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 www​.statsci​.org/​jobs/.

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.