Travelling Thilaksha

One of my PhD students, Thilaksha Tharanganie, has been very successful in getting travel funding to attend conferences. She was the subject of a write-up in today’s Monash News.

We encourage students to attend conferences, and provide funding for them to attend one international conference and one local conference during their PhD candidature. Thilaksha was previously funded to attend last year’s COMPSTAT in Geneva, Switzerland and IMS conference in Sydney. Having exhausted local funding, she has now convinced several other organizations to support her conference habit.

Now she just has to finish that thesis…

Paperpile makes me more productive

One of the first things I tell my new research students is to use a reference management system to help them keep track of the papers they read, and to assist in creating bib files for their bibliography. Most of them use Mendeley, one or two use Zotero. Both do a good job and both are free.

I use neither. I did use Mendeley for several years (and blogged about it a few years ago), but it became slower and slower to sync as my reference collection grew. Eventually it simply couldn’t handle the load. I have over 11,000 papers in my collection of papers, and I was spending several minutes every day waiting for Mendeley just to update the database.

Then I came across Paperpile, which is not so well known as some of its competitors, but it is truly awesome. I’ve now been using it for over a year, and I have grown to depend on it every day to keep track of all the papers I read, and to create my bib files. Continue reading →

Why God never received tenure

  1. He had only one major publication.
  2. It was in Hebrew.
  3. It had no references.
  4. It wasn’t published in a refereed journal.
  5. Some even doubt he wrote it by himself.
  6. It may be true that he created the world, but what has he done since then?
  7. The scientific community has had a hard time replicating his results.
  8. He never applied to the ethics board for permission to use human subjects.
  9. When one experiment went awry he tried to cover it by drowning his subjects.
  10. When subjects didn’t behave as predicted, he deleted them from the sample.
  11. He rarely came to class, just told students to read the book.
  12. Some say he had his son teach the class.
  13. He expelled his first two students for learning.
  14. Although there were only 10 requirements, most of his students failed his tests.
  15. His office hours were infrequent and often held on limited access mountain tops.
  16. No record of working well with colleagues.

This list must have appeared on thousands of sites and I’ve not been able to track down the source. In fact, a search on the phrase yields over 43,000 results on Google. There are another 3,700 where it is titled “Why God never received a PhD”. If anyone knows the original source, please post a comment. (After all, this is a research site and we have to credit sources appropriately.)

How to fail a PhD

I read an interesting post today by Matt Might on “10 reasons PhD students fail”, and I thought it might be helpful to reflect on some of the barriers to PhD completion that I’ve seen. Matt’s ideas are not all relevant to Australian PhDs, so I have come up with my own list below.  Here are the seven steps to failure.

1. Wait for your supervisor to tell you what to do

A good supervisor will not tell you what to do. PhD students are not meant to be research assistants, and a PhD is not an extended undergraduate assignment. So waiting to be told what to do next will usually get you nowhere.

By the time you graduate with a PhD, you are supposed to be an independent researcher. That means having your own ideas, setting your own research directions, and choosing what to do yourself. In practice, your supervisor will usually need to tell you what to do for the first year, but eventually you need to set the research agenda yourself. By the third year you should certainly know more about your topic than your supervisor, and so are in a better position to know what to do next.

2. Wait for inspiration

Sitting around waiting for great ideas to pop into your ahead is unlikely to work. Most of my best ideas come after a lot of work trying different things and becoming totally immersed in the problem.

A good way to start is often to try to replicate someone else’s research, or apply someone’s method on a different data set. In the process you might notice something that doesn’t quite work, or you might think of a better way to do it. At the very least you will have a deeper understanding of what they have done than you will get by simply reading their paper.

Research often involves dead-ends, wrong turns, and failures. It’s a little like exploring a previously unmapped part of the world. You have no idea what you’ll find there, but unless you start wandering around you’ll never discover anything.

3. Aim for perfection

Perfection takes forever, and so students who are aiming for perfection never finish. Instead they spend years trying to make the thesis that little bit better, polishing every sentence until it gleams. Every researcher needs to accept that research involves making mistakes, often publicly. That’s the nature of the activity.

Don’t wait until your paper or thesis is perfect. Work through a few drafts, and then stop, recognizing that there are probably still some errors remaining.

4. Aim too high

Many students imagine they will write a thesis that will revolutionise the field and lead to wide acclaim and a brilliant academic career. Occasionally that does happen, but extremely rarely. A PhD is an apprenticeship in research, and like all apprenticeships, you are learning the craft, making mistakes, and you are unlikely to produce your best work at such an early stage in your research career.

It really doesn’t matter what your topic is provided you find it interesting and that you find something to say about it. Your PhD is a demonstration that you know how to do research, but your most important and high impact research will probably come later.

My own PhD research was on stochastic nonlinear differential equations and I haven’t touched them since. It showed I could do high level research, but I’d lost interest by the time I finished and I’ve moved onto other things. Few people ever cite the research that came out of my PhD, but it served its purpose.

5. Aim too low

My rule-of-thumb for an Australian PhD is about three to four pieces of publishable work. They don’t have to actually be published, but the examiners like to see enough material to make up three papers that would be acceptable in a reputable scholarly journal. Just writing 200 pages is not enough if the material is not sufficiently original or innovative to be publishable in a journal. Pointing out errors in everyone else’s work is usually not enough either, as most journals will expect you to have something to say yourself in addition to whatever critiques you make of previous work.

6. Follow every side issue

Just because you use a maximum likelihood method, doesn’t mean you have to read the entire likelihood literature. Of course you will learn something if you do, but that isn’t the point. The purpose of a PhD is not so that you can learn as much as you can about everything. A PhD is training in research, and researchers need to be able to publish their findings without having to be expert in every area that is somehow related to their chosen topic.

Of course, you do need to read as much of the relevant literature as possible. A key skill in research is learning what is relevant and what is not. Ask your supervisor if you are not sure.

7. Leave all the writing to the end

In some fields it seems to be standard practice to have a “writing up” phase after doing the research. Perhaps that works in experimental sciences, but it doesn’t work in the mathematical sciences. You haven’t a hope of remembering all the good ideas you had in first and second year if you don’t attempt to write them down until near the end of your third year.

I encourage all my students to start writing from the first week. In the first year, write a series of notes summarizing what you’ve learned and what research ideas you’ve had. It can be helpful to use these notes to show your supervisor what you’ve been up to each time you meet. In the second year, you should have figured out your specific topic and have a rough idea of the table of contents. So start writing the parts you can. You should be able to turn some of your first-year notes into sections of the relevant chapters. By the third year you are filling in the gaps, adding simulation results, tidying up proofs, etc.

What to do when the PhD is finished?

So you’re wondering what to do once your PhD is finally completed? First, take a holiday. Completing a PhD is an intense and draining exercise, and you should take some time to refresh.

Then you need to decide what career path you prefer. In statistics, there are three choices: the academic route, the semi-academic route and the business route.

Academic route

Most PhD students would like an academic job. In fact, I think all of my PhD students have rather fancied my job! However, it is not an easy path, especially in the first few years. The ideal situation is to get a post-doctoral fellowship, preferably in a different university (and a different country) from where you studied for your doctorate. That gives you some time to concentrate on consolidating your research and to learn from another supervisor. Working in a different country also helps you develop a broader network of research contacts. But there aren’t many post-doc positions around, and so it is hard to get something suitable.

I am occasionally asked by other researchers if I have any good students finishing soon as they have a post-doc position available. In this case, I pass the information on to any students likely to finish at about the right time.  But these are positions usually overseas, and many of my students are unwilling to leave Australia.

There is no harm in asking the leading researchers in the field if they have any research positions coming up. If you are flexible enough to travel and are willing to take something short-term, you never know where it might lead.

Often a student will need to take whatever they can get in a university environment for a couple of years until something more suitable crops up. If there are positions for tutors, research assistants, part-time lecturing, etc., then take the opportunity while continuing to look for something better.

Remember that academic jobs almost always require a strong research record. So the most important thing to do when you finish a PhD is to write papers, as many as you can and submit them to the best journals that will accept them. The more papers you have, especially if they are in top journals, the more likely you will get a good academic job.

After spending two or three years in a post-doctoral fellowship, you would normally then aim for a lectureship at the best university who will employ you. If you’ve produced a large number of publications in the top journals, you are a chance for a lectureship at one of the top universities in the country. If you have a smaller number of publications, or publications in lower-ranked journals, you probably should aim for one of the lower-ranked universities. If you’re very lucky, you might get a tenured lectureship. Then you are set for life — all you have to do is keep churning out papers every year for the rest of your working days!

Semi-academic route

Often, a more realistic route for many students is to provide statistical support to researchers in other disciplines. There are always lots of available jobs in this area, as almost every research discipline uses statistical methods and most researchers aren’t trained to use them effectively. Apart from universities, statistical research skills are required at CSIRO and many medical and health research organizations. Consequently, many of my students end up in departments of sports science, public health, finance, etc., where they can use their statistical expertise in applied research. You will still end up doing research, writing papers, etc., but the papers are unlikely to be published in JASA or Econometrica. They are more likely to appear in journals associated with the discipline in which you are working.

The downside of this route is that it is hard to be promoted beyond a junior academic as you will often be seen as support staff rather than an academic in your own right. Every discipline values its natives more than outsiders. Over time, you might become sufficiently expert in the discipline to be taken more seriously.

Another drawback is that you can’t set your own research agenda. You will always be doing whatever the senior researchers in your group want you to do.

One benefit of this career path is that there are often part-time positions available. So if you are juggling young children and only want a few days of work each week, this can be a good choice.

However, it is very difficult to move from this sort of position to an academic position within a statistics or econometrics department. You simply won’t have the publications to land yourself a job. So if you really want to work in the sort of department where you got your PhD, then don’t take this route.

Business route

The third route is to work in a business environment. There is a growing number of positions for PhD-level statisticians in many different organizations including the Australian Bureau of Statistics, large finance institutions, pharmaceutical companies, energy companies and organizations, etc. Statistical skills are highly transferrable, and so you can have a very varied career working in different environments and on many different problems.

As with all non-academic jobs, there is usually much less freedom with this sort of position, and you will find that you have to work to much tighter deadlines than academics are used to. Consequently, the solutions you develop usually involve short-cuts, fudges, and all sorts of things that are not found in textbooks. Some people love the challenge. Others find it frustrating.

It is relatively easy to move from a business environment to a statistical support position in a research environment. But it is very difficult to move from business into an academic position within a statistics or econometrics department unless you have also been publishing papers.

Finding a job

Contact the leaders in the organizations where you want to work. Let it be known that you are looking for work.

Network. Talk to as many people as possible, especially people who already work for organizations you would like to work for. Ask if there are any openings, and find out who to talk to about possible job opportunities.

Also keep an eye on the job websites. In statistics, the key Australian site is

Be patient and don’t give up.

The 7 secrets of highly successful PhD students

It seems everyone has 7 secrets to success, and now someone has hopped on the 7-secrets bandwagon with something for PhD students. Thinkwell is an Australian company offering a seminar and associated work book on “The 7 secrets of highly successful PhD students”. I bought the book out of curiosity, but “book” is a gross exaggeration — only eleven pages of fairly simplistic advice. I hope the seminar has more substance. For what it’s worth, here are the so-called seven secrets.

  1. Care and maintenance of your supervisor.
  2. Write and show as you go.
  3. Be realistic.
  4. Say no to distractions.
  5. It’s a job.
  6. Get help.
  7. You can do it.

If you can work out what is meant from those headings, you’re doing better than me. After reading the “book”, I think a better summary would be as follows.

  1. Meet regularly with your supervisor.
  2. Write up your research ideas as you go.
  3. Have realistic research goals.
  4. Beware of distractions and other commitments.
  5. Set regular hours and take holidays.
  6. Make full use of the available help.
  7. Persevere.

Nothing too surprising there. Perhaps it should have been called “Seven obvious things PhD students should already know”.

If I haven’t put you all off, one of the authors is presenting the seminar at Monash in a couple of weeks. The details are as follows.

  • Presenter:  Maria Gardiner – iThinkwell
  • Date: Friday 16 October, 2009
  • Time: 9:30am – 12:30pm
  • Venue: Theatre R2, Building 8 (Rotunda), Clayton

Bookings are essential (Monash students only)

The same authors have written several other booklets including “Time for research: time management for PhD students”, “The PhD experience: what they didn’t tell you at induction” and “Defeating self-sabotage: getting your PhD finished”. They are dreadfully over-priced and light-weight, but contain some snippets of useful advice. Students at Monash can borrow the books from me.