The pragmatic road to a PhD

To spare doctoral candidates protracted and unproductive efforts, Tim Marler and Dean Young suggest a pragmatic route to successful completion, while, below, Julian Kirchherr advocates a quick-and-dirty path to a viable thesis

September 27, 2018
Source: Getty montage

Decades ago, we sat in the library as graduate students, staring at shelves of books and thinking: “If only we understood all the knowledge sitting on just one shelf, what power that would be.”

Today, we try to convince ourselves that such daydreaming was not naive. Of course, there are people who love to learn, but is pursuing such passion foolish? Is it unprofitable? Presumably, passion for knowledge is the fuel for pursuing an advanced degree. Or is it?

Actually, obtaining a PhD can often have less to do with learning and more to do with jumping through the appropriate hoops. Fewer students strive to learn as much as possible simply for the sake of learning. Rather, the objective, in the US system, at least, is a high grade-point average that yields an employment opportunity that, in turn, yields a high salary. Ultimately, the name of the game has become profit, and this game has new rules.

It is still the case that only two types of students obtain a PhD: those who are relatively smart and those who work hard. However, two distinct paths to success have emerged, and students should decide early in their graduate school careers which path to travel. Is their primary objective to obtain a degree as expediently as possible, or is it to learn? These two goals are not always mutually exclusive, and with genuine curiosity and perseverance, independent learning is possible. However, the path for obtaining a degree ­efficiently is not obvious, and the guidelines in this regard can be elusive, unspoken and often unrealised.

Thus, with no judgement as to the morality or superiority of either objective, we offer these guidelines. We present them in the context of engineering and science, but they apply to the humanities and arts as well. They are intended primarily as advice for students entering graduate school with the intent of going on to work in industry or academia. However, adhering to these rules can benefit students and advisers alike, and the benefits point to broad academic and social trends.

To see further, you must stand on the shoulders of a giant. But you must first interview the giant. Much like in old martial arts movies, success can have less to do with where you study and rather more to do with the “master” who teaches you. However humbling an honour it may be to study under the most renowned professor, muster just enough courage to look at this demigod with a discerning eye. As much as a university selects a student, a student should select an adviser. The personality traits that make for an excellent researcher may not make for an excellent manager; and yet, advisers serve as managers as well as mentors. Do not hesitate to call a prospective adviser and discuss interests and intentions. Get a feel for what kind of person you will be working for and whether you like them. Most importantly, study only with an expert in your specific field of interest. If you don’t have a specific field of interest, find one. Do not simply intend to study, for instance, the history of Italy; refine your interest as much as possible.

Then, do not simply look for a famous mathematics or history professor, for example; look for someone who has extensive experience studying your specific topic of interest. No matter how intelligent and renowned advisers are, the less familiar they are with your specific topic, the more effort you will have to expend teaching them about it. An adviser with experience in a field slightly different from that of your intended area of study may offer a unique perspective, may ask helpful questions, and may inadvertently require clarity in presentation. But this will inevitably cost time.

Another piece of advice is to minimise your teaching obligations. Even if you aspire to a career in higher education, teaching while in graduate school can be a drain on time if you are conscientious and wish to do it competently. Teaching well is only a tertiary criterion for success in academia, and it is all but unnecessary for success in industry.

One of the first classes that one of us taught in graduate school was in statics. It was for the mechanical engineering department, and it was approached like an engineering design project. Pride drove ownership of the course, conceptually and emotionally, and preparing for and teaching the course dominated the summer. Every exam and every quiz was crafted meticulously. Each lecture was designed to be energetic and unique, with varied presentation styles and media.

But pride came with a substantial cost. When the final numerical grades for the course were calculated, it took three hours merely to assign the letter grades for just 12 students.

Few graduate students have an impressive income during school. What they do have to spend is time. Spend it wisely. A short stint as a teaching assistant can provide valuable experience, but such work should be limited to two semesters. Certainly, the ability to explain material clearly and to communicate effectively is useful. However, despite the experience, teaching does not facilitate obtaining a degree as expediently as possible.



There can be little room for initiative in graduate research. This third guideline contradicts what academia is supposed to embody traditionally, but it represents a turn that academia has taken in some respects. It can be more efficient simply to ask “What is the minimum necessary effort required to achieve the goal?” rather than “What is the maximum one can contribute while pursuing the goal?”

With that former question in mind, it is useful to meet with your adviser at least every other week and to take notes during each meeting. If appropriate, remind the adviser what tasks were discussed previously, what has been achieved and what will be completed next. Do this consistently and regularly. But beware. The direction you receive from week to week may change, and memories can be short for academics juggling teaching, research, publications and administration.

Most new graduate students lack the experience or knowledge necessary to develop an efficient and effective plan of study. Towards the end of a graduate career, it can show academic maturity to suggest new ideas and research directions. However, do not pursue these ideas without first extracting input from an adviser because doing so risks unsuccessful work and unnecessary criticism.

As provocative as it may be, the next piece of advice is to consider that while money isn’t everything, it’s right up there with air. Having to grapple with financial concerns in the context of the pursuit of knowledge can be one of the more dispiriting aspects of advanced education. Nonetheless, it is a critical aspect.

One of us, as a new graduate student, was doing work that was unfunded. It was suggested that funding from the National Science Foundation be pursued.

When the proposal was delivered to the university’s department of sponsored programmes, it was pointed out that “indirect costs” – the cut of the grant that goes into central university funds – had to be included. As was explained at the time, this money pays for things such as lighting and facilities. The 40 per cent overhead was more than a neighbourhood loan shark might charge for a plywood-walled, computerless study cubicle in a cold basement. Nonetheless, a cut went to the don, so to speak, and the point was well taken. Money is always a consideration, whether you like it or not, because someone must pay for the organisation that supports you. And, when times are tough, it’s nice to have a don.

Working without a grant allows a certain degree of freedom to explore various topics, potentially broadening your experience, but it is more efficient not to have to worry about funding, so aim to work only on a project for which a grant has already been awarded. This criterion is more easily satisfied in the sciences than in the liberal arts, but it is an important criterion nonetheless. A source of funding provides three valuable pillars. First, it provides a salary, so you will not need to waste time doing a part-time job that may be unrelated to your research. Second, it means that you have a thoroughly reviewed plan of study. Finally, it entails that the significance of your work has been accepted, presumably by experts in your field. Considering that a fundamental requirement for graduate research is the contribution of new material, this last pillar is crucial.

Especially in the sciences and engineering, academia can be a business, whose primary goal, as with any business, is to increase profits. Although a university is a non-profit organisation, different departments, labs and research centres are often motivated by their search for research funding. However, there is a tendency in academia to cloak the business of research. An associate often reminds us that in a room full of artists, the “sell-out” is the first to make a profit. The same is true with research. Anyone who treats research as a business tends not to be well received in academia, but they likely have the funding necessary to drive advances, and they may eventually be wealthy. Why should there be any less glory in pursuing knowledge for which there is a demand and which also happens to offer profit?



The laws of supply and demand also apply to research. That is, if there is no demand for a particular line of research, it may go unfunded. In this vein, you cannot simply study whatever topic interests you. In an effort to secure funding, you will inevitably steer your research towards more popular fields and topics. In many cases, there are actual funding customers that need specific problems solved. Pay attention to that. It can waste time and, ultimately, money to pursue topics in which there is no interest beyond that of the student. Whoever provides your pay cheque is the customer, and whoever funds your research provides that cheque.

In viewing academia as a business, you should always give customers what they want, and this applies on two levels. First, always consider the demand for the research product. This is much easier said than done. Anyone can acknowledge that the customers are always right, but truly listening to them and extracting what they need is difficult, especially if you have your own personal desires with respect to the product (in this case, the research). Talk to the funding customer constantly.

Second, most students are, in effect, employees, and the adviser is a boss who doubles as a customer. In some respects, your adviser will provide your pay cheque, or at least govern it. Thus, do what the customer requires. In addition, always consider your audience when writing and presenting. In the case of a thesis, the audience is your adviser and committee. Again, talk to the customers constantly.

If advanced education is a business, publications form part of its currency, especially if you desire a career in academia. In preparing a thesis, we suggest there are, in essence, two strategies regarding formal publications. The first entails writing nothing at all until all research is complete. This is the more expedient approach because writing a thesis demands a lower standard of quality than a journal paper. Of course, some programmes require a certain number of publications before graduation, but these should be completed only as necessary. If possible, write conference papers, rather than journal papers, because they require less substantial content and are vetted less rigorously.

The second approach is to view each potential thesis chapter as a journal paper. These papers are written and submitted as the various stages of the work are completed. The papers are, in essence, combined to form the thesis. This results in a higher-quality thesis that has been vetted by experts in the appropriate field. However, writing papers takes time, and this is time spent prior to graduation.

We knew an English professor who, although most proficient with technical writing, had also written extensive poetry. Both of his wives loved all of it. They each asked that it be shared with the rest of the world, but it never was. It simply sat on a shelf, behind the professor as he graded papers in his den. His rationale was that there was already “so much crap out there”: why should he add to it? You could take that approach to academic publications, too. Frankly, it is relatively easy to publish papers. It is difficult to publish significant work that alters your field. Many will view the latter as the nobler course, but the former is surely the practical course. Choose your course wisely.

A pervasive theme of these guidelines is the cost of time. Everyone is afforded approximately the same amount of this valuable commodity. A base amount is necessary to obtain an advanced degree, and extra time can be spent either on campus or beyond campus, making more money. With increased academic throughput and tuition costs, the latter is often the more popular choice. This in turn raises a question of social values. Has money become more valuable than knowledge?

Before the Second World War, having funding for research was rare and was often regarded as corrupt. Now, there is little research that is not funded. By past standards, research is now conflicted. The next frontier in this diversion from research solely for the sake of knowledge is the prevalence of spin-off companies to commercialise research. Arguably, these help to disseminate new knowledge and capabilities, as theses can have a limited audience and, thus, a limited effect on society.

Perhaps, however, the apparent conflict between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of money is illusory – just a bygone prejudice grounded in historical customs. We assume that knowledge and money are two opposing interests, but maybe there is simply a change in preference.

Emotionally, we cling to what we think academia should be. If only every graduate student would repudiate these guidelines as cynical and counterproductive, we sigh. However, although the opportunity still exists for romantic pursuits of knowledge, the path of least resistance guides us towards supposedly more practical pursuits. It is incumbent upon us all to recognise and manage this latter path. 

Tim Marler is a research engineer, and Dean Young is a freelance political science writer. This work was completed while Tim Marler was working at the University of Iowa.

Rough and ready: the fast and lean route to a PhD

My friend Tim’s PhD had been four years in the making when he finally dropped out. His decision followed a meeting with his supervisor: the culmination of almost six months of work preparing a further draft chapter of his thesis. Only at this point did he learn that his supervisor did not approve of the general direction of his work.

“He completely trashed what I had produced. I could not use any of it for my PhD,” Tim told me.

Many agree that our PhD system is fundamentally broken. About one-third of doctoral students are at risk of having or developing a psychiatric disorder, such as depression, according to one recent Belgian study. In the US, 50 per cent of PhD students leave graduate school without finishing. Those who do complete their degrees usually take much longer than originally planned. For instance, a PhD in Germany is supposed to last three years, but the average student takes almost five.

The fundamental problem, in my experience, is the anachronistic and inefficient way we approach work in academia. The average PhD supervisor demands the most polished work possible from day one while providing the most minimal guidance. Meanwhile, your manager at Google requires a dirty draft from you as quickly as possible and will then invest significant resources to help you shape it.

Many buzzwords have arisen around this recently developed approach, of which “lean” may be the most popular. Its adherents believe that quality and impact are best generated by iteration, and that the earlier you start iterating, the more time there is to improve your work and spread your message.

Some of the most high profile companies have enjoyed instant success by adopting this approach. Dropbox, for instance, took just seven months to attract its first 1 million users. Spotify hit this landmark only five months after its launch; Instagram needed only two and half months.

It can work in academia, too. I was only four months into my PhD when I shared the first full draft of what I envisaged to be my first academic paper with my supervisor. It was what I call a “minimum viable paper” (MVP) – similar to the corporate world’s minimum viable product. The core idea was there, but not much more, and my supervisor told me it was “not even a draft”. Admittedly, I was somewhat embarrassed by that verdict, but I collected plenty of helpful comments from her, which helped me to introduce targeted improvements to my work. And the paper that we later jointly authored was published in a respected academic journal 14 months into my PhD; it has been cited more than 20 times in the intervening two years.

I now supervise PhD students, and I forbid my candidates from sharing anything with me on which they have spent more than two weeks. I want half-baked manuscripts. I want paragraphs that are still stubs riddled with spelling errors. But the perfectionism that is rife in academia means that most struggle to comply.

Admittedly, providing feedback on early thoughts is time-consuming for supervisors, so if all PhD students submitted only MVPs, supervisors would end up doing nothing but reading and providing comments. Yet students can diversify their sources of feedback. Adding a second supervisor is one option. Conferences provide another excellent opportunity to bounce ideas off colleagues. Peer reviewers offer a further option for iteration.

Adopting this approach changes doctoral study from a lonely labour of love into a team sport, with the student as the captain, calling on team members as required.

At the start of their PhDs, students are usually passionate about their research field, and a recent US study suggests that 80 per cent intend to pursue a career in it. Wouldn’t they resist having their research direction constantly altered by so many potentially competing voices?

Perhaps. Yet their enthusiasm wanes, such that only 55 per cent are still interested in their research areas as they near completion. A PhD that embraces early and continuous iteration involving all relevant stakeholders (both academics and practitioners) could amplify students’ passion for their work.

Either way, it would certainly improve the quality and impact of their research in a more efficient manner.

Julian Kirchherr is an assistant professor in sustainable business and innovation studies at Utrecht University. He is author of The Lean PhD: Radically Improve the Efficiency, Quality and Impact of Your Research.

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Reader's comments (2)

I find Julian’s ideas much more useful here: for most of the students I’ve dealt with it’s the worry that they’ve not read enough, said enough, or thought enough to have something to share that gets in the way of progression. I can’t comment on the great ideas in your head that you’ve not seen fit to write down for me. And in my phd at least I found that writing it to often threw up problems that I hadn’t forseen when it all seemed to ‘make sense’: so writing helped me not only to move towards completion by having something that I could submit, it helped me to sharpen my thinking. The other problem is that arts and humanities and social science PhDs rarely take three years even when the student is focussed and working effectively. The amount of ground you need to cover in order to position your work properly is a massive challenge, particularly for interdisciplinary work where you can get it in the neck from two disciplines instead of one. 3.5 years to submission and another 0.5 to convert your PhD to articles or chase up interesting ideas arising from your work would be much more sensible.
This article appears to be possibly apropos if one were a science graduate student. I don't know what scientists do. For us social scientists, it would not fly. In the social sciences, when you express an interest in a line of research, you are normally assigned an adviser with more than a passing familiarity with it. Indeed, at first, it's really more a case of you helping your adviser with his/her research projects at first, gaining your sea legs, and then gradually emerging as your own scholar, with a research focus that is subtly different from your adviser. Now, at less prestigious places, it might well be a case where you study what you want, and an adviser agrees to help you, despite the study area being at odds with his/her own. However, if you want to study something that has little research behind it, you may find your search for dissertation committee members will be difficult. Also, I disagree with the advice not to teach. If you have no teaching experience in graduate school, and you have not been granted responsibility for a course, then scientist or no, you'd better hope an R1 hires you. If you can't get an R1 job, and have to teach at a regional university, or private liberal arts college, they're going to want to see teaching experience. Also, I believe teaching makes you a better researcher.

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