Aims, Objectives and Guidelines for PhD StudentsTim Kovacs, 2008.
IntroductionI suspect there are common misconceptions about how and even why to do a PhD. This document sets out my ideas on the subject, lists objectives a PhD student should work toward and suggests guidelines for activities PhD students should undertake in order to get the most out of their studies. I have also made a form to help you reflect on your progress toward various objectives.
One of the main benefits of a PhD, or an academic career, is the freedom you have to follow your interests. As a PhD student you have a remarkable amount of freedom. Very few people ever have so much time and freedom to follow their interests, and you probably never will again during your working life. (Your retirement is another matter and some academics continue to do research after their official retirement.)
On the other hand a PhD is pretty much guaranteed to be deeply frustrating at times. This is little wonder, since a PhD is an intrinsically big and difficult undertaking. There will be setbacks and aspects of the work you just don't enjoy. In fact it can be difficult just to get used to the nature of the work and having so much freedom. Many new PhD students also get a bit of shock when they find they are no longer the most clever person in the room, and that results are not as easy as they were on taught courses.
Perhaps worst of all there can be a lot of uncertainty about all sorts of things: how to proceed, whether there's a flaw in your work, whether you know enough about an area to make decisions, whether your results are significant enough to merit a PhD, whether it has all been done before, and so on. The trick is to deal with such uncertainty rationally and then avoid unhelpful worrying. In other words, split your problem into two sub-problems: the underlying problem and your counterproductive emotional response to it. Then deal with each in turn. If you're worried that your new algorithm may not be new after all, decide how much time to spend on a literature search, then accept that you've dealt with it in the way that seemed best at the time, and then move on. It may later turn out that you were wrong, but that is the nature of research.
In addition to uncertainty, I suspect the other big source of misery for PhD students is misguided objectives, which I will deal with later. If you have the right objectives, and if you can focus on what you enjoy about your work and leave the worrying aside, you'll be much happier. It can help to remember why you wanted to do a PhD in the first place.
Incidentally, a bad reason to do a PhD is to prove how clever you are. That motivation doesn't make the work intrinsically rewarding and spending years proving such a point doesn't seem very healthy.
Misleading objectivesIt's less common to leave school and go straight into unskilled work than it was a generation or two ago and, partly as a consequence, formal qualifications are more and more important. As well as an an emphasis on qualifications there's an emphasis on explicit quantification of achievements. More and more emphasis has been put on marks, from a young age, as the government has sought to raise standards, and schools are judged by their pupils' success.
Clearly it's useful to be able to compare students and schools. Students are also generally motivated to achieve good marks and feel satisfied when they do. Nonetheless there's a serious downside to the increased testing which many writers have noted in recent years. Students feel stressed by constant testing. Teachers are constrained by highly regulated course specifications, the need to test frequently, and the pressure to "teach to the test" in order to maximise results.
In these circumstances it's easy to confuse getting high marks with successful learning. If your objective is to pass a course so you can get a qualification and a well-paid job in an unrelated area, then high marks are a reasonable measure of success. But if you define successful learning as gaining understanding of the subject then high marks and success are not the same, the reason being that tests are often poor measures of understanding. My computer, for example, can perform many mathematical calculations better than I can, but it understands nothing about maths. Similarly, you can teach people to carry out calculations with little or no understanding of the underlying maths. (In fact many scientists will use statistical tests without much thought about how well their data fits the assumptions of the test, or about what the results really mean.) Because it's easier to teach and measure procedures than to teach and measure understanding, students end up with a counterfeit education.
As a PhD student you suddenly escape constant explicit testing; you won't receive marks on your work and in the end you will either pass or fail your PhD -- there's no such thing as a 2.1 at PhD level. Without marks, what should you try to optimise? That is, what should your objectives be? An obvious answer is to publish papers and produce an impressive thesis. You will definitely get positive feedback for doing so, but I think making this your criterion for a successful PhD is just as misguided as making high marks your objective in earlier studies. Such misleading objectives are everywhere. You might be tempted into a higher-paying job only to realise the long hours, the commute, or the work itself make you unhappy. So be careful what you wish for! In the next section I argue against over-emphasising the thesis and in the section after that I list the objectives I think a PhD student should have.
The significance of the thesisIt might seem that getting a PhD is a matter of producing one big deliverable: the thesis. It's true that this is what you submit and if it's not up to the required standard you won't get a PhD. It's much more appropriate, however, to think of a PhD as a journey, not a destination, and in fact only part of a journey as you will do something after you finish. After getting your PhD you may, among other things, get a research position in industry or academia, or a lectureship. All of these require a range of skills and abilities; not just technical knowledge, but initiative, independence, people skills, communication skills and so on. By the time you graduate you should possess all of these, especially since these are the things employers look for.
Furthermore, few people continue to work on exactly the same thing after graduating -- it's rather unlikely you'll find a postdoctoral position on a project which is effectively an extension of your PhD. Many people have a substantial change of direction in their research after graduating, or even a major change of direction in their career. As a result much of the most specialised technical knowledge you gained during your PhD is not likely to be of much use, but luckily the transferable skills you've learned can serve you well no matter what you end up doing.
Students sometimes start a PhD thinking that they'll solve a substantial problem and have the last word on it. This is not likely, to say the least. It's much more realistic to expect your work to add modestly to the body of knowledge on a subject, building on what was done before and being built on by later work. This is all that's required or expected. So the scope of your contribution is expected to be modest, and so too is its impact. Have you ever thought about how many people are likely to ever read your thesis? In most cases it will be less than ten. How relevant do you think it will be in ten or twenty years? In most cases it will only be of historical interest, if that (although foundational and theoretical work tends to have more staying power). So, given the modest scope and impact of most PhDs, what is their value? It's that by the time you complete your PhD you should have become a competent, independent, mature researcher. Having a PhD means that you can be expected to carry out good quality research on your own and that you have all the associated skills. The thesis is just the tangible evidence that you've acquired these abilities. Again, your PhD is just part of your journey. This is partly why you must pass a viva, and do so without input from your advisor.
Suppose you are able to write well but don't have the other qualities described above. If your advisor gives you detailed instructions throughout your PhD you could generate a good thesis in the end, but it would be your advisor, not you, who deserves a PhD and who has shown him or herself to be a mature researcher. (Incidentally, not many advisors are willing to put this much thought into a student's thesis.) During the viva the examiners will want to evaluate you as a thinker. They will want to satisfy themselves that you are a competent, independent, mature researcher. If your advisor has supplied all the ideas and insights, you can expect difficulties during the viva. Conversely, if you have fallen short of your objectives, or your results are disappointing, you should still be awarded a PhD if you can convince the examiners that you are a mature researcher.
Once again, a PhD is just part of the journey. If you apply for an RA position, everyone else applying for it will also have a PhD. Most of them will have a couple of good references. What will set you apart?
Aims and ObjectivesI think your overall aims in doing a PhD should be:
- to become a competent, independent, mature and well-rounded researcher who is prepared to pursue an academic or scientific career
- to do good research
- to enjoy it
- to help others do the same
- Critical thinking skills. This comes first in the list as
it's simply essential for a researcher. Critical thinking requires
awareness of meta-information. It's not enough to be able to quote
claim X. You need meta-information about X such as: How well do you
understand it? What evidence is there for and against it? How reliable
is the evidence? How well do you understand the evidence? What
alternative claims are there? How relevant is it to your work? In
short you must have a critical attitude toward knowledge and how it is
Learning isn't so much a process of adding information as critically integrating it with your current understanding. If you were to add information uncritically you would end up with lots of contradictory statements with few links between them and little understanding.
In contrast, critically integrating information involves iteratively revisiting assumptions and revising your understanding in the light of new information. This leads to changes in opinions, modification of old assumptions, and creation of new connections between ideas. This is how deeper understanding is achieved, and where the insights and progress needed for PhD study arise. Writing, presenting and teaching about a subject are surprisingly good ways to stimulate this revision and integration.
Much more could be said on the subject but suffice it to say critical thinking is the foundation of the scientific method and that the opposite -- rigid, dogmatic, and fundamentalist thinking -- will not get you very far.
- Communication, presentation and writing skills. By the end
of your PhD you should be able to publish and present ideas in
different formats (conference and journal papers, grant proposals,
tutorials, handouts, newspaper articles ...) and to different
audiences (specialists, undergraduates, researchers from other fields,
business people, the media, the public...). It's hard to overstate
the importance of being able to communicate well. For one thing,
good communication involves organising ideas into coherent arguments,
and this is a prerequisite for effective research in the first
place. That is, the ability to construct coherent arguments underlies
both the ability to research well and to communicate well. (You could
even say thinking is communicating to yourself.)
I often find that when someone can't explain something clearly it's because they don't understand it very well themselves. Oddly enough they often understand it less well than they think they do, and it's only when they try to explain it that the confusion becomes obvious. This is certainly true of me.
For these reasons I doubt it's possible to be a good researcher without the ability to communicate clearly and coherently. To invert things, you can develop your ability to think critically by developing your communication skills, and critique your reasoning skills by critiquing your communication skills.
Furthermore, even if you - somehow - come up with great ideas, if you can't explain them clearly and convincingly, and in a way that suits the audience at hand, you'll have trouble getting them funded, or published, or taken up by others. Although some of your conclusions may be proofs, which should stand on their own, you will often have to persuade others to accept your views using less rigorous arguments. This is more subtle than writing proofs and often more useful. Scientists are neither purely objective nor unemotional. You should be able to interest people in your work, entertain them with your presentations and even excite them. Presentation skills are also very important when applying for jobs. Your CV may get you shortlisted but your presentation and interview will often be the deciding factor. It's common for the ranking of candidates to change completely after interviews. Your research group should provide a supportive environment in which to practise oral presentations, as departmental seminars do. Both are less formal than presenting at a conference and you are less likely to face aggressive questioning. Lecturing is again somewhat different and also good experience.
If there's one fundamental point on writing it's the following. It's essential that your writing consists of putting your own thoughts into your own words. You must not write by paraphrasing other sources. Occasional and brief paraphrasing is appropriate, e.g. when giving an example or a definition, or when presenting a summary of another person's position. However, writing an entire report by paraphrasing an existing one is not appropriate. This generally produces less clear and less relevant results than your own writing, and in any case you need to develop your own writing through practice. You must not write by editing text from other sources into something new. This is bad for the same reasons as paraphrasing but is also plagiarism, which is a serious form of academic misconduct.
There are simple techniques which can help you write, for example putting away your sources when you start so you're not tempted to follow them too closely, making slides before writing text in order to get the structure right, or recording yourself explaining things off the top of your head and typing them up later. Finally, although I consider them much less important than clarity, don't overlook the technicalities. Badly formatted references, sloppy layout, and bad spelling, grammar and punctuation do not leave a good impression, although the last three are more easily overlooked when the author's first language is not English.
- Planning and management skills. You should be able to
conduct a research project on your own, or as part of a team, or
supervise others. Planning is difficult because there's usually a lot
of uncertainty involved in research -- if you knew exactly what to do
and how it was going to turn out it wouldn't be
research. Consequently, you must learn to plan at an appropriate level
of detail, and to adapt your plans as things progress. Bear in mind
the meta-information related to a plan, including why you are
following it, what the possible outcomes are, what the risks are, what
the alternatives are, and at what points you have to make decisions.
- Networking skills. One reason to network is to get feedback
on your work and the state of the art in the area. Good feedback is
priceless. A few pointers, some good advice, and even a good hunch can
easily save you months or years of working on a dead end, or
overlooking a connection you should make. You'll also eventually need
an external examiner, references and job offers. By the end of your
PhD it's vital that you're more than the PhD student of Dr. X. You'll
be much more employable if you have your own contacts.
- Social/interpersonal skills. You should be able to work
with others in different roles, including under supervision,
collaborating, and supervising. Supervising people is often the
hardest part of a job to do well, and often the one you have the least
preparation for when you start.
- Lifelong learning. Computer science is a young and
fast-moving subject which requires lifelong learning just to keep up.
But more than this you should not simply become an expert in your own
specialised subject. You should work on becoming a well-rounded
computer scientist, and a well-rounded scientist. This will pay
dividends in your research as you will find ways to adapt ideas from
other areas, and be less likely to overlook lessons already learned
elsewhere. (As one example it took the field of Artificial
Intelligence decades to rediscover ideas from statistics. As another,
people in many areas are constantly rediscovering the principle that
using an appropriate representation can make problems much easier to
solve.) A broader perspective will be useful if you find yourself
sitting on a faculty committee, running a department or company, or
otherwise find yourself involved in setting policies. Learning the
skills discussed here is a lifelong process because there's
always room for improvement.
- Independence. At the start of your PhD you may rely heavily
on your advisor for advice on what to do next, which possibilities to
follow up and when to drop an unpromising line of work. Some students
start with a clear idea of what their thesis will be about, or are
given something specific by their supervisor. More often you have a
general area of interest but not a specific idea. Finding the core
idea for your PhD is often a slow and difficult process, but then good
ideas can be hard to come by, and at the start of the PhD you know
relatively little about the area. As your PhD progresses, however, you
should rely less and less on your advisor, and eventually you will
have more research ideas than time to investigate them.
I've used the word "advisor" here rather than "supervisor" to emphasise the independence of a PhD student.
- Initiative It's up to you to make opportunities and luckily
you have a lot of freedom to do so. You'll need initiative to help you
in many areas including: finding interesting subjects to research,
getting feedback on what you're doing, making your CV stand out and
getting a job after you graduate.
Initiative is also good for the quality of teaching in your department. I think that if you're given the responsibility to set an assignment you're more likely to think of ways to improve it than if you're only given the task of marking it. This is one reason I'm in favour of PhD students taking ownership of coursework and lectures.
Similarly, you should take ownership of your PhD. Even if you are funded by a scholarship, you are working for yourself more than you are working for your advisor or whoever is funding you. You have secured a position that will fund you for a certain amount of time and you should use this time in the way that benefits you most. Suppose you become very interested in a particular specialised area and decide that you want a career in it. If there are five active researchers in this area in the UK you should not only get to know their work but the researchers themselves, and you should make sure they know you. Depending on the circumstances you may interact with them by email, meet them at a conference, invite them to give a talk in your department, offer to give a talk at their University, organise a workshop, or a research visit, or collaborate on a paper. The are a lot of possibilities but odds are none of those things will happen unless you initiate them.
- An understanding of professional and ethical standards. You
must be familiar with conventions on plagiarism, attribution of ideas,
text and figures, acknowledgements, adding and ordering co-authors,
conflicts of interest in reviewing and so on. Furthermore, the
conventions on plagiarism are not arbitrary rules. You should
understand why they are the way they are.
You should also be aware of legal and ethical considerations in your
area. For example, it's not difficult to imagine how data mining can
fall foul of the UK's data protection act or be used unethically.
- Self-knowledge. Ultimately the success of your PhD depends
entirely on your working independently and managing yourself and your
time effectively. This can be quite a change from your earlier
studies, where you are generally given small objectives on a regular
basis, told what to read and so on. To work independently you should
be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. You should know what
motivates you and how to motivate yourself. You should be aware of
your learning style and habits; whether, for example, your instinct is
for a broad-but-shallow or narrow-but-deep understanding, and whether
you have difficulty deviating from your instinct (as many people do).
As Peter Flach says: "Doing a PhD is about the things
you're not good at". In other words, if you're good at maths,
maths shouldn't cause you any real problems. But if you're bad at time
management, or don't work well when you're stressed, or have trouble
explaining your thoughts, you'll have to deal with these problems. A
PhD is very good at finding any weaknesses you have. (More generally,
a PhD is also about what your advisor and department and so on are
not good at.)
- Contributing to the academic life of your group. Imagine there was nobody in your department you could talk to about your research, other than your advisor, or even that you worked exclusively at home. Contrast this comparatively sterile intellectual environment with being part of a group of staff, RAs and PhD students working on related things, even if they're loosely related. A group exposes you to related work, potentially useful ideas and tools, gives you people to bounce ideas off, to ask questions of, and perhaps to collaborate with. However, running a group takes some time and effort on someone's part: arranging meetings, giving talks and so on. By contributing to your research group you can help build a good environment with lots of mutually beneficial interaction.
GuidelinesMost of the objectives above are skills or personal qualities, both of which are hard to learn and hard to teach. Both need time and practice; we learn skills by using them. Thus if you want to be a well-rounded scientist or academic by the time you graduate you must practise all the things they do, including lecturing and setting coursework. The following guidelines and the associated form are designed to help make your development explicit to you, your advisor and your reviewer. Bear in mind that everyone has different needs so these really are guidelines and should not be applied rigidly.
A word of warning about filling in the form, and for that matter about any summary of your work, such as a CV. As mentioned earlier it's easier to pursue misleading objectives, and one example is to make adding to your CV an objective in itself. This can result in "CV pumping" which, in the worst case, involves things like publishing low-quality work just so you can add it to your CV. Don't sleep through seminars just so you can list them on the form.
Each item in the following list should contribute to one or more of the objectives listed earlier. As a PhD student you should normally aim to:
- Take taught courses. In comparison to earlier studies a
PhD is very narrowly focused and very deep. You should offset this
narrowness in various ways, one of which is taking taught courses,
which are mandatory in some countries. Furthermore, being a researcher
requires lifelong learning on a number of fronts, and the years spent
on a PhD are no exception.
Of course it's hard to finish a PhD in 3 years as it is and taught courses take up time, but I don't think time itself is the issue; it's how the time is used. My PhD took almost 5 years (including a year's worth of lecturing), but if I had had the experience I have now, I could probably have done it in 2 years.
In general there are diminishing returns to be had from any one strand of research. In fact the more time you spend on one thing the more likely you'll be unable to see the wood for the trees. My best guess at making PhD time more productive is to get involved in a series of short collaborative research projects, and I'll say a little more on this later, but, in short, work smarter, not harder or longer on one thing.
If you don't already have a degree in computer science you should make sure you're familiar with the fundamentals of the subject. Many people write terrible code which gets the job done, but just barely. This may allow you to complete your thesis, but unless you're doing very little coding you're better off devoting some time to learning how to do it properly - it will pay off in the long run. Similarly, you ignore core subjects like complexity theory at your peril. Again, you should be a well-rounded computer scientist by the time you graduate.
If you already have a degree in computer science there may not be many relevant courses left for you to take but consider whether further study of mathematics or statistics would be useful. You may also consider a philosophy of science course.
If there are useful courses consider how much time to spend on them. It would not be unreasonable to take 10 credits per semester for the first two years for a total of 40 credits. MSc students take roughly 60 credits per semester so this should take only 1/6 of a PhD student's time (or a little less than one day a week), and only during teaching time (20 weeks/year), and only for two years. This is not an excessive load, and it doesn't impose on the third year when it's understandably difficult to concentrate on anything other than finishing the PhD. For comparison 40 credits is 40% of the taught component of an MSc.
You should register on courses so you will receive emails and be registered on the forum. For courses which are most relevant to your studies you should do all the coursework and the exams. This will ensure you get the most out of them and will give you a measure of how you're doing on the subject. In rare cases taught marks can also help assess whether a student should continue with PhD studies. In other cases doing all the coursework and exams is not appropriate -- you may only want a passing familiarity with the subject and the coursework and exam add considerably to the burden of taking a course.
Students in the Machine Learning and Biological Computation group. You should do the new parts of the advanced topics in machine learning course each year: new guest lectures and the new data mining challenge. You can also use the "student conference" as an opportunity to practise presenting.
- Give a guest lecture in your area every year. Ideally this
will be on an advanced subject using slides you have made. Obviously
you get experience and something to add to your CV but furthermore
repeating (and revising) a lecture each year lets you see the progress
you've made in the breadth and depth of your understanding. It's a
truism that the best way to learn something is to teach it. (Recall
the connections made earlier between critical thinking, communicating
In principle everyone benefits from your contribution to teaching. A
PhD student should know more about their area than their advisor by
the time they finish, and undergraduates benefit when this feeds into
the department's teaching.
- Give a seminar on your work every year. This is like a guest
lecture but is on your own research and is a valuable opportunity to get
feedback. The seminar may be to your group or the whole department.
- Set and mark coursework. PhD students tend to do marking
but not actually set coursework. This is not as easy as it may seem
and requires some practise. It's also an excellent way to learn
something in depth. Those who will clearly not go into a career in
education can overlook this activity.
- Organise something. This could be a workshop in Bristol or
at a conference, a public competition, a summer school, or a reading
- Review papers for conferences and journals. This is an
excellent way to develop your critical thinking, and it gives you a
good idea of the standard of papers in a given conference. It also
helps get your name known. To get the most out of doing reviews, have
several people review the same paper and discuss it afterward.
- Propose and coordinate a group project. I think a lot of
research experience can be had from group projects for relatively
Projects don't need to be long and complex to be useful
experience. They do, however, need someone to drive them forward.
- Propose and co-supervise an MSc or undergraduate project.
This is another lightweight way to gain experience with research
projects and of course supervision.
- Contribute to your research group by e.g. maintaining a
website or group library.
- Take personal development courses on e.g. writing or time
- Attend the 'how to write' lectures.
- Attend seminars including those outside your
area. Seminars are an opportunity to network. You can introduce
yourself to the speaker after the talk, or if you want a more
substantial interaction you can arrange in advance to talk with them
while they're here. If they're staying overnight their host will
often take them to dinner. You can also suggest someone be invited to
give a seminar or offer to give one somewhere.
- Read 'How
to get a PhD' and 'The elements of style'. The latter is a
short book full of good advice on writing. Both are well worth the
time you will invest in them.
- Arrange a research visit somewhere, even if only for a
week. You will often find a group is run very differently to the one
you come from, or that your host works very differently from your
advisor, and this can be a real eye-opener. A visit is also a
fantastic way to network, start collaborations, broaden your knowledge
and get feedback on your PhD.
- Write a proposal. This is not for everyone, but one way to get a research position in an area which interests you is to create one for yourself by writing a proposal for, e.g., an EPSRC postdoctoral fellowship or a regular EPSRC grant. Only permanent staff (lecturers) can hold EPSRC grants but you can write the proposal in collaboration with one who will then hire you if it's funded. Unfortunately only about 20% of EPSRC proposals are funded and it takes several months to find out. Grant proposals are not like scientific papers and some adjustments in writing need to be made. For one thing, it's not enough for the proposed work to be scientifically valid. Because there are always more good proposals than can be funded, money is given to proposals which stand out, for example the most exciting and novel ones. It's essential to get feedback on your proposal from a number of experienced people.
The PhD progress review formThis form is not required by our deparment but you may find it useful nonetheless. Here are three reasons to fill out the progress review form. Each focuses on one person, in order of importance to your PhD and in order of how much they should get out of the process.
- To help you reflect on how you're doing and to plan.
- To give your advisor a clearer picture of your situation.
- To give your reviewer a clearer picture of your situation.
ConclusionIf there's anything new to you here I hope it has served to inspired you. Pursuing a PhD, especially the broader objectives I have attempted to outline here, is a privilege, and one I hope you will find very rewarding.
I'm sure this document can be improved. If you have any feedback I'd like to hear it.