Ph.D. advice repost

[Repost from Quora, think it is a great answer –]

My advice is based on the advice I received from my PhD supervisor, my own observations of my behaviour and those of my colleagues, and testing these conclusions by sharing them with others who have been through the process.

  1. Any pressure to overwork is all in your head. Doing a PhD is not, intrinsically that hard. It is a long process aimed at inducting you into the culture and practice of research. At the end of this process, your “exam paper” will be graded by three examiners. There is nothing intrinsically that difficult in this process. By definition, it’s basic-level research! However, most (but not all) students will blow this up into a highly stressful event, and will overwork it. Some other students just take a “by the numbers” approach to their PhD, doing exactly what’s required, and not fretting about it, and getting it done in 40 hours a week.
  2. Overwork is the road to perdition. The ones that get it done in 40 hours a week are the same ones that go on to high-paying jobs in industry, and to top academic positions. Why? Because it requires keeping a calm clear eyes on the goal, focusing your energies, and working efficiently and effectively. These are all required to be a top future producer of quality research papers, or to run a division in a science or tech company.
  3. The PhD is designed to bring out the worst in you. Every education program has two aspects: the so-called explicit curriculum, which is what you see in the course catalogue, and the tacit curriculum—how the education is structured so as to make you fit for a future role in society. In an undergraduate degree, the instructors set the problems, and they know the answers, and they grade you against their knowledge of the answers. This prepares you for a low-grade, managed position in the economy. In a good master’s degree, you work with a professors on problems they are working on: they set the problem, but they don’t know the answers. This sets you up for managerial, professional and technical work, in which your client or senior manager sets you problems to which they don’t know the answers. The PhD amps it up in this way: not only do they not know the answers, but they won’t even tell you what the problem is. And you have toil away for years under these conditions of maximum uncertainty. This sets you up for high levels of industry decision-making, or to be researcher capable of establishing new research programs. But this uncertainty has a tacit role: our natural (and wrong) response to uncertainty, under the mistaken notion that since we don’t know what we’re doing, doing more will increase the chances of getting it right. It plays to this. But that response is exactly wrong. Overcome that response, and you’ve passed the tacit test.

Therefore, I’m worried about advice which implies that you are working to the max during your PhD, and have to be reminded to call your mother or take a day off. Because if you need to do this just for a complicated academic exam, you will drown in the real world.

In short:

Whatever the explicit content of your PhD, its social function is to teach you to work autonomously under high levels of uncertainty. If you respond by working insane hours for years on end, you are failing. The PhD is not that complicated a task, and if your response is to max out, you simply don’t have what it takes to be a high performer in the more complex situations that follow.

So if you find yourself working and stressing excessively, take the cue and use your PhD process to change your approach, and learn to do it in a relaxed and comfortable way.

If you don’t believe me: read the accounts of Einstein during the years in which he developed the three papers of 1906, or Feynman’s accounts of his time at university. Look at photographs of them at the time. They were both having lots of social activity, and they were having fun.

Now you may think “because they were geniuses”. But I suggest: it’s the other way around. They were able to do ingenious work because they didn’t work too hard, and had a lot of fun.

That’s your indicator that you’re doing it right.

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