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I am a second-year math Ph.D. student without a master's degree who likes taking math classes and loves TAing and tutoring, but dislikes research. During the first semester of my second year, I spent about 3-4 hours a week on research while taking three classes and got very little done research-wise.

I usually have about 8 hours of office hours a week for TA (some of which are for review or practice sessions) and I also type LaTeX notes for students which I improve each semester.

I want to be a lecturer or community college math instructor (I am aware that their pay/ job security is not ideal, but I would rather have a job that I enjoy than being a professor, because I definitely do not want to continue research after I graduate with my Ph.D.) It seems like for those positions completing a Ph.D. is needed to be a competitive job candidate, but the quality of the research doesn't really matter. Being more likely to get a job is the only reason I am doing my Ph.D.

I have gotten 6 A's and 3 A+'s in the 9 classes I have taken for my Ph.D. so far, because I spend enough on them and also tutor other graduate students in some of the classes I am taking with makes me spend even more time. I like how for classes I learn everything by going to lectures instead of having to read references, have a large number of small homework problems instead of a small number of difficult research problems, and taking tests instead of working on long-term projects.

During my second year the main reason I don't do much research-wise is that I spend too much time TAing and tutoring, but starting in my third year it will be more so motivation than time, because I won't be taking classes. I was supposed to read a lot over winter break and also complete a proof and didn't have any other responsibilities. I read what I was supposed to and typed about 40 pages of LaTeX notes, but I skipped all of the proofs in the book and I found that after I finished reading I did not remember most of the notes I had typed, because I typed them quickly and didn't read the text deeply. I also didn't do the proof. I had a lot of time during break, but I chose not to do a good job because I wasn't motivated.

How can I determine whether I am doing enough each week to complete my Ph.D. and not be kicked out for not doing enough research? I usually don't finish the weekly assignments I get, but my advisor hasn't mentioned that I am not doing enough. I know that one way to find out is to ask my advisor, but I don't want them to know that I just want to complete the Ph.D. And I don't want to spend time on research, because then they might decide that they don't want to work with me anymore and I wouldn't be able to finish my Ph.D.

I think that I probably wouldn't spend more than 12 hours weekly during my last three years on research, but I would spend at least 8 hours weekly even if less than that was enough. I know that this would leave me with a significant amount of free time which I would probably spend tutoring undergraduate and graduate students, because I am motivated to do that and it would help improve my teaching skills.

In summary

  1. Is 12 hours spent weekly on research for the final 3 years enough to complete a minimal Ph.D. for a slightly above average Ph.D. student?
  2. Is there a way that I can continually check whether I am on track to complete my Ph.D. and not be kicked out for making unsatisfactory progress?
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  • 3
    Is this in the US?
    – Buffy
    Jan 8 at 22:30
  • 28
    We can't convert X hours a week to "you'll get your PhD." If your advisor thinks you're not doing enough, then they are probably correct. Jan 8 at 22:32
  • 9
    Not to be a damper on this, but if you asking how many hours a week it takes, then you may not be suitable to do it.
    – Tom
    Jan 9 at 17:51
  • 10
    1 - 'but dislikes research' ?!
    – BCLC
    Jan 10 at 0:19
  • 4
    It sounds like you don't even like reading math, which is a bit odd for somebody who likes taking math classes. To be clear, skipping over all the proofs in a book you were supposed to read means you read approximately 0% of the mathematical content of the book. Jan 10 at 22:41
50

In my opinion, the bare minimum required to have a good chance to complete a PhD in math is to actually want one. By that I mean, not just to want a diploma, or a practical means towards having some specific type of career, but to actually have a decent level of passion and enthusiasm about the idea of doing research in math, which is what doing a PhD is all about.

A person who lacks this level of passion and enthusiasm will most likely fail. Even many who do have it will not succeed. A math PhD is already a hard enough thing to do for those who find the idea of math research appealing, so that I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t find it appealing.

Basically, it’s a bad idea to think in terms of the number of hours per week. If you are thinking in those terms it strongly signals that you lack intrinsic motivation for doing what it takes to get a PhD. And without intrinsic motivation, your chances simply don’t look very good. Keep in mind that I don’t know you and what you’re capable of, but that’s at least the generic answer I would give for someone in your situation.

See also this answer with some related thoughts. And best of luck with your studies going forward.

1
18

I applaud your love of learning mathematics and your interest in teaching. That said, you will have to be both thoughtful and lucky to reach your career goal: teaching relatively advanced mathematics in a relatively stable job. Many of the other answers here point to the difficult job market now and in years to come.

You do need that PhD. If your advisor is sympathetic to your goals and you are good enough to do some research they may be able to help you choose a problem in your Goldilocks zone: one you're genuinely interested in answering, hard enough to be worth solving but not so hard that it's beyond your abilities.

I don't think you can succeed as long as you are counting and regretting the research hours. You really do have to care about the problem. Look for one in an area that does not call for lots of technical machinery before you can even state and understand open questions. If there's something touching the things you like to teach, go for that.

In your eventual job search consider secondary schools. You will find some advanced topics and some good students to mentor.

15

Your advisor is the best person to answer this, but it doesn't sound like you are headed for success. A PhD is normally all about research, though in the US (assumed), in the second year, there is a lot of coursework normally. Only after passing comprehensive exams does the research get serious and dominates your time (and maybe your life).

At the point you are, if the program is 6-7 years in total, you are probably ok, but eventually research will be closer to 20-30 hours per week for someone who is also also a TA.

Talk to your advisor about your progress and maybe look around at what your peers are doing as well.

However, research, by its nature, can't be predicted. Some projects take much more time (per week and overall) than others. It is because the unknown is unknown and you are trying to make it known. There are no guarantees.

And, if you hate research, you should reexamine your path. Even the coursework you are proud of now won't be terribly valuable as community college faculty. It is meant to prepare you for serious research (and for passing qualifiers).

3
  • I agree that I don't think they care about my course grades when hiring me but if I am looking to be a lecturer or community college instructor (not a community college professor) do they care about the quality of the thesis?
    – user152100
    Jan 8 at 22:51
  • Also the program is 5 years in total so I have 3 years of research after this year.
    – user152100
    Jan 8 at 22:58
  • 2
    @user152100: do they care about the quality of the thesis --- If they care at all, I suspect the general topic of the thesis would be much more relevant than the quality (e.g. other things equal, this would probably help more than this), especially since probably no one will likely to be able to judge the latter, and even if they were able to judge and the thesis was very high quality, red flags might be raised over why you are applying there. Jan 9 at 6:43
11

My two cents as someone who switched from pure math to applied math and actually found it interesting and motivating enough to complete my PhD:

It's not ideal that you don't have that passion obviously. But a change of scenery can help. I was always a pure math person and was trying to do PDE in my early years of PhD (things like Vlassov-Poisson-Boltzmann, proving existence etc) but found it very hard to stay motivated. I came clean to my advisor and we parted ways and I had decided that I would leave the program with a Master's. But a new hire at my university was said to be hiring her first PhD students and wants to do research in computational neuroscience, so I figured it would not hurt to meet her.

Now after two papers and two years, I am about to defend this May and have found it very interesting to do Machine Learning/Data Science stuff so I will get hired for that kind of role for a company. This is because the math/simulation part of the research involves a fair bit of Reinforcement Learning algorithms.

Our department is huge and I heard similar stories of students completing their math PhD's in applied/computational/inter-disciplinary area and do a lot of simulation/coding as opposed to the old-fashioned 8hrs a day pure math stuff. I also enjoy teaching and my research workload has never exceeded more than 20 hrs a week (on average about 15 - the math is really not that hard in this field). If I did more, then I probably would have published at premium journals and get a strong chance at a nice postdoc, but I am okay with that.

But all of this depends on your advisor and in my case she is the nicest and most supportive teacher I have ever had.

8

The "publish or perish" injunction reflects a professional reality in most of academia

Since different PhD candidates differ enormously in their skills and the quality of their work, there is no magic formula to convert hours of work to success or lack thereof. Your advisor and your broader supervisory panel should be able to give you feedback on whether you are on-track in your program. Normally, by this stage of your candidature you would have set some research milestones that progress towards completion of your dissertation. If your panel are doing their job well then you should not be substantially behind schedule without knowing about it, but it never hurts to ask if you're unsure. As to being kicked out for lack of progress, PhD programs have milestones and (at least) annual reviews where you are rated on your progress. Students who have not made sufficient progress to pass their review are generally given at least a semester to catch up, but there are mechanisms to remove them from the program if they are persistently behind and not making research progress. You should read the program rules at your institution to see the review system that is in place in your PhD program.

As to your broader career goal and strategy, there are a few aspects of this that are a bit naive and are perhaps cause for concern. Firstly, even for teaching-heavy positions, universities/colleges have generally adopted the view that research scholarship is an important marker of knowledge in a field, and they will prefer their students to be taught by scholars with a substantial research record. For this reason, many academics who focus on teaching undertake research relating to pedagogical aspects of their discipline, as a means to demonstrate high levels of knowledge in the field. (You will find that many acadmics who are heavily focused on teaching will publish papers in teaching journals.) Secondly, there are a number of scholars who believe that universities are entering a period of slow decline (see e.g., Reynolds 2012), which may portend a highly competitive market for academic positions in the future. As shown in the figure below, the rate of produced PhD graduates is substantially above the number of new academic positions, and the gap is getting larger over time. (This figure is only for science and engineering but other fields have been similar.)

As a result of these various norms and trends, academics who do not publish research generally have a hard time in academia, even in teaching-heavy positions. Moreover, this is only likely to intensify as more qualified PhD graduates compete for relatively fewer (or perhaps even absolutely fewer) academic positions. You say that you are okay with the low pay and job insecurity of teaching positions at a community college, but on present labour market trends this might become quite extreme.

New faculty position vs new PhDs in science and engineering (Figure 1, Shillebeeckx, Maricque and Lewis 2013)

enter image description here

2

Consider your backup plan

In addition to the other answers, assuming you succeed in getting the Ph.D. with minimal effort put in on the research (I have trouble seeing how this is possible), consider what might happen if you tried for a lecturer position but didn't get one, or you tried community college teaching and it didn't work out. Many people in this scenario would then look toward a job in industry, and here I'm afraid having a Ph.D. may hurt you significantly given your specific situation. It's my understanding that having a Ph.D. usually communicates to hiring managers that you're skilled at self-directed research (and of course implies then that you actually like it or at least don't hate it). So if you manage to get a Ph.D. without either of these being true, it may hurt your chances of getting a job in industry that matches your interests should your current plan of being a non-research lecturer or community college instructor not work out. Something to consider.

Are you sure you hate research?

Alternatively, are you sure you that really hate research? Is it possible that you simply haven't found the right research area or problem? Maybe a different area in math, or maybe something altogether different? One test that may be helpful in answering this question is this: are you happiest doing the same thing day in and day out and doing it well (year after year after year), or do you need variety, to learn and do something new every few months or years? Are you a naturally creative person or do you find it difficult? For example, if you like to cook, do you enjoy inventing your own recipes or do you enjoy cooking from established recipes without deviating from them? Basically I'm trying to get at whether you have a personality that is creative, likes to invent and discover, and that craves novelty, or one that seeks to excel at doing one thing and doing it well in a highly stable environment. If the former, I suggest that maybe you've either not truly given research a chance (or may not even have a full picture of what research is), or may not have found a topic you're passionate enough about yet that you want to help push the envelope in that area. If the latter (you crave stability over novelty), then research probably truly isn't for you and that's fine. It's important to learn what type of job best fits you. In this case my gut feeling is a Ph.D. is probably not going to work out, and even if it does it may cause you problems down the road.

1

Other answers gave some good advices on the matter. First, if you really don't like research then the psychological load will get intensified every day, to the point that it might become unbearable. So please be careful about what you really like and dislike before it gets too late.

The other point is, I think not liking research and being in academia are two paradoxical features. Maybe you haven't found your passion yet, and the courses you have dealt with so far weren't your taste. So at this point, the 2nd year of PhD, you should keep trying to find what you really like. There's still plenty of time for that IMO.

At the end, if you still think that research is not your thing, then maybe you could try some part-time teaching to, for example, high school students. That is a good starting point to check whether your passion and future is in teaching. I think having a PhD is not a necessity for teachers in most places of the world. And I doubt that teaching at high school is less fun than being a college tutor.

1
  • +100 for suggestion to try part time teaching. OP is taking a pretty big gamble right now. It's definitely worth seeing if what they're working for is even something they'll want.
    – bob
    Jan 11 at 16:37

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