Sort of a gripe post but here it goes....

Not all PhD experiences are the same. I am not advocating that they should, but I feel your perceived competence and capability is highly dependent of the nature of the project you worked on during your time as a graduate student. My issue is that some individuals get a project handed off to them as oppose to really drive a work efforts from nothing. Joining a lab where the PI says you will work on X, where much of the systems and tools are in place, will take less effort to get published and hit higher impact journals. Contrast this with a scenario where the student generates the project.

In subsequent interviews both individuals will claim the work as their own but clearly one did more than the other. Do subsequent evaluators ( interviewing for post-doc or industry ) care about this can they discern the amount of autonomy of different degree experiences.

How can one present themselves to showcase their agency and creativity to highlight how they originated a line of inquiry as oppose to advance the ball?

  • Postdoc interview questions will quickly establish how much the student understands about the project and how much they contributed. Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 15:57
  • Before you get to that phase there is a screening process where one could easily get wiped out. So my question still stands. Sight unseen how do you tell. Also understand is a much lower bar that originate, which is at the heart of the question. Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 16:46
  • That's why some people who do hiring first read the recommendation letters rather than anything else in the application. For a recent PhD, the most important thing a letter describes is the applicant's agency in their work. In some extreme cases, they won't even hire unless there is a letter from someone who has already written many other letters so that their statements about applicants' agency can be calibrated against outcomes. Of course, this method for getting information brings its own problems with it. Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 18:10

1 Answer 1


I think that what it is possible to do in doctoral studies varies a lot by field. In some fields, if a student were required to come up with their own problem it would be nearly impossible to get started until many many years had passed. In others, it is much more natural for students to propose feasible projects. But even in those fields in which it is difficult, there are a few students able to do it and have their idea accepted by the advisor. The latter may be a stiff hurdle in many cases.

But, to answer the question, I think it may be a mistake for the individual to try to do this themself. It is likely to come across as bragging that can't easily be validated. On the other hand, if others are willing to make such a claim about your "agency" it will serve you well, especially if it comes from a well-respected researcher, perhaps your advisor.

Whether this can be discerned from the CV or not is less important IMO, than how it sounds to the reader. If you say (implicitly) "I'm smarter than you..." it isn't likely to help your career.

And for the most explicit answer to your question, it depends on the reader. A very sophisticated reader may realize that a problem solved is truly fresh and provides new directions for research. But most won't be able to do that sort of analysis, I think.

And, I think this only matters at the beginning of your career, which makes the advisors statements both helpful and sufficient. After you have been "in the game" for a while it will be obvious if you have "agency" or not.

And even if the advisor proposes (or insists on) the problem to be solved, it can still be very challenging to complete it successfully. I worked on three problems leading up to my degree. The first was too easy to be significant. The second was to hard to make any progress. The last was both significant and successful. But still hard enough.

  • Thank you for this answer. I do not want to take away anything from people who work on hard problems that are handed to them, but I think there is something to be said for individuals who did not have such guidance but made their way through the PhD process. Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 16:49
  • 2
    You are probably right, but it is better if others say it about you than you saying it yourself.
    – Buffy
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 16:56

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