[Nextwave] Overcoming the Bad Habits You Learned in Grad School.

I Find Karma (adam@cs.caltech.edu)
Wed, 19 Aug 1998 11:10:35 -0700

This really hits home:
> Have you ever seen someone try a daring new project for their thesis,
> fail to make it work, and still get a Ph.D.?

Oh yes. Very much.

> Graduate students are told to focus, focus, focus. "Eliminate those
> distractions!" "Don't take those outside courses!" "Just get your
> work done!"

"Ignore that man behind the curtain, he's of no relevance to you!"

Full text is at


and included below.

> The Curse of Brains: Overcoming The Bad Habits You Learned in Grad
> School, by Peter Fisk, 24 July 1998
> The National Science Board -- one of the pillars of the academic
> research establishment -- has just released a report entitled "The
> Federal Role in Science and Engineering Graduate and Postdoctoral
> Education." As you might guess, their recommendations are unremarkable
> and thoroughly status quo. "The Ph.D.," they opine, "is and should
> remain a research degree." When asked how they rationalize producing
> over 25,000 research-trained Ph.D.s each year when most go on to
> nonresearch careers, the report blithely explains that:
> "Ph.D. recipients have broadly applicable skills; and the
> problem-solving abilities they acquire enrich their capacities in
> teaching, research and management positions."
> This insouciant mantra is now a stock rationalization articulated by
> advisers, department chairs, and deans who see no need to reduce Ph.D.
> production or significantly modify Ph.D. training programs. In short,
> Don't Worry, Be Happy: A Ph.D. can get a job anywhere!
> The sad fact is that most advisers, department chairs, and deans have no
> idea what is really required to make Ph.D. students not only marketable
> but successful in other careers besides research science. It is true
> that a Ph.D. education CAN teach a broad range of transferable skills.
> However, Ph.D. training, as it stands today, also teaches a number of
> habits and beliefs that are not only detrimental to success in the
> outside world but can even hinder your success (not to mention
> happiness) in science. Succeeding in science for our generation requires
> not only brains but business acumen, good people skills, and vision. And
> it is in these latter categories that the Ph.D. education falls short.
> Fortunately, you are a reader of the Next Wave, in which we can not only
> discuss the problem but think about solutions. Even if you are out of
> graduate school, you can still learn to recognize the weaknesses of a
> Ph.D. and how to compensate for them.
> Weakness #1: No Training in Business Acumen
> Because so many academics eschew the private sector (and thrive off of a
> semisocialist system of government grants), few of their students get
> meaningful exposure to life in the real world. Furthermore, grad school
> can reinforce behavior that is detrimental to success, either in science
> or beyond. Two examples (that I have learned the hard way) are: risk
> aversion and a failure to understand the value of time.
> Risk aversion is more than just the tendency to avoid risk; it is the
> inability to weigh risk and reward and a failure to recognize when
> prudent risk taking is needed. Part of the source of risk aversion in
> scientists may be that the career of science can be very attractive to
> risk-averse people! From a college grad's perspective, a science career
> can seem a very secure pathway -- hard work seems to be rewarded with
> tenure and security. Once in grad school, many students find that the
> financially stressed, competitive world of research science actually
> promotes intellectual conservatism and risk aversion. Research groups
> make safe, incremental research steps because that is the only way to
> get funding. Few PIs can get grants nowadays for proposing a wacky idea
> outside their subdiscipline. And students learn this lesson fully. Have
> you ever seen someone try a daring new project for their thesis, fail to
> make it work, and still get a Ph.D.?
> A failure to understand the value of time is a second business skill
> that is critical in the outside world but an utterly alien concept in
> graduate school. Most of this stems from the fact that academia is an
> environment steeped in penury. Not only are most graduate students paid
> little more than the minimum wage, but PIs are often forced to pinch
> pennies to ridiculous degrees. In this environment, it can seem sensible
> to spend a week of some grad student's time to build or repair a device
> that would cost only a few hundred dollars. Once one is out in the real
> world, one learns that in many cases the time spent pinching pennies
> simply does not pay off. In the working world, people's time is much
> more expensive, and decisions and actions lose their value the longer
> they are delayed. Graduate school teaches one to be careful and
> meticulous. In the outside world, decisions often must be made with
> insufficient data because of time constraints.
> So what can a young scientist do to combat Risk Aversion and Poor
> Investment of Time? I think step #1 is simply to recognize it. There's
> little more one can do in graduate school. Once you're out in the big
> bad world, having an honest discussion with your supervisor or boss
> about these issues may help a lot. Having a more experienced mentor
> watching your decision-making and pointing out where these bad habits
> crop up can help you learn these lessons without suffering the
> consequences.
> Weakness #2: Poor People Skills
> It is truly ironic that so many professors -- hired to communicate and
> deal with people on a daily basis -- have such piss-poor people skills.
> Again, this may reflect a self-selection effect: Shy, anxious, or
> obnoxious people may find it hard to get ahead in the outside world, but
> not so in academia! Not only do graduate students receive no training in
> dealing with people (many of you will become managers someday --
> really!), but because of the heavy intellectual bent to graduate school,
> other forms of intelligence are greatly undervalued. Let's face it: Grad
> school is a book-smart culture. Sense of humor, tact, joviality, and
> empathy are all aspects of emotional intelligence that are rarely
> discussed, never taught, and patently undervalued!
> So what do you do if you think you need to develop better people skills?
> Well, dear reader, it turns out that there are ways you can LEARN this
> stuff. There are books out there that are wonderfully practical,
> teaching you how to elicit more positive reactions from people. Are you
> extremely shy? There's a wonderful international organization called
> Toast Masters that teaches people to be confident in public and eloquent
> in speech. I saw one foreign graduate student literally metamorphose in
> 1 year from awkward and shy to outgoing and confident through active
> participation in Toast Masters.
> Weakness #3: The Vision Thing
> As a scientist, you know that insight is often gained by having a
> breadth of vision and seeing connections that have not been recognized
> by others. The same is true in the outside world. However, it is
> startling how infrequently graduate programs try to instill in their
> students a sense of vision, in their research or in their science. With
> the risk aversion I described above also comes a narrowness of view that
> encourages sub-subspecialization. Graduate students are told to focus,
> focus, focus. "Eliminate those distractions!" " Don't take those outside
> courses!" "Just get your work done!"
> It used to be that departments would invite outside speakers to come
> share their research results and ideas. In my first 2 years in graduate
> school, these talks were packed. In later years, when the scramble for
> money and productivity became more acute, the numbers at these talks
> declined. Moreover, some advisers not only didn't encourage their
> students to attend, but they also grumbled about time spent away from
> the lab. As a result, students learned a nose-to-the-grindstone style of
> thinking that I find more pervasive in graduate school than ever before.
> While success in graduate school does require some focus and diligence,
> an absence of ANY external stimulation, macroscopic focus, or grand
> vision can lead to stagnant, derivative research (not to mention a
> lackluster career). But the record is clear that the outstanding
> creative minds in our profession have cultivated a degree of breadth,
> big-picture view, and vision to guide them.
> As a graduate student or postdoc, you may have few opportunities to talk
> to your advisers about the REALLY big issues that are facing science.
> You should try to encourage discussions of these big issues, not only
> within your department but also by inviting outside speakers who CAN
> talk about the big picture. Ask yourself: What are the five biggest
> issues facing the world today in which science can play a part? What do
> you know about each of these issues? Some graduate students I have met
> have developed theme seminars on macroscopic interdisciplinary issues. A
> few I have heard about are:
> Colonizing Mars: a two-semester workshop for engineering and science
> students to develop a plan to colonize the Red Planet
> The Future of Nuclear Weapons: an interdisciplinary seminar with
> political science, history, and science graduate students
> Global Threats: a sciencewide seminar on the present-day hazards facing
> our planet
> The Politics of Cloning: a joint seminar between the law school and
> several science departments to discuss the social, political, and legal
> implications of emerging cloning technology
> Unlearning the Bad Habits
> Overcoming the bad habits of graduate school requires proactive behavior
> on your part; it is unlikely that your graduate or postdoc advisers will
> be of much help. Recognizing these shortcomings in yourself, and in the
> behavior of others, is an important first step. Not only will it
> increase your chances of success and happiness in whatever career you
> choose, but I think it will improve the effectiveness of research
> science itself.


If we don't change direction soon, we'll end up where we're going.
-- Professor Irwin Corey