Common mistakes of Ph.D. student

Submitted by chaky on Wed, 08/03/2016 - 07:01

ambition

Here I summarize some of the most common mistakes of Ph.D. students

- Don't understand your supervisor strengths: you have a your own interest and propose some grand topic.  But the topic is not of interest of your supervisor, or the topic is not something that your supervisor is good at.  There is a high chance of failure as your supervisor is likely just as clueless as you when it comes to things that are outside of his/her expert domain.    Supervisors are ONLY PHD. in their expert domain.  They don't know everything. Try to find an intersection of your interest with your supervisor strengths and interests. 

- Use too much common sense:  some students often use their wits for research.  It is ok to use your intuition and wits to do research ONLY when your intuition is well informed.  You have to be aware that your intuition can be wrong.  Sometimes, science and intuition can be very far.  In simple words, you need to first train your instincts via reading lots of papers, and talk with people.  In the beginning phase of your research, try to refrain from using your pure intuition or wits to do research, they are likely 99.99% wrong - consult with papers and researchers.

Overly ambitious:  defining a big goal or dream that you cannot possibly reach.   Many new Ph.D. students are very eager to propose some breakthroughs.  It is ok to have this enthusiasm, indeed, it is important.  However, you need to acknowledge that you have to do step by step, that is, you got to be patient.  After all, you never ever do real research before.  I can tell you -  doing research is easy, but doing research *right* is very very hard.   Out of a big problem, try to scope it down to many subtasks and first focus on one sub-task.    Being overly ambitious will lead you to no fruitful result, i.e., no publications nor any concrete findings but just dream.  Take baby steps.  It's lots of hard work on small increments that eventually build up to a lot of insight.

- Dependent on the supervisor: you tend to stick to your old habit of asking your teacher everything you do not understand.  You expect your teachers to spoon-feed you, to help you in every way.  You got to change your attitude - Ph.D. life is not a class anymore, you have to be somewhat independent.  You need to switch from classroom/homeroom approach to working with a mentor, in an apprentice approach.  Instead of digesting information from the teacher or continue to attend classes or read a textbook, Ph.D. life is very much of a reflection process, where you need to think intensively what is the core problem and how to solve it.  The job of your supervisor is to ask you many tough questions that direct your thinking and train you to think systematically. If you think that Ph.D. life is about reading a lot of books or attending many classes, you are totally wrong.  It is all about actions - thinking, doing and innovating. Start thinking more about what you gonna do, how you can apply your knowledge to the problem at hand, be the one who is gonna provide new things for other people to learn, instead of learning - this is research.

- Do not know when to slow down:  some students are very afraid about not doing well so they often hurried to conduct experiments or do stuff without first thinking carefully.  It is important to emphasize being right over being fast.  It is a very hard skill to learn but is essential.  Once you do something wrong, you waste a lot of time and there is a high chance you are doing bad research. Thus, always think super carefully about your work, the experiments, the motivation, the problem, before you start it.  You can speed up other things like programming, conducting experiments, doing data analysis, but you cannot hurry in some delicate stuff like generating an idea, formulating a problem, designing experiment.

- Cannot absorb feedback and criticisms:  It is our nature that we are not acquainted with criticisms.  But criticisms are needed in research, especially in great research.  Criticisms provide you the feedback and energize you to move forward and improve.  You must be able to take hard criticism, reflect upon the criticism, and act how you can improve upon it.  There is one scenario where this is very clear - interviewing with participants.  When participants comment negatively, some students can feel offended and try to defend their system, as a result, you did not get the full feedback from your participants.  Please do not do this.  Another scenario is that reviewers comment negatively on your idea, and you may have some initial thinking that he/she is not smart enough to understand.  Instead of thinking that, think that maybe you did a poor job in clarifying your idea, or maybe some part of your idea is really not that good.

- No focus and poor management:  another common mistake is to engage yourself in many projects. It is admirable to have that urge to perform but good stuff needs focus and dedication.  I expect you to work on only one project at a time, and fully focus on making it great, not only good enough.  Great work scrutinizes a narrow problem deeply from various perspectives, resulting in a solid finding. Once you can publish a paper for several years with great success, you can then start thinking about working on multiple papers.

- Does not know when to stop and move on:  there are times when you need to realize that your research direction is not going as you have hoped and that you need to stop and move on to next topic.  It is a painful process I know but is necessary.  Of course, there is a difference between not simply giving up and bad research direction.  If it is simply technical problems or that you did something wrong in experimental design or writing, then you should not give up easily.  But if even you have created a completed system, write well, design a sound experiment but still, it is repeatedly rejected, you have to slow down and reflect upon your research direction.

All these things are kinda easy to understand, but as you do your Ph.D. you will found that you often *forgot* these simple principles and repetitively do the same mistake.  This is because you have not practiced enough that this knowledge becomes your habit, becomes your wisdom.  For this purpose, it is a good practice to remind you by reading this often.

For more readings:

Advice by professionals - http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~jasonh/advice.html  ,   http://homes.cs.washington.edu/~mernst/advice/, http://www.shengdongzhao.com/research-tips/