New entrant to a Phd programme, any and all tips welcome!
April 30, 2011 12:26 PM   Subscribe

I've started a Phd and would like to get tips and advise from those who have walked the path before me.

After a search of roughly one year to find a department and programme I'm comfortable with, I've started a Phd (Finance) with a University in Switzerland. I have a few questions about the overall process:
  • What books about the experience do you recommend?   To date I've read The Unwritten Rules of Phd Research and How to get a PhD; a handbook for students and their supervisors. Are there any other titles that might be helpful?
  • Doctoral comps; these are a ways out, but I've applied for some exemptions for prior coursework and cleared down my schedule to permit me to take more-than-a-full classload to push through this ASAP, so they are approaching. How did you prepare / what do you recommend / what was your experience?
  • How many people were on your supervisory team? This department seems to vary the number sometimes, haven't gotten a clear answer on what determines this but I'd like to get an idea of what's considered usual, if there is a usual.
  • Viva; again, I might be getting (a little) ahead of myself, but I'm already a little worried about this and my solution to such tension is to plan (incessantly). In the books I've cited I've gotten some good tips (prepare a map of your dissertation to take into the viva, practice sessions, pitch at seminars before your viva, etc, but what worked for you?
  • Viva - did you attend others in the department before sitting yours? And how many people, externals included, were you presented with? This department says sometimes they'll have as many as eight, including industry folks (three internal, one and sometimes two external examiners plus). Does this vary wildly between departments or is there a "typical" number?
  • If you had a problem with a supervisor how did you know and how quickly? Is it better at this level to cut your losses early on, or try to make it work? I've been supervising Masters students myself since 2003, have probably seen about 120 through their dissertations but the brevity of the process (three to six months tops) doesn't let small personality problems grow.
  • Tools: yeh, I know there have been multiple threads but to beat that dead horse again (or just to see if something new is on the market) -- what worked for you to juggle / categorise / track PDFs and such?
  • Did you use a copyeditor? I've heard that some departments consider a grey area, while others are ok. My writing skills are fine but I've never pushed out 100K plus words -- about 20K max in a single publication -- and I'm a little intimidated at this point about problems that I won't pick up on.
  • Common wisdom - I've read in a few places that you've always got to be writing; did that work for you? What other generally known tips can you pass along?
  • Resources: I know about Phinished - are there any other sites I should know about?
  • Is there anything else that you think might be helpful or I should know?
As usual, many thanks in advance for any help you can give me!
posted by Mutant to Education (10 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
It's tricky to answer your questions because I suspect you're asking about an atypical PhD course - is this 'American style' being offered in the Swiss institution? Because some of your questions seem to suggest it's more like a US PhD than a typical EU one (i.e. the notion of 'comps', of large viva panels, etc). The normal arrangement for a Swiss PhD is generally one central Supervisor, usually supported by a more informal/pastoral 'advisor', but obviously that might not apply if your institution is doing something, er, that isn't 'normal Swiss procedure'.
posted by AFII at 2:13 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't answer all your questions but:

comps: the key here is to make sure you are on the same page with the committee as to the scope of comprehensivenes. Can you literally be asked anything about your topic? Will it be limited to the material covered in a reading list? Will there be written papers submitted which provide a focus for questions? Nothing can be nailed down completely as inividual examiners may feel like they have the right to ask a question equivalent to "why is the sky blue", perhaps as a precursor to drilling down into details. But try as hard as possible to understand what the acceptable range of topics is for your comps.

Viva - really, don't worry about the viva until you have written the thesis. I usually advise students to use the time between submission of thesis and viva (oral exam) to read their thesis as if it were a book - start to finish. Isolate the three or four main, inspirational papers or books which structure your arguments, and re-read those. Then get a good breakfast the morning of the viva and kick ass. But don't lose sleep over the viva until it is the only thing left on your to-do list!

Yes- attend all the vivas you can. Apart from the education in seeing the range of questions and observing the social dynamics of the viva, you will also find the material itself interesting and it is one of the few times you can see an honest, focused, multi-hour debate/discussion amongst academics.

Some friction with your supervisor is expected and possibly healthy, as you learn your chops. The main issue is, in my opinion, are you making progress towards the goal of completing your PhD? If you have a rocky relationship but there is measurable progress being made, then that is fine. (Remember that in the first months or even year, you may be following a lot of alleys, some of them blind, and yet you need to do this to explore your local intellectual terrain. You often don't find out which alleys are blind until later. Don't spend more than one month on any subtopic unless you have a coherent vision by the end of the month on how that will fit into the bigger whole. Move on to number next and come back if you have to)

Always be writing, always be taking notes. Always, always take notes on what you read - this takes discipline but each little note is a possible gem that you will treasure in a lonely midnight hour two or three years down the road. Essentially, keep the equivalent of a laboratory journal which tracks your reading and progression through ideas.

If you sit at your desk for 30 minutes and haven;t accomplished anything, then get up and go for a walk or go hear a talk. Don't practice "presenteeism", that is, the illusion of being at work because you are present at work.

It sounds like you have a lot of background coming in, and invaluable experience with the range of student experience through your Master's work. So I am sure you will sail through smoothly. Be comfortable with an exploratory phase at the beginning, then look for a conquest phase in the middle, and an establishment stage at the end. It doesn't all come down at once, take it in order.
posted by Rumple at 2:32 PM on April 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: One of the most important things about PhD research is learning how to ask focused questions, because you can only research focused questions. Almost the opposite of your post.

Anyway, I would completely forget the write-up and viva questions as you are getting way ahead of yourself. You need to understand your subject, identify your question(s), and start researching first. And all of that is pretty time-consuming in itself.

The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research is a good book and I hope you've read it. I wish I had read it before I started mine (I found it somewhere in the middle of my time).

Supervisors - I think this is very dependent, mine was in molecular neuroscience and so the supervision requirements and process are very different to finance. I had 2 Professorial supervisors, but only one was actually interested in what I was doing. One of my friends has 3 and the disagreements in approach (in which she is piggy in the middle) between the 3 Profs is tearing her PhD apart. I suppose it's got to be whatever works for you.

Tools - Zotero, Mendeley are both very good for reference collection, although I used citeulike as it was better at the beginning. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the contents / headings system in Word so you are autoindexing and autoformatting your work.

I'll leave it at that for the moment.
posted by inbetweener at 2:46 PM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I read a whole load of doctorate self-help books, usually to avoid actually doing the thing, and I thought the best one by far was Stepping Stones to Achieving Your Doctorate - although it is set in the context of the UK system, it has some excellent general advice on developing and structuring your thesis with the viva in mind.
posted by janecr at 2:54 PM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: During your PhD, try to attend, and preferably present at, as many conferences and seminars as you can. Keep presentations straightforward and simple and free of slides plastered with long equations in a tiny font: your aim is not to demonstrate that you have correctly expanded something to the 20th order in a power series, but to get someone sufficiently interested in what you've been doing that they approach you during coffee later to talk about it. You'll get a good feel for what's going on and how the really good people in the field think, you'll get practice at discussing issues with other academics (invaluable for the viva), and you get a good excuse to travel.

For the "always be writing" thing: my supervisor took the approach of trying to make sure everyone had a couple of papers on the go at any one time, the general idea being that you spend a couple of years doing research and cranking out publications, and at the end of it you flesh them out into a thesis. I think this was a pretty good approach: while trying to publish ASAP is kind of awful and a lot of pressure, you're going to have to deal with this come thesis-time anyway, so you might as well get used to it and develop the required discipline early on. It keeps a constructive dialogue going with your supervisor, if they're coauthoring. Plus, it's very reassuring to already have publications under your belt when thesis anxiety sets in.

I didn't read any physical books about how to get through PhDs, I took notes in longhand and maintained my bibliography using BibTeX and vi. Feel free to try a bunch of things and stick with whatever works out for you; I went through quite a few different systems before settling on one.

Read PhD comics. A lot of the humour comes from the fact that it is painfully true.

Good luck!
posted by doop at 3:12 PM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wrote an article on this - advice for starting a PhD - for the womenintechnology lot. You might find it useful.
posted by handee at 4:06 PM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: A useful book is Getting What You Came For, though it's mainly about the US system. The web forums at the Chronicle of Higher Education are useful, though again US focused. Also worth looking through the archives here, there have been a lot of very useful threads over the years.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:53 PM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: A PhD fundamentally represents training to be an academic researcher. We must obviously expand that to include industrial researcher, cutting edge software developer, etc. but let's focus on academic research.

There is of course the matter of building up the technical mental toolbox necessary for your particular discipline and specialization, invariably this requires going beyond course work. I'll reinforce what others here said on this by observing that common trick for truly learning some new unfamiliar area is to teach it and then write a book on that subject.

There are usually three parts to either a PhD thesis or a book : a reorganization of existing knowledge that's poorly presented in the literature, the new contributions to human knowledge, and finally repairing errors in the literature you inevitably discovered in the process. 1

Aside from these technical matters, there are also the issues of developing proper independent work habits and developing good "taste" in academic problems. I'd imagine your work habits are fine given you've spent time in industry2, but kids maybe normally learn this from their fellow students. Good taste otoh must be learned via one-on-one interactions with your advisor.

It's crucial that you find an advisor who has exceptionally good taste himself, with whom you enjoy spending time, and who has time for you, i.e. few other graduate students and other obligations. Of these three conditions, only good taste cannot be counterbalanced by your own personality, but you still need a meaningful relationship with your academic parent. We called our advisors "dad" at Rutgers. I'd avoid advisors who're too frequently inaccessible however, like professorships at multiple universities.

1 My PhD advisor concluded that 100% of publish math articles are wrong based upon an informal survey of math faculty asking whether the first article their PhD advisor told them to read was wrong. His theory being that the only person qualified to read an article for correctness was a graduate student who'd just passed their qualifying exams but not yet been corrupted by informal practices in their particular literature.
2 I wouldn't be surprised in spending some time in industry eventually becomes a prerequisite for all but the super-stars at research universities.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:53 AM on May 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You should browse the Grad School Life forum at the Chronicle. If you are like me you will be comforted by soaking up vast amounts of information. There are 133 pages of archived threads; have fun.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:27 PM on May 1, 2011

To elaborate, you could view this vague sounding notion of "good taste" as the academic analog of what the business world calls a "deliverables".

It's how you know when you're making progress or spinning your wheels on vaporware. It's how you know what to work on to impress people and get a professorship. And it's how you know exactly how much time to waist on the impossible things, and when to do so. Yet, it's also what makes academia distinct from, and maybe harder than, industry.

And it's exactly what "daddy" teaches you by imposing his/her own good taste upon all your research decisions while a grad student. Ergo, it's extremely important that your advisor have it and spend time discussing research with you.

I doubt much else really matters, you'll get sound guidance for all the qualifying exams or viva or whatever, but nobody will tell you "that prof.'s kids all solve awesome problems both during and after their PhD."

You should not be afraid of the guy who seems personable but scares all the other graduate students for only vague reasons.

Just fyi, winning professorship is otoh largely about presenting yourself as someone a sufficient segment of the department could work with.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:46 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

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