I was discussing the possibility of entering a PhD program from a professor who I had during my masters degree.

We discussed the level of commitment he expected and he stated he expects PhD students to be committed to PhD completion above all else, regardless of subject interest or circumstances on the part of the student. Basically he wanted someone who would 100% be his yes-man.

While I made clear I had a strong interest in the subject(and my prior performance in these areas is reasonably good) I couldn't say without actually entering the program what the result would be. Communicating anything else felt dishonest, basically I had a strong belief but I couldn't make a promise.

Is this position standard for PhD advisors? Basically, is it reasonable to assume someone will be 100% committed to something without experience working on the problem?

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    A "yes-man" is one who fails to question another person by providing honest opinions and feedback and instead agrees with everything they do or say. I don't think that's what you meant. – Bryan Krause Jun 6 at 23:35
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    The problem really compounds when you realize, if you work those dedicated hours, you're getting paid damn near minimum wage. What he's really saying to you is, he expects you not to allow ANY necessity to trump your willingness to do cheap labor for him for easily 5+ years. A large part of this could well be grunt work you learn little from in the latter years as well (e.g. follow up papers on a topic you already understand well because he has a grant to study it ad nauseum). – Ghersic Jun 8 at 3:38
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    Now that I'm a senior PhD student within a year of graduating (in engineering), I hold my Professor's feet to the fire in terms of him contracting me for 20h/week legally. Students should not have to self-sacrifice and actively exclude other funding sources (that are professionally productive) like internships, scientific consultancies, etc. largely to promote a Professor's agenda. – Ghersic Jun 8 at 3:52
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    "expects PhD students to be committed to PhD completion above all else" suggests that the professor wants the student to be fully committed to the student's success but "basically he wanted someone who would 100% be his yes-man" suggests that the professor doesn't really care about the student at all but simply wants them for something like lab work. The premise of your question seems confused. – John Coleman Jun 8 at 10:16
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    @JohnColeman "regardless of subject interest or circumstances on the part of the student" certainly doesn't sound like it's in the student's interest to me. "Yes-man" might not be quite the right term, but (assuming OP's characerisation is correct) it certainly doesn't sound like the advisor has much care for the student's interests. – Chris H Jun 8 at 10:49

My personal assessment is that the professor is correct. A good PhD student in my opinion is someone who is committed fully to the completion of the thesis, and spends 100% of working hours (and let's face it, even much beyond that) on it. There is no way around it, if one wishes to be a good academic.

Also: "expects PhD students to be committed to PhD completion above all else, regardless of subject interest or circumstances on the part of the student. Basically he wanted someone who would 100% be his yes-man."

My impression is that the premise of the sentence does not imply anything about being a yes man. It simply means full dedication.

Following clarifications, the Professor did insinuate the candidate he/she should be a yes-man. This is a warning sign, and is unrelated to the question of dedication needed to complete a PhD thesis.

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    "Given the retention rates of PhD students I beg to differ" --- That is seemingly almost a proof of my point: Almost all successful PhD students are those with utter dedication. The others drop out. – Dilworth Jun 6 at 21:32
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    Certainly you can commit to many things you haven't done before. It's like somebody proposes to marry you, and your answer is "I can't commit fully, 'cause I haven't done it before". – Dilworth Jun 6 at 22:04
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    Well, if you look at the divorce rate apparently most people can't commit to staying married either. But more fundamentally nobody would suggest marrying someone without first a substantial accumulation of experience with the person. – FourierFlux Jun 6 at 22:21
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    The same is with getting a new job: essentially you're saying in your job interview that you are not sure you can commit! Again, my assessment is that the professor is correct: he/she assumes that if a candidate starts with uncertain dedication, then the risk of dropping out is higher then a standard PhD candidate. I think this assumption is rational and justified. You may be part of the minority who cannot commit in advance, but actually is a great student. The chances for that are low by rational thinking hence the professor is right. – Dilworth Jun 6 at 22:50
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    Your argument started with the claim that one cannot commit to something they haven't done already. I provided easy counter examples. Moreover, you haven't refuted my simple argument explaining why the professor is correct: the chances that someone who is not even willing to commit at the beginning of their PhD is going to drop out is higher than those who can fully commit but then fail somehow to hold their promise. Hence, the professor is rational. – Dilworth Jun 6 at 23:12

When I take on a PhD student, I am investing $10,000s of MY resources, as well as 100s of hours (or 1000s somethimes) of MY time into that indevidual. Not only that, but they probably have a studentship or scholarship of some sort that specifies at least what the general topic of their research will be.

What do I expect in return for this?

  1. I expect the student give 100% of their professional effort to this - doing a PhD is not a part time persuit. I expect at least 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. And the acknowledgement that occassionally it is impossbile to avoid having to do more than this. I would not ask for committement "above all else", such as family commitements, or the students own health, for example. I also believe that students should have a life outside of the lab - hobbies etc.

  2. I expect students to come with the attitude that they are here to get a PhD. Obviously its impossible to say with 100% certainty that they will complete. I want them to believe that this is what they want to the full extent it is ever possible for a person to know such a thing. They are not here to "try it out" or "see how it goes", they fully believe they want to do a PhD. Remember if I give a studentship to you, I am therefore not giving it to someone else. Now it might turn out that is doesn't work out. That this is not the best thing for them. Obviously if they came in good faith and this turns out to be the case we will explore together what is in their best interests.

  3. I expect a student to study the general area we have agreed they will study. Sometimes an area will not prove to be fruitful, and any change will be agreed between us. Within the topic, I'd like students to have as much freedom as possible to follow what they think are fruitful/intersting directions. I expect them to serious consider my advice on the matter, but I don't expect them to just do what I say, when I say it. That said, experiments, and even computation time, costs money, and I hold the purse strings. Every $ spent on your project is a $ that can't be spent on someone elses project, so I may put my foot down and say "no, I don't believe that is a good use of resources".

I'm pretty sure that you'll find that all STEM supervisors have similar ideas about 1 and 2 - there might be variations on how much time they expect. Run a mile from someone who wants to prioritise your PhD above your family - And some might be more dissappointed than others if it doesn't turn out well. But while the details may difer, the general idea will be the same.

Three will be more variable from supervisor to supervisor, and its here that you will want to find a supervisor that fits best with how you see things. Generally the more expensive research in a field is, the less freedom you'll have.

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    By good faith, I mean they believe a PhD is what they want. They don't come to the PhD thinking "oh, i'll give it a year and see how I feel". That said, I've never come across that attitude. People generally come in the door full of excitment and a belief they are going to change the world. I always assume that if people say they are comitteed, then they are. I don't think I've ever been wrong so far. – Ian Sudbery Jun 7 at 20:39
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    Depends what you mean by "back up plans". If you mean you are aware of the other options available to you, which one you would pick and exactly how you would go about the transition - thats probably a good thing. Completing because you feel trapped or feel you have no option is unlikely to lead to a good outcome for anyone. On the otherhand, if you mean you maintain other active irons in other active fires, this might start to ring alarm bells for me. If you would never commit to a job that requires a contract, you'll find the job market in my country very difficult. – Ian Sudbery Jun 7 at 21:33
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    "7 hours per day, 5 days per week" - is this 35h/wk the amount students are contracted for, or does your institution (like most) then contract students for only 20 hours/week to avoid regulations? If you truly contract and pay for what you expect, you are a diamond in the academic rough. Otherwise, those "$10,000+ of MY RESOURCES" get diluted over the course of 5+ years for a student, effectively paying them near minimum wage. – Ghersic Jun 8 at 3:48
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    It doesn't work like that here. I don't pay students, students all on one sort of scholarship/studentship or another, mostly from the government funding agency. There is no contract between me and the student. Students aren't employees, and they recieve a grant stipend, not a wage. I have no say over its size, I wouldn't be allowed to make it more, even if I had the money to do so. The money I am talking about are research funds. Experiments in my field cost thousands of dollars. Plus PhDs are a maximum of 4 years here - not finished after 4 years? You fail. – Ian Sudbery Jun 8 at 8:42
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    "I would never commit to a job if it requires a contract" - I'd be interested to hear what your (multiple backup) plans are for finding a job once you enter the real world, on the basis that you will reject any that come with a contract. – JBentley Jun 8 at 20:21

I think the actual issue here, based on your various comments, is that you don't employ the conventional language of commitment the way that everyone else does. That is leading to a miscommunication because you aren't actually speaking colloquial English (I'm assuming the language you and the professor are using is English), but are using your own, idiosyncratic and highly literal personal language.

If you were to enter into pursuing a PhD with a level of commitment equal to that which a person of serious mind and average morality brings to their marriage, that would be a level of commitment that would satisfy the professor's requirement...and then some. You can, if you choose, be a pedant about it and argue that divorce rates show that people aren't really and truly 100% committed when they enter into their marriages...but that's not how other people discuss the topic, and if you insist on bringing that pedantic outlook to the discussion it's inevitable that you will be misunderstood.

The best way to resolve the problem may be to tell the professor that you believe you will be committed to the PhD program, but that you have a literalist outlook on the entire concept of "100% commitment" that makes you feel like you're lying if you use that expression. Since you say you're in an engineering field, the professor has probably encountered your personality type before and should be able to decode what you actually mean, once you give him this context.

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    I strongly suspect that this answer is highly relevant... – paul garrett Jun 8 at 17:35
  • Possibly, I'm quite honest and literal. Anyway unless something changes I think I will seriously consider a PhD with my current advisor, his position is: submit some grants, if you get something try it and if it doesn't work leave. Which is way more reasonable to me than the other guy who says getting a PhD needs to be the fundamental goal beyond all else(which isn't how I operate). – FourierFlux Jun 9 at 5:33

As often happens in these situations, I'd suspect that a substantial part of the tension is misunderstanding about the meanings of the "expectations". (That there'd be misunderstandings is not surprising, considering that the prof and the student are in very different places in their experiences and their lives, and almost surely attach significantly different connotations to words...)

On one hand, _of_course_ it makes no sense to agree to, as they say, "a pig in a poke", that is, something unknown. Perhaps to gamble, etc., but...

The slightly different remark/question I make to my prospective students is more about "trust", than "compliance". I do try, and do try to explain to students, that the projects I suggest to them are not only potentially fruitful, but tailored if possible to my observations of their tastes and talents.

(In math, in the U.S., at an R1), if I were somehow required to fully justify to a skeptical student the sense/competence of my recommendations to them, I think we'd get nowhere. Certainly in contemporary number theory and automorphic forms and such, there's a huge backstory to be assimilated, and a huge technical "library" to appreciate, before most things are truly intelligible. I cannot impart this to a novice in a conversation.

So, although I do appreciate the genuine intellectual appropriateness of a wish to have things explained (rather than accepting things "on faith"), the situation of "getting a PhD in six years or less" seems to require a significant element of trust...

As in many other human situations.

EDIT: in response to comment... in math, in the U.S., there is in general no immediate research benefit to "having Ph.D. students", or postdocs. That is, there is scant "grunt work" to be done. So taking on PhD students or postdocs is giving something... which, in the style of authorship of math in the U.S., will not result in any authorship at all.

So, when/if I take on a student, I have no anticipation of any substantial administrative reward or return. It's because I like helping people learn how to do (to my perception) fairly amazing, cool things. If a student disagrees with me about what is amazing or cool, that's fine, but obvs I can't be an effective advisor.

Also, sometimes... and to my mind these are some of the best times (in math), I may have some vague intuition that some line of inquiry would be good. Sure, a student does not have to believe me. But, on the other hand, they should not have me as their advisor if they don't trust my "intuition" based on decades of experience...

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  • Sure. In our interaction he said he expects his students to be happy studying what ever he tells them to and ultimately you should be happy about having the privilege of doing a PhD regardless of anything else. From my perspective this shows substantial disrespect to the student who is investing their time to work under the professor instead of entering into industry. I'm in an engineering field and our graduates aren't so desperate for work(yet) that we're willing to be slaves for the sake of academic approval. – FourierFlux Jun 6 at 23:46
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    @FourierFlux From your comments I feel like you've come with an agenda rather than an open mind. It seems like you want someone to tell you not to work with this person or validate they are a jerk or something. If you don't want to work with them, don't work with them. I think it's perfectly reasonable for an advisor to only want to take on students who are really confident they want to do a PhD and for them to counsel people who aren't fully committed that it's probably not the right path for them. – Bryan Krause Jun 7 at 0:17
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    It's a bit funny really, my MS advisor in a different area told me to try doing a PhD before industry and if I don't like it leave. He wants to write up grant proposals and see if anything sticks. Unfortunately his field isn't quite what I want to work on but there is certainly a dramatic difference in perspective. – FourierFlux Jun 7 at 0:22
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    Ah, yes, it is my impression that sometimes people in "engineering" fields are far more venal than others... I have no advice in that situation. – paul garrett Jun 7 at 0:28
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    @BryanKrause Louder for the kids in the back: If you don't want to work with them, don't work with them. – JeffE Aug 11 at 0:27


he expects PhD students to be committed to PhD completion above all else, regardless of subject interest or circumstances on the part of the student.

is not the same as:

he wanted someone who would 100% be his yes-man.

Commitment and obedience are different things. Also, there's the question of whether what you finish your Ph.D. with exactly the initial formulation of the intended research direction. In many disciplines, you many end up doing something that's merely somewhat related, because you didn't manage to obtain results where you originally expected, or your interests shifted etc. - that still doesn't mean you're not committed to completing the Ph.D.

Irrespective of the above - achieving a Ph.D. is often as much about tenacity as much, or more, than it is about talent or interest. So some sort of "motivation bar" is legitimate (even if not "commitment above all else").
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It's a bit like the old legends where someone says "Only the pure of heart can enter the castle".

You either think "Yes, I'm pure of heart, I'm going to enter the castle", or you think "Oooh, sounds dangerous: I think I'll give it a miss."

If your professor exaggerates the commitment required, and you still say "yes, I'll do it!", then he knows he'll have a committed candidate. If you think "Ooh, commitment: that's a bit much", then the place remains open to someone else.

Metrics are everything in education these days, and the number of PhD candidates that complete is one metric that can be used to judge the college.

You can make a commitment to the attempt: you can't promise to pass.

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    The third option is people say what ever they need to say to enter and then quit afterwards if they don't like it. Quitting PhD positions actually looks pretty common based upon some investigating I have done so this commitment standard seems to only impact the people who believe in honesty. I have recently discussed this issue with a number of other students and the consensus is everyone lies. – FourierFlux Jun 7 at 15:45
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    If you go into it looking for ways out, then you'll probably use them. – benwiggy Jun 8 at 11:23
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    I have a way out for everything I do. – FourierFlux Jun 8 at 14:50

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