I was recently speaking to a university lecturer about studying at undergraduate and PhD level. He spoke about how many successful undergraduate students ended up doing poorly at research level, as the skills needed to succeed at undergraduate and research level differ. Is this true? I'm just curious, how do the skills required to succeed at research level differ from those to succeed at undergraduate level?

I've always considered myself a book smart person (I'm good at understanding difficult concepts from textbooks and I'm good at solving problems when I know what steps I need to undertake), but I don't consider myself to be creative, so I'm curious as to whether he was implying that those types of people won't succeed at PhD level.

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    Age mostly, I would imagine. – copper.hat Dec 13 '19 at 4:16
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    Note that practically all PhD candidates were doing really well academically as undergraduates, but that about half of them drop out (some disciplines more than others, some countries more than others, but roughly half). Which suggests undergraduate result are a poor predictor. – user3445853 Dec 13 '19 at 5:55
  • @user3445853 but do you know anything else that is a better predictor? Maybe getting a PhD is just really hard. – setholopolus Dec 13 '19 at 14:05
  • @user3445853 to be clear, I don't necessarily disagree with you, I'm just trying to make the point that (people were doing well as undergraduates drop out, lots drop out in PhDs -> undergrad success is a bad predictor) was not a very scientific statement to make without additional evidence – setholopolus Dec 13 '19 at 14:08
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    this question is heavily opinion-based and not a good fit for this website – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Dec 13 '19 at 15:16

I'm not a big believer in "types" of people. But yes, some succeed in an undergraduate program but don't in a doctoral program. The difference, I think, is largely determined by the nature of the programs, not the people.

As an undergraduate you are mostly exploring what is already known and the connections that are already known between them. Too often the method of evaluation is poor. Poorly designed multiple choice questions, for example, test memory primarily. Memory is a useful skill, but more is needed to complete a PhD. An undergraduate degree, even when focused on a particular field, as in UK, is still pretty broad.

A doctoral program, on the other hand, is an exploration of the unknown. You can't plan for success in research, only work effectively so that you can find it eventually. But it is much more frustrating for many people than is the exploration of the known. You are trying, among other things, to make connections that others have not yet made. It is a different kind of thing. The boundary between the two isn't smooth.

So, the undergraduate degree is only a partial preparation for what needs to happen in a doctoral program. Being successful in the one doesn't guarantee success in the other. It gives a basis on which to work, but that is all. Some people learn, too late, that they just don't like researching the unknown, even though they love what they did as undergraduates.

In mathematics, for example, if you are studying things already known and come to a hard part, you can find someone, or a book, say, to explain it to you. You can find exercises to deepen your knowledge. But as a mathematician researching some area, there are no such resources. You are a creator, not a consumer. There is no guarantee that you will ever succeed in answering some particular question.

So, I attribute the effect you see more to the different nature of the two levels of learning than to the "types" of students who succeed or fail.

However, as an afterthought, I think that most people will start out in their education finding things fairly easy to do. The things are fairly simple, of course. But usually people reach a point where it isn't easy anymore and they have to work to continue. I think that the people who don't reach this point early in an undergraduate program, or at least by its completion, will have a hard time in a doctoral program. If you've never had to work hard to advance, research can be a shocking awakening. I was lucky enough to learn my limits in secondary school and so learned to work hard at learning. Others, who far surpassed me early on, didn't advance as far. I doubt that this is a universal, but think it is pretty common.

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    +1 for "If you've never had to work hard to advance, research can be a shocking awakening." – JeffE Dec 12 '19 at 16:34
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    In analogy: An undergraduate program is like directing or performing a work of Shakespeare. A PhD is like trying to write a brand new smash-hit play. – Chronocidal Dec 13 '19 at 16:09
  • @Chronocidal, pretty good analogy. Thanks. – Buffy Dec 13 '19 at 16:18

I think the key difference is the openness in a phd versus undergrad. If you receive say a homework problem as an undergrad you can savely assume (in most cases) that this is a problem that can be solved in a reasonable amount of time with the knowledge of the course and its prerequisites. If you study a problem as a phd it might happen that

  • the problem is still decades away from being solvable
  • this problem was solved under a different name somewhere else
  • once you properly understand it, it is actually trivial
  • the problem doesn't have a good solution in any reasonable way

Finding problems that look interesting is not that hard but knowing which ones actually lead to a fruitful phd is hard and a problem that doesn't really occur as a undergrad. Your advisor will help but this is difficult for him/her as well.

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  • I've had all of these issues in school as well and I definitely don't have a PhD. – Luc Dec 12 '19 at 20:43

I'll say this from the perspective of an undergraduate student where in my first two years my gpa was 2.7 and my last two were 3.5 which allowed me to get into graduate school and finish my courses with a 3.8. I am an MSc student, but after about 8 months in research I have had time to think about this question.

Undergraduate studies are tricky to think about, because what is the point of them, really? The institution needs to consider that a small fraction of people will pursue PhDs and so course work needs to be tailored to many more people. So the question becomes, how should you approach your studies if you want to be a researcher as opposed to how to be "successful".

Looking at it from the lens of undergraduate studies being preparation for a PhD, you are essentially learning a lot of different tools and techniques. Consider any sport, when you're training at the lower levels you are trying to grasp onto basics and principles, but what separates young (undergraduate) and elite (PhD) athletes is how the elite athletes use those basic skills and principles to pull off incredible highlights. Elite athletes don't think about how to dribble the ball or move in a certain way, instead, those basic principles are ingrained into them so they don't have to think about them at all. As the undergraduate, it is your job to gain mastery over basics so that when you try to break into your PhD you're able to use those fundamentals in new and creative ways. As the undergraduate you answer homework problems you've never seen before, now you're job as a PhD is, in a way, to be the one to write those new problems. When I started to see a boost in my GPA it was not because I suddenly "got it", but because instead of just studying the material, I would create my own tests and try to think of all the different ways I could play with the material. I begun to take those basics and create "new" things with them. By doing this, you are essentially expressing concepts you're familiar with but in new ways. For example, I would write down my own integration problems and try to solve them with the techniques that I had - sometimes what I wrote was analytically solvable, sometimes it was not.

As a PhD you're now primarily focused on finding new problems in the literature, and this is really challenging and a skill that I believe can be developed and nurtured. Because I believe that problem finding is a skill that can be developed, the notion of creativity instead becomes how well you can connect the dots that are in front of you (for most of us). But again, how can you connect the dots if you lack the skills to be able to draw the line between them?

As a PhD you are flexing brain muscles that you never really had to before, so it's frustrating at first but I believe over time it gets easier as you adapt to that type of new thinking. Research, like homework, is practice and the only way that you will get better at being a researcher is to practice doing it. So don't let yourself give up before you've had the chance to start.

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Is this true?


how do the skills required to succeed at research level differ from those to succeed at undergraduate level?

I'm not sure the skills differ, per se. The vast majority of PhD students were exceptional undergraduates; PhD students overwhelmingly have the skills necessary for undergraduate success. But, a successful PhD student needs much more.

I've always considered myself a book smart person, so I'm curious as to whether he was implying that those types of people won't succeed at PhD level.

I don't believe such an implication holds. (Albeit, I'm not entirely sure what book smart means.) You need many skills to succeed as a PhD student, including, but not limited to, the ability to study hard.

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    "But, a successful PhD student needs much more." Please elucidate on this. It will be useful for the OP. – user3024069 Dec 12 '19 at 10:34
  • It will be useful for the OP: Will it? The OP seems rather vague. If they are more precise, then I'll revise. As it stands, I'm not going to spend my time guessing at what they might want to know. – user2768 Dec 12 '19 at 10:39

I've always considered myself a book smart person (I'm good at understanding difficult concepts from textbooks and I'm good at solving problems when I know what steps I need to undertake), but I don't consider myself to be creative, so I'm curious as to whether he was implying that those types of people won't succeed at PhD level.

You may find some interesting perspective and context in this clip, from a University of Toronto lecture regarding to being "book smart" and "creative". For context let me point out that measurements talked here are from the big five model. Unlike random internet tests, this theory of "types of people" seem to be backed by empirical results although there are critiques of it as well.

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The difference is that between a traveler and an explorer. The explorer ventures into unfamiliar territory, hoping to find interesting and useful locations. The boundary between the unknown and the known is breached with certain expectations and aspirations. Likewise the researcher is fully aware of the boundaries of knowledge, and strives to form new pathways for the thought processes that can be profitably followed by all. The enticement for the explorer is the same -- the possibility of discovering something spectacularly valuable!

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To answer the OP's headline question:

How do successful undergraduate and PhD students differ?

One will be a hardworking productive member of society and the other will be twiddling their thumbs for 3 to 10 years.

(I studied and started working in Electronics Engineering, we don't see many PhDs and there is a general joke about academics being the unemployable ones)

Now that joke is out of the way we can discuss the important points behind it.

Firstly, academics are employable and productive members of society they just contribute indirectly to the industrial complex. We do need them to advance our knowledge and explore the current possibilities, especially those that do not presently have obvious commercial use as industry or business will not look hard there. To do this they will need to be driven by some thirst for knowledge, not capital gain or direct and immediate impact on society. If I make a cool thing and it takes off I see customers using it in 2~5 years. If someone's research shows promise they are likely going to have to imagine any tangible benefit for much longer or perhaps never live to see it.

To pass undergraduate studies you have to learn what is known. You can parrot with little deeper understanding and pass. If you can apply what you know, you can get a job and do well on what you can recall. To come up with new ideas, new problems and new questions relating to what you know you must have a deeper understanding. Sure if you go to industry you may do better with this deeper knowledge but it may not be essential. To work as a PhD you will likely need to have a deep enough understanding to work new things out from scratch (OK some PhDs are a bit of handle turning exorcise based on someone else's idea but you can see the concept).

In many of the PhDs I know and those who chose to not do a PhD there are several differences:

  1. The Jobs you get with a PhD are different. If you do not want the job type, you do not get the PhD.
  2. You have an interest in academic work with PhD study. You must enjoy reading papers. You are going to have to be OK writing papers. You are going to have to play the game of getting your name on papers and having other peoples names on your papers.
  3. You have to be able to operate in isolation to do the PhD. You may get little to no guidance and support compared to when you were an Undergraduate. In industry, if you got for a graduate role or similar they will likely train and mentor you further to take you from someone used to learning to someone used to doing the job. In PhD study you maybe get a few questions a month but are largely left to sort yourself out.

Going from someone being educated on a program, with regular goals and checks and validation to someone who sits alone thinking for years on end is a big change. I realise I am exaggerating that but it makes the point. Can you cope with not knowing if you are doing an OK job or having any way to gauge your achievements? Can you go from quite a lot of provided and enforced structure to very little at all?

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