Questions you never knew you had about doing a PhD

A few times a month, I receive an email from Quora, a site where people ask questions and people with background on that topic weigh in. My Quora digest has questions they suspect I might be interested in. They’re almost always about doing a PhD. Here are some of the most intriguing ones. The responses are often thorough (long), so I’ve linked to them and included pieces from my favorites here.

Is pursuing a PhD as stressful as a full time job? Or more?

TLDR: It depends.

Ravi Santo noted that a PhD is likely a different kind of stress than a typical 9-to-5 job, and the stress varies based on which phase of the PhD you’re in. He describes a whirlwind phase (coursework), followed by a crunch (qualifying exam, or whatever the program requires to count as having achieved a Master’s degree), the plan (proposing the dissertation), and finally discovery (analyzing and writing the thesis).

Kyle Niemeyer pointed out that unlike many 9-to-5s, PhD students (or academics more generally) don’t usually leave work at work. They don’t stop what they’re doing because it’s 5:00 or Friday, and having your work follow you everywhere can be stressful. But on the flip side, academics often enjoy more flexibility in their schedules. The virtue is also the vice.

Some people weighed in saying a PhD is definitely more stressful, while others said they miss the glorious days of writing a PhD, when they had a single primary objective, as opposed to life in their post-PhD jobs with many responsibilities. We’ll agree to disagree and move on.

What is a depressing fact you’ve realized after/during your PhD?

TLDR: There are a lot. I’ll list some that seem to recur.

It’s been said that writing a dissertation is like giving birth— French feminist Helene Cixous even posited that men write as way of replacing reproduction.

But there’s a big difference between the two. After you have a baby, people want to see the baby and ask about it, and think it’s cute; whereas after you’ve slaved over your dissertation and defended it, no one will ever want to see it or hear about it.
-Ken Eckert

Other responders mentioned competition, starting to hate the subject you once loved, and, maybe most commonly, that it’s incredibly hard to obtain a tenure-track job afterward. In some cases, hard work isn’t enough to achieve success, whether because you need to rely on other people (especially advisors), or because you’re not at a prestigious university, or simply because experiments and lines of research are just sometimes not fruitful.

This segues well into another question:

Why is it so difficult to do a PhD?

TLDR: Research

Leading to grad school, education is based on a model where students are taught information, and are subsequently given questions about that information to answer. Once you start a PhD, however, you have to first find the problem, then figure out the best way to address it, and then actually do it.

  • You may find a problem, but it may not be solvable, so you will need to iterate through multiple attempts to find a problem
  • The problem may be solved by someone else while you work on it! (so, you need to start from scratch)
  • There is a solution, but it is hard to find and you have to make a call: do I keep trying or do I give up?
    -Konstantinos Konstantinides

Others pointed out that successful PhD students need to be patient, courageous, focused, and persistent. Come on, that’s not that much to ask for…

How do top/successful PhD students lead their lives?

Screen Shot 2017-05-14 at 5.11.26 PM
They drink coffee and write blog posts, obviously.

The responses to this question share a common theme — successful PhD students are thoughtful about their research. They don’t rush into a project, but carefully consider a topic first. And when they design studies, they focus on those that measure a lot of things (collect a lot of data), to increase the chances that they’ll have usable results, no matter how the data turn out.

What happens after a PhD?

TLDR: It depends.

“I think also, once you’ve seen the sausage being made, you see how arbitrary the point at which you get a Ph.D. is” -Ben Webster

It’s often anti-climactic. Some people report their minds going blank, or their parents celebrating more than they themselves did, or making sure the first thing they did was pick up a fiction book. Ultimately, Krishna KumariChalla comments that what happens after a PhD is “Simple: What you decide would happen!”

I have some experience with the topics of all of these questions except this last one. I believe there might be such a thing as post-PhD life, but it’s hard to picture right now as I’m deep in my fourth year. For now, I’ll rely on these Quora contributors and will report back later.

What other important PhD questions do you have? Let’s ask the Internet!

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on it (Review)

One day as I was clicking through Amazon, the site recommended a book with the word Curious across a black cover with an owl beneath. Naturally, I was curious: A whole book on curiosity? How much is there to say? About 45 seconds later, I was reading it. It was a fun read, peppered with stories, descriptions of research, and historical anecdotes. It was filled with rich quotes, by the author and many others that have written about the topic over centuries, and I’ll let those quotes drive this review.

curious

A Taxonomy of Curiosity

Curiosity is not just one thing. Ian Leslie describes three types of curiosity, distinguished by the contexts in which they arise and the behaviors they encourage us to seek out.

Diversive curiosity is an attraction to things that are novel. I imagine a dog on a walk, pausing to inspect every seemingly new patch of dirt, trash, or fire hydrant. Humans show a lot of diversive curiosity too, like when we scroll through a Twitter feed or flip the TV channels 30 times in a minute. It’s not just a low-level type of curiosity, but instead is a starting point that drives us to seek out new experiences and people and paves the way for two deeper types of curiosity.

Epistemic curiosity manifests when diversive curiosity is honed as a quest for knowledge or understanding. It is “deeper, more disciplined, and effortful” than diversive curiosity, a desire to understand how the world works. Psychologists use the term Need For Cognition (NFC) as a measure of intellectual curiosity. People with a high NFC thrive on and enjoy intellectual challenges, while those low in NFC prefer their mental lives to be as straightforward as possible.

Empathic curiosity is the drive to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, which we can attain by learning to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

A History of Curiosity

Leslie takes us through curiosity’s ups and downs over the past centuries: in some eras, it was looked down upon, and little innovation took place during those times. In other times, for example during the Renaissance, empathic and epistemic curiosity became widely popular, and culture exploded. Cities, too, promote the explosion of curiosity: “The city was a serendipity generator.”

Even now, public opinion of curiosity is a mixed bag: we still repeat warnings of Adam and Eve’s curiosity, we parrot the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat,” use the word curious when we actually mean that someone is weird, and emphasize practical job skills in education over all else. At the same time, there’s a market for books like this one, lauding the trait and going so far as to claim that “your life depends on it.”

How does the Internet fit into society’s curiosity? On the one hand, we have an incredible amount of information literally at our fingertips. Naturally curious people can have a field day, and many do. But people who are lower in NFC can use the internet to stunt the development of their curiosity… which many also do. Who/what/when/where questions can usually be answered by typing a pithy phrase into Google, clicking on the first search result without reading about it, and scanning a sentence or two of the web page. This type of information-seeking is not effortful, and therefore doesn’t engage the processes at work when we truly exercise curiosity. Leslie comes back to this theme often: while the Internet has amazing potential for expanding our horizons and allowing us to share ideas faster than ever, if we’re not careful, it can also squash our curiosity, much to society’s detriment.

Metaphors for curiosity

Puzzle vs. Mystery: Leslie attributes this distinction to security and intelligence expert Gregory Treverton. Some problems are puzzles:

they have definite answers… are orderly; they have a beginning and an eng. Once the missing information is found, it’s not a puzzle anymore. The frustration you felt when you were searching for the answer is replaced by satisfaction. Mysteries are murkier, less neat. They pose questions that can’t be answered definitively, because the answers often depend on a highly complex and interrelated set of factors, both known and unknown… Puzzles tend to be how many or where questions; mysteries are more likely to be why or how.

He uses the question “where is Osama bin Laden?” as an example of a puzzle. Its mystery equivalent might be “how does Osama bin Laden think?” Similarly, reading a mystery novel is also a puzzle, because once you get to the end, you know who did what, and the problem is solved. Reading a novel like The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is a mystery, because it leaves you thinking about questions that don’t have definite answers, like the true nature of the American dream.

Leslie encourages people to “forage like a foxhog.” This idea, credited to the Greek poet Archilochus, is that “‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'” The hybrid foxhog is the compromise to the question of whether we should strive to become generally knowledgable people or aim to become experts in very specific areas. The foxhog does both of these, resulting in knowledge that can be considered “T-shaped”: The top of the T is surface knowledge, and foxhogs have a lot of it. The other part of the T is its slender, lengthy spine. Foxhogs also possess tall Ts, because they have intense knowledge about at least one area. In other words, “curious learners go deep, and they go wide.” As a side note, robust, healthy Ts are precisely the goal of a PhD program, designed to make you smart in a way that will be conducive to having happy hour drinks with many people (academics) while becoming so knowledgable about your own field (or subfield, or sub-subfield…) that sometimes you have to teach your advisor what you’re doing.

The Malleability of Curiosity

Leslie emphasizes that “a person’s curiosity is more state than trait.” That means that although we are born with varying degrees of innate NFC, curiosity is highly influenced by our surroundings.

Questions are crucial. They’re tools through which we learn incredible amounts of information about the world.While asking questions may seem like a very basic ability, it actually requires a few important skills: you have to know that there are things you don’t know, you have to be able to imagine that there are different possibilities for the things you don’t know, and you have to recognize that other people are sources of information. A kid between the ages of 2 and 5 will ask roughly 40,000 explanatory questions. And when kids are spoken to by adults who ask questions themselves, the kids begin to ask more. The moral of that story is that asking kids questions gets them to also ask questions, which helps them not only learn about the world, but also to learn that inquiring about the world is a fruitful behavior.

The Importance of Curiosity

Curiosity fosters innovation. Computers are now smarter than humans at many tasks, but computers aren’t curious. For this reason, Leslie writes:

The truly curious will be increasingly in demand. Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests, who have a strong, intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems, and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times, there individuals, for their interests and enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part, they are worth the difficulty.

Why can curious people innovate better than non-curious ones or better than computers? Curious people are “the ones most likely to make creative connections between different fields, of the kind that lead to new ideas.”

Angela Duckworth is well-known for popularizing the concept of grit: “the ability to deal with failure, overcome setbacks, and focus on long-term goals.” Grit has been demonstrated to be an incredible predictor of success in many areas of life. I once heard two professors talking about the most successful grad students as those who have grit, and their conversation plays through my head on a weekly basis, if not more often. Grit and curiosity go hand in hand. If you’re curious, you just keep learning and exploring, even once you’ve learned what you set out to know. If you’re gritty, you just keep going, even when obstacles arise and the goal you’re pursuing becomes more difficult.

To be curious, you have to know things. One way of thinking about curiosity, attributed to George Loewenstein, is that there’s an information gap: you know some things about a topic, and then realize that you don’t know everything, but that you can learn more. This creates an awesome cycle: the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

Questions

In the past week, I’ve traveled across the country, down the coast, and moved into a new apartment. Suffice to say, I’ve come up with A LOT of questions. Here’s a small sampling:

  • Puns: Are they universal? Some research suggests so. Typically when something is universal, there’s a reason, an advantage that it confers. If puns are universal, why? I spent one day in Sonoma county, and felt like a pun magnet: they were on billboards (Whole Foods urged customers to “eat the food less traveled” [I’m now thinking this is more of a play on words than a pun, but close] and another business boasted about cattle “born and grazed” in Marin County). The wine industry was also ripe with puns (“Another grape day at Cline“; “Wine a bit… you’ll feel better” [outside a restaurant], and the “Grape Escape,” an ad for a store). I also found a few blogs centered on puns- one that plays with movie titles, and another with rappers and cereals.

    http://rappersandcereal.com/
    http://rappersandcereal.com/
  • Is your beverage of choice (coffee vs. tea) correlated with your introversion/extroversion style? This Thought Catalog post struck me as comical because of its accuracy, and the differences articulated between the two kinds of drinkers sounds very familiar to those between introverts and extroverts.

    I'm a tea person, all the way.  Image: wikipedia
    I’m a tea person, all the way.
    Image: wikipedia
  • How do undecided freshman choose a major after only 1-2 years? This article suggests that their professors have a huge impact. Is that surprising? Not really, to me. Good teachers make a subject interesting, and an interesting subject makes a major appealing. Even though grad students have more direction at the outset of their programs than undecided freshman, how much of a role do faculty play in determining a grad student’s ultimate path- their dissertation and beyond? My guess: A LOT.

In the spirit of an abundance of questions, I’m off to wirelessly connect my computer to a new printer…

Why study humanities?

Lately there’s been a lot of encouragement for students to study STEM field, which, while important, has contributed to a pretty sizable decline in the number of people studying liberal arts, at least in America. This NYT article by Jennifer Schuessler reports that we are in “a time when the humanities and social sciences are themselves often accused of being frivolous at best, fraudulent at worst.”

After four years of a humanities curriculum at a small, liberal arts college, I can confidently say that I would choose this course of study for myself all over again. It probably isn’t the ideal path for all students, but I still think there’s so much value in courses that may not be immediately pertinent to a future career.

We shouldn't let the humanities die, even if some of the greatest influences have... Image: Wikipedia
We shouldn’t let the humanities die, even if some of the greatest influences have…
Image: Wikipedia

I really liked a few quotes from this article by John Horgan about why he teaches humanities to students at a technological institute:

In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism…

The humanities are more about questions than answers…

If I do my job, by the end of this course you’ll question all authorities, including me. You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it mean to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.

Said another way, humanities make us human. Horgan’s quotes hit a little closer to home for me than just defending humanities, because I think they also sum up why I’ve chosen to pursue cog sci.  It’s full of uncertainty, doubt, and skepticism. For every question we address (I think using the word “answer” would be false advertisement), many more arise. This way, we’ll never run out of questions. In order to address them, we pull from a number of domains that may not even seem to be related at first glance. And by doing this, we probably won’t run out of novel ways to view the questions we entertain. I think this is incredibly important if we want to better understand the mind (and I don’t think this is too unique a desire). Maybe it’s satisfactory to be told something like: when you eat chocolate, your “pleasure center” lights up, but to me, we still have a long way to go, and STEM alone won’t get us there.