23

I'm about to graduate with my BS and begin a PhD program in statistics. However, I have some doubts about my ability to succeed just because everyone says that a PhD is a grueling, long journey and that work ethic is more important than just being smart. I think my motives for doing the degree are fine -- I don't intend on trying to join academia and I want to do the degree because I find the field powerful and because I want access to the research roles in industry that are generally more interesting. I'm young, have no debt, and my program is fully-funded so I think that helps the opportunity cost aspect, although there is always what me and my friends joke about as the "opportunity cost of not becoming a software engineer."

However, throughout college and my education thus far, I feel like I have been extremely lazy. One of the reasons why I enjoyed studying math and statistics on a structural level in terms of college major was that the courses generally had two or three grades; midterm, final, and sometimes graded homework. So pretty much since my grade depended only on those things I would just study like one day in advance of each exam and forget about the course entirely in between. I don't think I've studied for a single exam more than a day in advance in my entire four years. Also, unless a class had mandatory attendance (nearly all of the math/stats classes did not) I would ditch it. I would rather just read out of the textbook myself and I can't listen to people teach math to me because the speed of my thoughts does not match the speed of how people talk. Overall, I think I have a realistic view of my abilities though. I'm not a genius or anything, just lazy, so I calculate exactly how lazy I can be and then I be that lazy. Of course, for something like qualifying exams I recognize I would not be able to do that and would take more time.

I also enjoy smoking weed, and I am a daily smoker. I feel like I have a different view than other people in this field traditionally: I'd rather just chill, hang out with my friends, and enjoy life. However, this is not to say that I have no interest in statistics. I have an enormous appreciation for the elegance of statistical theory and I've done a lot of interdisciplinary research using applications of statistics. I love doing research thus far and always felt motivated to work on projects etc. and in fact we have a paper accepted at a conference and my PI has found funding to pay me this summer to hopefully push out one or two more papers. I go out of my way to participate in research and for the last year I've been working in two different groups at once. I just really am quite lazy with school and I see the point of it but it is simply easier and more efficient for me to read out of the textbook, especially since this field is a mathematical one.

Based on my context, I had two questions:

(1) What happens to lazy statistics PhD students like me?

(2) So far in my undergraduate curriculum we have only been learning theories and concepts that have already been developed, and not developing anything new. Probability theory classes and real analysis were probably the most difficult parts, but it was not doing anything novel. The rest of the stats electives like sampling/experimental design/regression methods at the level of the courses taught were pretty much just trivial plug-and-chug type material. Since PhD students would be creating novel ideas in statistics (maybe like new methods is what stands out to me), how do they make this jump from "plug-and-chug" to doing this type of original work? How well-defined are research problems in statistics (in the sense that there are straightforward paths to approach well-known problems vs. the necessity of having some Einstein idea and needing that fundamental creativity to even generate a research question)? Of course this depends on subfield, but I am asking more generally.

Thank you!

14
  • 12
    Sounds like you've never been challenged.
    – SolveIt
    May 13 at 21:28
  • 22
    If you are not absolutely certain you should get a PhD, don't. "Can" is the wrong question. There are many things you can do that you shouldn't. May 14 at 0:50
  • 5
    "What happens to lazy statistics PhD students like me?" A more relevant question would be what happens drug addicts like you. You probably don't think of yourself that way, but the description you give sounds like an addict to me. Frankly I would not accept you to a PhD if I knew you daily used drugs - there's a good chance you'd drop out, wasting an opportunity others would give their eye-teeth for. Drug use would also block you from many career paths even with a PhD, so I'd strongly advise you to break from drug use. Now is the time to kick something out of your life that can ruin it. May 14 at 10:16
  • 16
    @StephenG-HelpUkraine I don't think we can be sure OP is unable to function without smoking. Besides, a lot of academics would, at least initially, produce less if forced to quit caffeine. Also, it may not even be illegal where OP is from. May 14 at 11:20
  • 14
    Shouldn't this be "What percentage of lazy statistics students pass their PhD?"
    – Valorum
    May 14 at 11:34

7 Answers 7

43

While I would certainly counsel against some aspects of how you are undertaking your educational journey (especially the daily weed smoking), I don't see any inherent reason that you cannot continue to succeed educationally with your present approach. If you have sufficient intelligence/aptitude for this field to obtain a funded PhD admission while being "lazy" and indulging in habitual marijuana use, then I see no reasons that the step up to a PhD program would necessarily require substantially more time devoted to study. Admission to a funded PhD place already usually requires a high-level honours degree in the same or a related field, which provides substantial evidence of your ability to be educationally successful while exercising your current habits.

In respect to being "lazy", what you describe might just mean that you find the material you are learning manageable with only a small amount of study (it is evidently relatively easy for you) and you have other interests you would prefer to pursue in your other time. When I was a student I also spent very little time on study relative to other pursuits, and I ended up with a PhD in statistics. If it is a field you find interesting (tick) and you have the intelligence/aptitude for it (tick) and you have a history of academic success in previous degree programs (tick) then you meet all the major indicators for continuing success. Subject to some checks on your previous work and education history, I would be happy to supervise a student like yourself, so long as your interest in the subject manifests in curiosity, perseverance and grit in solving problems in the field. Research problems range in the level of originality they require, though some insight and creativity is a usual prerequisite to do interesting work. It is also necessary to be interested enough in the field that you are willing to read widely and play with problems, without expecting new research to come out of everything you investigate. If your "laziness" were to crowd that out, it would be a problem, but I see no indication from your post that this would necessarily occur.

Don't kill the goose laying the golden eggs: Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out that much of your present success probably hinges on high intelligence and aptitude for technical analysis, which you are presently destroying with habitual pot-smoking. Regular long-term marijuana use is notorious for its adverse effects on cognitive ability, including adverse effects on the ability to plan, organise, solve problems, make decisions, remember, and control emotions.^ This is not something that older adults just made up because we are old fuddy-duddies --- it is a frequently replicated finding of medical studies, and something that most older people have directly observed amongst at least some of the promising younger people they grew up with. I strongly recommend you try to supplant this habit with a coffee addiction, or some other type of recreational activity that will not damage your highly-functioning brain.


^ Much of the literature on this topic involves statistical inference based on uncontrolled observation, rather than randomised controlled-trials, so causal inference comes with some caveats. Also, there is substantial variation in sample sizes (with some studies using small samples) and there is variation in the findings for different elements of cognitive decline. Nevertheless, the statistical associations derived from these cases tend to be unidirectional (showing types of cognitive decline from marijuana use) and remain after removal of relevant confounding factors, which is consistent with a causal effect. There are also some mixed results about whether this decline is reversible with a long period of abstinence. For a sample of the literature on this matter, see e.g., Block and Ghoneim (1993), Pope Jr and Yurgelun-Todd (1996), c.f., Hart et al (2001), Hart et al (2010), Crean, Crane and Mason (2012), Lisdahl and Price (2012), Winward et al (2014), Auer, Vittinghoff and Yaffe (2016) and Dahlgren et al (2016).

5
  • 16
    I second the warning about weed. Long ago, I knew a doctoral student (in math) who frequently smoked weed. He was convinced that it made him more creative, but actually it just made him more confused. May 13 at 23:43
  • 6
    @AndreasBlass, reminds me of an English teacher I had in high school. He told us once about how he used to use drugs in his younger days and would write poetry while high, thinking it was the most insightful, creative, mind-blowing stuff anyone had ever written. Then he would go back and read it after sobering up and realize it was all crap.
    – Seth R
    May 14 at 17:16
  • @SethR I saw the same claims and result with a Youtuber who started smoking weed.
    – DKNguyen
    May 15 at 2:48
  • 1
    I appreciate the research and don't reject your analysis, but it is worth mentioning that some of your sources are a little old. Neuroscience has changed a lot over the past 20 years, especially with regards to controlled substance effects. Still +1 though
    – Drake P
    May 15 at 19:55
  • 1
    Fair enough --- I don't keep up with the field enough to be a specialist, so happy to hear other views of the matter. In any case, it is notable that most of the evidentiary material in the papers is longitudinal/non-longitudinal data and corresponding statistical inference, which is robust to changes in neuroscientific theories.
    – Ben
    May 15 at 21:34
13

There is a danger for you, but it isn't necessarily a blocking one.

The first question you want to ask yourself is how excited and driven you are to study and work in your field. The second question is what if it becomes necessary, quite suddenly perhaps, to not be lazy anymore and work hard. Will the excitement still be enough to enable you to power through. If so, then you can teach yourself the work skills needed to succeed.

Some people come to their "natural" level of ability fairly early. Up to then, learning was easy and the material seemed easy to grasp and master. But after that point it takes them work to learn. Lots of repetition, note taking, review, etc. Some people come later to that point. I learned fairly early on that I had to work to learn math. But I was so driven to it that I had no options but to power through. My sister hit her mark much later, but it actually stopped her progress, though she had other interests by then.

It is probably unlikely that you will complete a doctorate before you find the limit and will most likely need to get rapidly and seriously un-lazy. But knowing that such an event horizon might exist for you can have you prepared. Having good people around you in a doctoral program can help also, since you have a source to get your questions asked.

Let me give you two data points. The first is the movie Good Will Hunting in which Matt Damon plays a young person who finds very advanced math almost trivial. But he doesn't really have the heart for what it takes and doesn't develop his skill.

The other point is the book The Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull. Among other things, it describes how we learn, by rewiring the brain itself physically. This is normally accomplished slowly through repetition, rather than be seeing something once (which only affects short term memory). Deeper learning requires building structures of neurons (etc) that hold long term memory - deep learning.

So, being lazy but still successful may work, but probably not forever. Again, the deeper question is how driven you are.

4

I'm not attempting to give an exhaustive answer and for sure there are some valuable points made in other answers.

I'd like to add the following things. The question "Can a lazy person complete a Statistics PhD?" seems to imply that laziness is some kind of unchangeable characteristic of a person. It isn't. In fact you are responsible for what you do, and what you don't do. There isn't any general answer to this question because there isn't a well defined group of "lazy persons". The very simple answer is you've got to do enough and you've got to find out how much "enough" is for the specific topic that you have, in the specific place, with the specific examiners. If that means (which it doesn't necessarily do) that you've got to get out of your lazy ways, so be it. That's for you to find out and for you to decide. Any general statement on whether lazy people generally can do it is meaningless for you as a person.

Question (2) is a good one though. In fact, in many undergraduate or MSc programmes there are projects in which the students go beyond what you call "plug-and-chug" and I suspect that if your programme is 100% of this kind, it is not very good. In fact my experience suggests that how students do in a research project (which of course at undergraduate level is somewhat easier and clearer defined than at PhD level) is a much better predictor for PhD success than how they do in courses of the type you mention. If you don't do anything beyond that and have no clue whether you're good at exploring things yourself in a more autonomous way, thesis writing and the like, you are indeed not in a very good position to know whether that's for you. You may try to find out whether there's an opportunity for a research internship somewhere. If you can choose to do a project in your undergraduate/MSc programme, by all means do that if you want to find out more. (Obviously this may conflict with the "laziness" you ascribe to yourself, but no reasonable answer here should take anything away from the fact that this is not a given characteristic but your own responsibility.)

Furthermore, PhD projects come in fairly different shapes. Particularly you may have very different levels of supervision. There are supervisors who largely leave their students on their own and even think it's the student's responsibility to define their own topic, and then there are supervisors who give a student a fairly well defined topic and make much more effort to push the student in what they think is the "right direction". There are pros and cons of both approaches, but in any case it will very likely be very very different from how statistics apparently has felt to you up to now. As somebody who has supervised a good number of PhD students (in Statistics!), I know that there are methods to put many different kinds of students on a track to ultimately achieve their PhD, however the process involves in many cases phases of uncertainty and confusion on the side of the student, and for sure at the end they will have done something based on their own initiative and judgement, and will have done an amount of work in that often is more than they would have expected in advance.

People who fail or give up do exist, so don't take anything for granted. I rather recommend the attitude that it is up to your responsibility, your work, and your ability to adapt whether you will succeed.

1
  • Yes, I agree. People who are lazy in their undergraduate time often become hardworking later, when they need to.
    – Oliver882
    May 15 at 8:38
3

This answer is more anecdotical than the other ones, but might still be useful.

I'm a very lazy person and I completed my PhD in theoretical physics/computation without any issues. My supervisor was a non-lazy person and so were the other students, but they all seemed to think my work was good (and I've published some peer-reviewed articles if that's worth anything). I'm a very quick learner and efficient worker, so I rarely had to put in more than 10 hours a week. So it's definitely possible to do a PhD and not "hit your limit", depending on how instinctive the field you study is for your brain.

However, I had a hard time finding a good job in academia (maybe if I'd worked more and published more it would have been different, but most of my smart, hard-working friends who completed their PhD's have encountered the same problem...), so I went back to school and did a medical degree, also without needing to study or even attend classes very much. At this point, I'm working in hospitals and I find I'm sometimes at a disadvantage compared to people who are used to hard work and have acquired more endurance for it... But, like everything else, it improves with practice ;)

I can only chip in with the others and recommend being careful with marijuana. I'm working in a psychiatric hospital these days and I've seen plenty of people with drug-induced (or exacerbated) psychosis, many of which don't recover fully.

1
  • @AppliedAcademic Don't know what to tell you. My lab is one of the top ones in it's domain, supervisor world renowned. I fulfilled all requirements, published, aced my pre-doctoral exam and thesis defense. You would have failed me just because I didn't put in lots of hours?
    – Alexbib
    May 17 at 1:39
3

I found this question interesting; so much so that I actually created a StackExchange account so that I could write an answer. Normally I find it more efficient to simply use the information from other people's questions, and this could be a bit like the laziness you mention :)

As somebody who holds a PhD in a related field and shares certain characteristics that you describe I think my experience could be useful to you.

But first to give some background: In my first try at University (at about your age) I started off pretty much like you describe... do fun things all semester and smoke weed and such, then catch up before the exam... no worries... but didn't get great marks, failed some subjects due to required work not handed in during the semester... then tried to repeat the same trick at 2nd year level and found I was simply too far behind to be able to catch up quickly :( I ended up at 3rd year level with a hodge podge of subjects from different levels and eventually dropped out to become a software developer, so I guess I didn't pay that opportunity cost :)

When I eventually went back to University as a mature age student I was determined to attend all the classes and hand in all required work and did so, but I still got a bit of a rude shock when my "revision" for Mathematics A involved mostly reading through the lecture notes, and I found in the exam that without having practiced all the techniques I could not do it... still passed of course, but after that my revision consisted of mainly doing all the practice problems and practice exams I had available. And this enabled me to get good marks from then on.

Based on my experience, I'm honestly surprised that you're at the point of finishing your statistics degree and can still get by with just brushing up before the exam. I don't consider myself genius material (my talent is mainly in writing code) but I am certainly interested in mathematics and motivated and reasonably good at it. Either you're much more talented in mathematics or the material isn't like I'm used to (I did more pure maths).

I also have something in common with you where I have an enormous appreciation of the elegance and so on, and I got the PhD for similar reasons to what you describe -- I was never that interested in an academic career, although I've flirted with it at different times and have worked for the University in various capacities for short stints before returning to industry... I guess the other main reason I got the PhD was simply to prove to myself and others that I could do it. However, I should say that the opportunity cost of the degree was extremely high (took me 6 years and if you include the undergraduate degree that I did as a mature age student, I was out of the workforce for 10 whole years -- it's an enormous loss in economic terms even though my PhD was also fully funded).

Now with that background out of the way I shall talk a bit about the process of doing the PhD. Basically, you need to put all romantic notions aside and figure out how to work the system to your advantage. The entire goal of your sciencey PhD is to get about 4 high quality papers published and each of these is a chapter for your thesis. You'll have another 1-2 chapters of warm up and another chapter of cool down material (future directions etc).

So if you do not want to be there for 6 years as I was, you need to forget about contributing any really novel ideas and do something kind of incremental... as my first project, that eventually (after many twists and turns) became my first chapter... my supervisor suggested that I simply recreate someone's experiment so as to verify their findings, and report anything else interesting. This is a good approach to start with. And really the rest of your work has to follow the same pattern: Take something that already works and make it slightly better. Keep in mind you can do something really original AFTER your graduate, unless like me you ended up in a postdoc position where the supervisor didn't like new ideas :( I suppose my point is that research really isn't glamorous :( It's mainly about justifying to the sponsor you did something :( And getting it past the censorsXXXreviewers.

So, the question is really whether you can knuckle down, play the system and get the letters after your name. And to be honest from reading what you've written I am not 100% sure that you are ready. I think you're doing a lot better than I was in my first try (before I crashed and burned), but you might just crash and burn later than me. Or possibly you really are a genius and can continue your current way of working into your PhD. You can decide.

Now I also have to make the obligatory noises about the marijuana. Although in this case I'm not actually just repeating the research but I'm speaking from personal experience, as one who smoked weed every day from about age 18 to 30... I can definitely attest that it hurts motivation and although I'm not sure if my brain has been permanently damaged by the marijuana (my whole body has been permanently damaged by being alive for 46 years so it is really hard to judge)... I do feel that my brain took a lengthy period to rebuild itself and reach a more peak condition, and I never want to go back to the weed.

I used to have lengthy sessions where I would smoke weed and write computer code, and although it felt at the time like the weed was absolutely essential to the process and that the code was highly creative, looking back I think I was probably fooling myself to some extent. The words "pipe dream" exist to describe this situation literally -- I would come up with extremely complex algorithms and very detailed approaches while smoking many joints or pipes and staring into space building a complex mental model of what I was planning to do... but how much of the mental model actually transferred to code is a question. I think as a programmer I'm much more productive now than I was then, of course I'm more experienced but I'm also weed-free, something I didn't think was possible then.

So my suggestion would be to give up the weed and then re-evaluate. Giving up the weed was a process that took me many years but each time I quit for longer. So you have to be really persistent. I also suggest that many times you think you need a joint your body may actually just be wanting the nicotine that you smoke WITH the weed. I found the only effective way for me to quit was to stop cigarettes, weed AND alcohol (since I'd often end up smoking again after a big drinking session wound down and inhibitions were lowered)... the alcohol can be added back later but only when the quitting has really stuck.

Feel free to PM me if you want to bounce anything off me on the topic. Also, you might find this book interesting: https://www.amazon.com/Curse-High-Iq-Aaron-Clarey/dp/1522813756

0
1

I have always been hardworking (probably not that bright), even with simple things. I did plenty of exercises on a given topic to never be surprised by a test. Ended up with a PhD and left academia.

My son is completely different: he is brilliant and does everything with ease - but just enough to get top marks.

When I look at his way of working, it seems that he has unlimited capacities, but just stops when he has what he needs (again, top marks). When something is harder, he does more work. When something is really hard, he does a lot of work.

This is to say that you may have never faced something that really pushed you into (and outside) your boundaries, where you had to do a herculean effort to understand what you were doing.

When you get to this, pay close attention at your reaction. Is it "fuck, this is too complicated, I give up", or "fuck, I will not rest until I understand this shit" (the wording is what I was thinking, verbatim but in French).

Your answer will show whether you have the capacities to do a PhD.

0

I am currently a PhD student at a top Uni (global top 10) and I can tell you firsthand, right now after several years in academia and industry, there is no place for laziness or drug-taking. If you are lazy, then consider other options in fields better suited to your personality. Having aptitude and laziness is one thing, but a PhD is a job, like any other, which requires a routine and daily persistence and task workflow. Even if you manage a PhD, which is a longshot in my opinion, don't mind the bluntness, your employer will sack you for laziness anyway.

You should not jump into the frying pan, consider a Masters, see how you get on, and then revisit this, if you still want to read a PhD. Try and see if you if can manage a place at a top Uni (global top 10) to ascertain your apitude.

I have known a few very smart people who got kicked out to their PhD program an dUni altogether in their first year for lack of preparation and laziness.

Harsh words, but it's the truth.

1
  • In my experience, laziness is much less of a barrier to completing a PhD than surviving or doing well in industry. I also did my PhD at a global top 10 university and there was a small number of exceptionally talented students that could get away with working much less than I did. Furthermore, virtually no one failed to complete their PhD - and the few that did all made that choice themselves (it was not imposed by the university). I have no argument about the pot smoking though - I have personally witnessed numerous tragedies over the years (including two close friends).
    – Harry
    May 14 at 19:14

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .