Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What does it mean to be not cut out for PhD research?

Inspired by a comment from SEBASTIAN RAMIREZ on a previous post here, I started thinking about people I've met who have not been cut out for PhD research in various ways. Before joining the TT, I would have though this was an easy thing to determine. However, experience has shown that there are many things that can make a person not cut out for PhD research, some of which are harder to see than others (for both the student and the mentor). The stereotype is that people not cut out for a PhD either lack technical/intellectual skills or are lazy, and therefore this can be determined right away. However, I find that this is not usually why people leave our PhD program without a PhD (though it does happen, usually in the first year).

Lack of desire: This is the most common reason people leave our PhD program. I've seen plenty of people who like the idea of research but not the reality--some don't like the uncertainty (is there even an answer? will I ever find it?), some don't like the repetitiveness required to ensure reliable data, some don't like the large problem solving component, some don't like the required background reading/lit review and just want to do experiments. Some people think they like doing science, but actually just like reading about discoveries. Some people did well in their science classes and apply to grad school because they don't know what else to do (and at least they can get paid). Some people apply to grad school due to family pressure. Some people apply to grad school because it provides a way out of their country. Some of the people who start a PhD program without a direct desire to do research discover they enjoy it. Some don't.

People can fool themselves for quite a while about what they actually want, so students can be pretty far along when it becomes clear that they don't really want a PhD and/or dislike research. Sometimes they attempt to tough it out anyway to try to not "waste" time sunk into a degree or because they don't know what they want to do instead/family pressure/need the paycheck/don't want to leave the country. This doesn't always go well because it is difficult to keep working hard for something you don't really want when you also have no interest in the work.

Inability to mature as a researcher: Many of the students who leave our program with an MSc instead of a PhD have good lab and data analysis skills, but just cannot make the leap to doing PhD level work. This can be hard to spot until 2-3 years in, when students in the PhD program typically are driving their own projects. These students can design and complete experiments, but have difficulty deciding what experiments should be designed. The cliche way to put this is that these students can't see the forest for the trees, but this is not exactly it--they are not overwhelmed by details, or overly detail oriented, but they cannot see how their work fits into a big picture in a way that lets them run a project themselves. Sometimes PIs push these students through the PhD program, but that really isn't in their best interest, since future employers will expect PhD-holders to be capable of driving a project.

Need structure: This can be a huge issue. Students starting out get lots of help with planning and carrying out their research, plus they often start out doing some coursework. As students go further into a PhD program, students are expected to take on more and more of the planning and scheduling themselves. Classes (if any) are completed. Most of the days are wide open to get work done. Some people cannot be productive in an unstructured/unscheduled workday. Some people need deadlines--for these people, even the weekly deadline of group meeting or a progress meeting is not enough pressure to help them focus. Most PIs are not interested in having daily scheduled meetings with senior students (which can help people who need deadlines), but some will do frequent meetings. The lack of structured days needs to be solved by each person though. Sometimes, they just can't do it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Common mistakes at the on campus interview

In honor of academic interview season, I thought I'd discuss a few common pitfalls I see candidates fall into on campus. Way back when I was interviewing, I made some of these mistakes myself, so I know how common a trap it can be. For those job hunting, xykademiqz has a great post on advice for Skype interviews, some of which carries over to on campus interviews as well.

The research talk: A good research talk will engage both experts and non-experts for at least a portion of the talk. It will also demonstrate your technical and research skills to the experts. Thus, it must have both breadth and depth. This is where I fell down in my first year interviewing. The most common mistake is to focus too much on depth (I did this), but it is equally problematic to focus too much on breadth (I've seen this) and not come across as an expert in anything.

The chalk talk: The chalk talk is hard, because it is unlike anything else most people have done in the past. One major issue is in presenting a bunch of projects that look like just a bunch of projects. From years of experience, most postdocs are used to thinking about their research in a project by project way. However, in the chalk talk, we want to see an outline of what the candidate's research program will look like over time. Pretty much all of the candidates invited to campus had some long term research plans in their research statements, but this needs to come out in the chalk talk as well. Our department wants to hire someone who will have a successful career, and that means making sure that the planned research leads somewhere beyond the immediate 3-5 year project horizon. What will your lab specialize in? When we discuss our new hire, what is the one sentence summary about your work that we will lead with?

Related to this issue is candidates who position themselves in competition with their previous groups. It is great that you love your current (or previous work). It is great that you can take it with you. HOWEVER, unless you can clearly articulate the differences between your approach and your supervisor's approach to non-experts, some in the audience will wonder if you will be successful in funding your work. Towards that end, a really common question is "why would a funding agency give you this money instead of your more established adviser?".  You need to have an answer.

The opposite problem (moving to a brand new area) can also be problematic. Without a track record, some will be reluctant to take a risk on a candidate. Also, proposals into a new area can come across as naive or not fully formed. Realistically, at ProdigalU we do consider the experience level of our applicants, so if one of three proposed projects in a new area comes across as naive or unrealistic for an inexperienced candidate, we are usually pretty forgiving if the other proposed projects are well done. This is particularly an issue for candidates trying to force their research to fit into a targeted job search, and it becomes obvious in the chalk talk unless the candidate is really interested in moving in that direction for the research's sake rather than just to get a job.

A final chalk talk issue is particularly common with those from large and well-funded groups. Really innovative research is a great attention grabber, but as a PI, you will have real students who really want a degree and therefore need to have some research success. You need to be able to articulate not just Plan A, but also Plans B and C for your projects, and also discuss what important (i.e. publishable) work will come out of your planned research directions even if the project is ultimately unsuccessful. There are no great rewards without risk, but you need to show some awareness of the other requirements of your research program (like that you will be training students, not just doing cutting edge research).

Personal interactions: Do not make flip or ironic remarks that could be misinterpreted (I did that when answering questions after my research talk my first year interviewing, and it was a mistake). Personal experience aside, every aspect of the visit is part of the interview, including the meals, the walks between offices, the interactions with non-academics, and the transportation to/from different locations! Be polite to everyone (including all staff members and students). Do not drink more than you can handle and remain in good control of yourself, regardless of how much your meal companions indulge. Do not make disparaging comments about pretty much any person, group, or place. Do not bring up politics as a topic of meal time conversation. I have seen candidates do all of these things, and it did not make a favorable impression.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Happy new year!

Happy new year to my readers! My science resolutions this year:

1.  Set aside regular time to just browse through the literature and read what is interesting, rather than directly useful.

2.  Spend more time with my undergraduate researchers. 

3.  Try to blog regularly.