to graduate?

Getting As on coursework: not really...

Teaching: not really...

Other services: erm...

Of course, this is more for those who are running out the clock - if one has churned out three good first-author papers in one's first two years, then sure, do an internship, bunk over at the other department, whatever; if one has the dissertation all but done, but has made the strategic decision to stay a bit longer to be a more competitive job candidate, fine; but for the rest of us, it's not a bad rule of thumb.

[To be continued...]

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Next: A For Academia (Part II)

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