Got a question asking my take on getting a PhD. Well, that's not my field, but here's my take -
I don't have much of a background in academia, but I have some friends who do and some general thoughts. Actually, I got two thoughts for you if you go on to go for a PhD.
1. Study exactly what requirements are needed, and study the background of people who have gotten a PhD successfully and have written about it.
A lot of people try to reinvent the wheel or otherwise don't have a plan, thus leading to the tragedy and horror you talk about. This is just generally good advice anyways - understand the rules/parameters going in, and understand and model someone who has done it successfully.
2. Go for it as fast as possible. Prioritize quantity over quality in the beginning.
I think a lot of people have a lot of ego or intimidation or something about only putting out the most amazing possible stuff, and then it holds them back. From my understanding, you have to publish some number of papers to get a PhD. I'd publish those ASAP, just get anything you can out there to fulfill the requirements. As far as my understanding goes, there's no real difference in 99% of people's eyes between someone who got a PhD by doing the best work ever, and someone who just did adequately solid work. Most people will never read your papers or your thesis, whereas having your PhD is going to open a ton of doors for you.
Academia dislikes this attitude, and likes to claim a sort of purity about it and how it's all about the quest for knowledge. I disagree with that mentality. Anyone can do interesting work at any time. A PhD is a credential. The point of working on a PhD is to get the credential. Anyone at any time can work to advance human knowledge, inside or outside of academia. If you're in academia, you're there because you want to get some mix of interesting projects, yes, but also to get the credential. Don't forget that.
I don't mean this as just theoretical advice either. If you can get on a blistering fast pace to get your PhD in 2-3 years, that's fantastic and drastically increases the odds you'll finish it. That way, if you hit a snag, you'll still be looking at 4-5 years. Whereas most people take 6+, and sometimes never get it done.
Look, things go wrong in life. If you get on a fast pace, once you've got the credential, you've got it. You're in the club at that point. It would be a damn shame to be 4 years in, 80% done, but then family circumstances change - you've got to take care of an ill family member, or you need to earn more money in industry, or you have a personal setback or burnout or whatever... I'd gun to get it done as fast as you can. Once you've got it, you've got it, and no one can take that away from you. Don't get haughty about being a perfectionist, and don't drag ass the first 2-3 years. Really seriously burn rubber and set a blistering pace to check off all the requirements.
Well, that's what to consider if you do the PhD. Choosing to do or not... well, that's trickier. Again, though, I'd look up the requirements and some people who you really respected how they went about getting theirs, and see if it's something you'd like to do. If you do do it, I'd again go for fast, which I think increases the chance you finish it, and decreases the chances you burn out. It also lowers your opportunity cost if you decide you'd like to try your hand at working in industry for a while. If you're half done at year 3 and only at 70% personal satisfaction, that's kind of a tough place to be for decisionmaking. Whereas if you're in the home stretch during year 3, 95% done, you're going to push through and finish.
Okay, I only halfway answered your question. I'd hit up google a lot to really understand the requirements to getting the degree, then I'd look for high performers you can emulate who've written about their experience, and then I'd ask if you want to do that. If you go for it, I'd recommend speed - check off as many of the requirements as fast as you can.
I know we have some readers with experience in this. Advice for a potential PhD-seeker?
This couldn't come at a better time. I've been really focusing on this lately... I play to pursue my PhD in a few years, so these next few years could really set me up...
I would really rather do a great job and publish high quality and actually have an impact in my field. I appreciate the good advice here.
A PhD is rather like running your own enterprise - getting the project done, getting things sorted, finding the priorities - it's all up to you.
I'm coming up to the end of my first year of PhD. I have a pretty solid plan to get it done in 4 years. There were no special skills going in that allowed me to make that plan and have my advisor agree to it, I only had my partner. She finished her PhD successfully and I learnt a couple of key points from watching her do it.
1. Treat your PhD like work - you may be allowed to be whenever, wherever but if you don't put in the hours (consistently) you'll never get it done.
2. Think of research like a portfolio - you need a range of projects and questions. Try to think of some safe, low risk things that need to be done (2.a projects). In my field, those questions involve getting baseline data to know some key numbers that aren't recent or aren't done well currently (e.g. trawling farmer data for mortality rates on conventional vs organic farms - slow, nothing sensational, but I'd like to know the answers).
Then you need the body of your research - in a PhD you have the time to collect more data than a lot of the rest of your career (the 2.b projects). This should be something that almost certainly will work but can have risky edges. For me this will be following 500 female calves from when they are born once a week until they are 6 months old. Lots of work - but should hopefully lead some interesting results.
Finally - you need to work on finding odd things, side projects, and new types of analysis (2.c) – in my experience these are often interdisciplinary. My current ideas on this are to use a social sciences approach to look at farmer attitudes and how they affect scientific outcomes. I'm looking out for other little things. I hope that by doing the hard work of 2.a & 2.b that some interesting avenues will emerge if I keep a close watch.
I mostly agree with you about publishing - but I think there are a few things to remember. Papers exist forever and peer review is not perfect (i.e. some crap can get through!). In 'volume' papers be careful not to say the thing that will make you sound like an idiot for all time. Leaping conclusions by new research students are always a really bad idea. Your 2.a projects are great for early publication. Your 2b projects will get you the meaty publications, the PhD and we hope the next job. Your 2.c projects - well, we can all hope that one day, one project will come up with something amazing and be the ticket to something exciting.
Disclaimer: I'm doing a 6+ years part-time PhD because I like to put quality over quantity.
I would not recommend to publish anything just in order to have a publication record. Rating agencies are already replacing number of papers with number of citations in order to filter out the crap. The new game is asking colleagues to cite you.
I think it is more important to acquire valuable skills and meet like-minded people. Also it is recommended to use the Internet to present your work to the public (see Kalal's Predator algorithm for example).
As someone who is defending in 6 weeks... I think this is sound advice. Wish I had known or thought more about this before I dove in.
I think this is pretty solid advice. But, I might renumber those as questions 2 and 3. I think the first thing you should consider is why you want a PhD. If it's because you think it will make you more marketable, or because the economy sucks and it seems like the best option I would skip it. Depending on your industry, there's a good chance nobody is going to care about credentials anyways. Its generally what you've produced that people care about.
If you want to be a professor and a PhD more or less a prerequisite, that's a decent enough reason. I would still agree with Sebastian: get through it. Don't publish sub-par work, but don't toil needlessly. Depending on the field, sometimes just having the credential is enough. But definitely do what Sebastian suggests and find people who are where you want to end up, and ask them for their thoughts.
An interesting discussion with a reader follows. While you're reading, if you have experience with half-finished projects/apps/websites/businesses/etc, please think to yourself, "What would I do?" and answer in the comments.
First off, thanks for making yourself available to talk. I just saw the comment saying you're surprised more people don't take you up on your offer, so I figured I'd send you an email :)
I have a project which has potential, but I'm not sure I can be the one to take it places.
It is a task-oriented team chat application, similar to campfirehq. Its task-oriented nature sets it apart, because you can make a task as easily as typing !implement history search and hitting enter. This makes it very easy to see who is working on what, and discuss it. The barriers to communication and organization are lowered, helping teams move more quickly, and stay organized.
Question from a reader --
However, I'd say this -- Why are you cold calling, anyways?