Published: Fri 21 September 2012
PostDoc research howto PhD science
Deciding to do a PhD is a huge commitment as you are just dedicating a
couple of years of your life to a single cause. When I decided to do a
PhD in 2006 I was not completely sure what would expect me. I just
finished my master of science (MSc) at ETH Zurich and I knew that I
really liked working on the research project that I chose. On the other
hand I worked in programming and web development for the last couple of
years to finance my studies and I discovered that only doing
project/programming work is too boring for me. I had no clear picture
how the PhD would be like, but I assumed that it would be a combination
of a continuation of the research I did during my master thesis, writing
papers, going to conferences to present your research, and in the end
writing a thesis that proofs your thesis statement.
Many others before me have already blogged or written books about the
life as a PhD student, how to carry out a PhD, defined what research,
yet I think that I can add my two cents to the existing stories. My
experiences are still fresh (I started my PhD in 2006, defended
beginning of May 2012, and started my PostDoc here at UC Berkeley in
September 2012) and I hope that I can give a good description about the
qualitative aspects of a PhD.
The three phases of a research PhD
In my time as a PhD student at ETH Zurich I had uncounted discussions
with peers, assistant professors, professors, researchers, and people
related to academia. During these discussions we discovered that a PhD
can be segmented into three basic phases: the first phase identifies the
research topic and bootstraps the student; the second phase is the
productive phase where the research bears fruits and is turned into
papers (or at least communicated to other people); and the last phase
consists in wrapping up, writing the thesis, and finally the defense.
Every successful PhD student goes through three phases during his PhD.
Each phase has different requirements and relies on different
personality aspects. The phases follow after each other but there is no
clear transition from one phase to the other yet one knows if the
The search for the holy grail: ramping up and finding your topic
The first phase of a PhD is like the 'get to know each other' phase at
the beginning of a relationship. You don't really know what to expect
but you are interested and you want to explore. Yes, there are some
peculiarities but you are not too concerned about that right now. In
this first phase you dig into the field that is interesting to you and
you start reading up about prior research approaches about the problem
you want to tackle. Some ideas start to form in your head and you decide
on a topic for your thesis. In more practical research areas you start
building prototypes and you execute small tests; in more theoretical
areas you try to come up with some theorems and you have a rough idea
about the general topic.
Depending on your adviser he or she will restrict your search in one way
or another. The most restrictive adviser tells you exactly what you
should do (sometimes they have a grant proposal for a specific project
and/or only need a code monkey to implement their grand idea) other
advisers let you run free and let you come up with your own idea in a
(sub-)field. Both extremes have their advantages and the kind of adviser
that is best for you is basically an optimization problem that you need
to solve for yourself.
On one end of the scale you are given a topic by your adviser. This
approach ensures that your adviser cares/should care deeply about your
project and it gives you a head start, on the other hand you'll have to
make up for this pre-selection and you'll have a harder time to bring in
your own (research) ideas into the already existing project. On the
other end you can choose your topic in an open void. It is up to you to
make your adviser care about the project and you need to come up with
the core idea. This great opportunity usually results in additional time
needed to complete this phase. In the real world your adviser will
usually set the limits anywhere between these two extremes.
From my experience I would say that the average student stays in this
phase from one to three years. I was lucky enough to have an adviser
that allowed me to choose freely in any field that he was comfortable
with. During my first three years I discussed a huge set of possible
research ideas with him and even after we had settled on a specific
topic the details kept changing as I passed through the later phases.
Two key aspects in this phase are: (i) creativity, you need to come up
with a good research idea and research plan. Nobody will tell you what
to do, there is neither a customer who demands a specific feature, nor
is there a pre-set plan like in a play. You need to be focused and keep
yourself together to pass through this phase. (ii) Due to the fact that
you need an idea and you are responsible for the schedule you build up a
huge amount of psychological pressure. Most people that drop out during
this phase fail due to either a lack of ideas (and creativity) or
because they are unable to self-organize themselves in an unstructured
The paper mill
After you have decided on the (main) topic of your thesis and built the
first prototype (or come up with the first layout of the system) you
gradually transition from the first phase to the second phase. You are
now trapped in the paper mill. This is the most productive phase as you
try to publish your work in as many (good) conferences as possible. The
quality of your work is (somewhat) measured in the number of papers that
you publish at top tier conferences. You are evaluated based on the
quality of your work combined with the human factor how you present
In this phase you start to become an expert in your field: you have
claimed a little spot in a bigger field that you extend with your
research. Your adviser will try to keep you in this phase as long as you
are able to produce more good papers (given that your adviser has enough
funding and that you do not run into any hard time limits given by your
The core qualifications for this phase are that you can (i) work hard
and (ii) present yourself at conferences. You have to write all these
papers and at the same time you should refill your pipeline of ideas to
get the next publications in order. In addition you have to express all
these ideas to others and you have to play the social game at
conferences. Building your social network during conferences is actually
hard work and you need to try to make friends with some of the bigger
shots in your field as this can be helpful for future collaborations,
additional papers, or even reviews. If other people understand your
ideas from beginning to end and you can convince them (in person) that
the ideas are great then they are more likely to accept your paper that
they'll review later on. This (productive) phase usually lasts about two
years and is your opportunity to build your social network for possible
future positions. A side quest during this time is to select your thesis
committee. You already know in what area you will write your thesis
about, you should have an idea about your thesis statement, and you
should know who the experts are in this area. Hint: conferences are a
good place to chat up possible committee members!
The exit strategy: wrapping up and writing your thesis
After you churned out a bunch of papers during your time on the paper
mill you are finally ready to graduate. At one point in time you start
to feel ready, you have published a couple of papers (or at least
written a couple of technical reports if you weren't able to publish the
papers) and you developed a good understanding of what research in your
area is about. In your (regular or not so regular) meetings with your
adviser you should also get a feeling if he or she thinks that you are
At ETH you write your thesis from scratch. I started with reading (or at
least skimming) my prior papers before I wrote my thesis. After that I
came up with the basic outline and the vision that my thesis should get
across. The goal of the thesis is to write down your thesis statement
and to prove said statement. It is important that your thesis is a
self-contained and self-consistent document.
In this phase you should have settled on your thesis committee. Your
committee consists of a couple of professors (or people with a PhD
depending on your university) that are experts in your area of research.
These experts will read your thesis and grill you during your defense.
Some people quit at this late stage of the PhD due to timing constraints
or due to burn out. After a couple of years they are worn out and run
into deadlines imposed by their adviser or by the university. It makes
me sad when I see colleagues that come up to this point in their career
and then quit so close to the finish line.
The defense is the end of this last phase and after you have passed this
final test you have almost completed your PhD. At most universities
there are some bureaucratic hurdles that are left for you to take and
there might be some minor (or major) revisions to your written thesis
that you have to carry out. Other than that you are done and at some
delta t after the defense you are allowed to call yourself PhD (or Dr.
Sc in my case).
The teaching aspect in a PhD
Teaching is an orthogonal experience to the research experience. At ETH
you are supposed to be the teaching assistant (TA) for one lecture per
semester. At the beginning you will start off as a regular TA but as you
progress in your PhD you will be trusted with more and more
responsibilities, e.g. you will teach lectures if the professor is sick,
or you will be head TA for a complete lecture. Head TAs are responsible
to coordinate the lecture, to supervise the other TAs, and to organize
the individual exercises.
I really enjoyed teaching during my almost 5 1/2 years at ETH and I
think that it is a great experience that every PhD should have. During
the exercise hours that you have to supervise you learn how to speak in
front of a group (a skill that is not that common in Switzerland and
that is not part of the regular curriculum at high school or college),
you learn how to prepare the material so that you can present it to a
group of students, and most importantly you learn how to interact with
all kinds of students that have different problems with the material,
the course, or a specific exercise. All in all you learn a new skill:
how to teach some specific material to students. If you plan an academic
career then this might come in handy at one point in time.
The PhD grind
Right when I was finishing my thesis Philip Guo published his memoirs
about his own PhD experience in an e-book called "
The PhD Grind".
In the book Philip tells us about his PhD experience year for year in
chronological order. Each year of his PhD is covered in a chapter and he
writes about all the ups and downs during that time. The book is a great
read and I warmly recommend that you read it too if you are interested
in research and academia.
I agree with many of his observations, e.g., that it is important that
you focus on conferences that your adviser already has published in
recent years. Your adviser will know the right lingo and the right
buzzwords for the conference and the members of the committee will know
your adviser which in turn will help as well.
On the other hand there are a couple of things where I don't agree with
Philip. Most importantly Philip mentioned that
being a TA only delays
the PhD (page 70, of the e-book). As I explained above I really valued
the teaching experience - from a personal as well as from a professional
point of view. During the discussions with the students I learned
several new and interesting details in areas that I actually assumed to
know in depth. Another area I don't agree with Philip is about how to
select your thesis committee. Philip tells us that usually the adviser
selects the thesis committee (page 56, of the e-book), I on the other
side had the pleasure to select my own committee. I discussed possible
members of the committee with my adviser and then approached each member
myself. For me this was an interesting experience - first coming up with
possible and plausible fits and then approaching these professors
A PhD is certainly not the right career path for everyone. Doing a PhD
is challenging, requires a lot of self-control and self-organization.
The PhD is not (pre-)structured and you will need a lot of creativity.
In addition you get less pay than an industry position with a comparable
education. On the other hand you learn a huge amount of new skills
during your PhD. This is your opportunity to do academic research, you
can publish at conferences, you'll meet a huge amount of new people, and
you learn to network. I enjoyed my time and I recommend doing a PhD to
all the curious and interested people out there that are interested in
academia and who want to go that extra mile.