14 November 2012
Undergraduates often ask me what they should do to get into a good PhD program. So here are my thoughts, some of my own, some based on what others told me. All of it is based on my own personal experience of how I stumbled into a PhD program, and how I have trained PhD students for the past 25 years.
Simply put, a PhD is just a piece of paper. Some need it so they can sign documents as "Dr. SoAndSo," and if this is your goal, this document is not for you.
Others have figured out that undergraduate courses are fun but working on questions independently and figuring out new insights is even more fun. That insight is the first step toward a research-oriented PhD program. Because such programs are the place where you learn to pursue such independent inquiries and where you get the credentials to do so for the rest of your life – if you so wish.
In short, a PhD is a ticked to a life of research and exploration, a life of learning for learning’s sake, and a life of sharing the joy of discovery with like-minded people.
A PhD student is an apprentice to a master, also called a PhD advisor.
In this day and age, a PhD member is often also a member of his master’s team or lab or "shop."
The PhD advisor has a number of tasks. In science and engineering, an advisor’s most important task is to raise funds for his PhD students. He is responsible for getting enough money so that the student has bread, water, and shelter. On some occasion, funding may involve teaching, but every PhD student should have a few years of research time.
In return, the PhD student and the advisor usually collaborate on a jointly developed research topic. Indeed, the advisor’s second task is to create a "playground" where the PhD student can find a dissertation topic. Some advisors have a list of ready-made topics; others have a playground and work with the students to find a mutually agreeable topic. I also know of advisor who provide little or no input. These professors are advisors in name only.
Once the advisor and his apprentice have found a theme, they embark on the research process itself. It is the student’s task to formulate questions and to come up with solutions, though the advisor must prune obviously dead-end explorations and should on occasion inject ideas. In the first few years, the advisor will contribute numerous ideas, possibly more than the student. Over the years, however, the advisor must pull back and must allow the student to take possession of the topic.
Pragmatically, the process also involves learning to read papers, learning to articulate the questions and their solutions – both in writing and in conversations or presentations. From the perspective of cost accounting, this part of the advisor’s job accounts for about half the job or more, simply because articulation skills are critical for the apprentice’s future as a researcher. No matter what he ends up doing – research at a research university, research in an industrial lab, teaching, "superhacking" – the future PhD must speak and write about his work, must "teach" his co-workers, his managers, and his students, and this teaching takes all forms and shapes.
The goal is to find an advisor that fits your interests.
The first step is to figure out which kind of questions interest you personally and which ones don’t. Don’t confuse the interest that a generation by a great teacher generates with your interest. On occasion, these two coincide; often the former misleads you to think it is or at least should be your interest.
If you are not a senior yet, find someone in your department in your area of interest. See whether you can work with him for a summer. Researchers often have money for introducing undergraduates into their research areas. Even if such monies aren’t available, you might be able to work as a volunteer on some small projects. If such a project can lead to a paper, grab it and contribute as much as you can. A paper will help you grab the attention of good advisors. And participating in a paper-producing process will tell you whether you really find this area interesting.
The second step is to find the top conferences in which people publish results in this area. Sit down with the conference proceedings and read the abstracts and introductions of as many articles as you can. Start with the most recent ones and work back five to ten years. Keep a list of the senior authors who write the papers that interest you.
Once you have a list of such senior people, research them. Where are they now? Do they still work on the kinds of questions that interest you? What are they working on now? Do they have PhD students? Where did their PhD students end up?
You may even wish to contact them. If you do, don’t bother with generic emails. Write a message that lets them know you have read their papers, you know their current research projects, you know what they use to conduct research.
The third step is to apply to the five places or so that have advisors in your area of interest. If you get into more than one, visit them and find out what these people are like in person, how their students work with them and each other, what the atmosphere is like in their labs.
Then pick the one that is the best match in terms of interests and everything else. Good luck.