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Lately I've been wondering if I should drop out of a PhD program (in economics).

After graduating with a bachelor's degree, I desperately wanted to know more about the field, and I enrolled in a PhD program. I passed qualifying exams without any problems, and it's time to do research.

The problem is, as I am beginning to realize, I am not at all sure if I want to do research. I believe what I really like is learning new things and applying that knowledge in e.g. conversations, real world problems, etc. I'm generally very happy and excited when I finish reading a paper, a book chapter, or solve a mathematical problem.

But the fun stops there. I have no interest in thinking up my own problems because the way I see it, there are already so many papers or books I haven't read, that I'd much rather spend my time studying the material than going really deep in one particular subject and focusing on it for the next few years (and probably even longer if staying in academia after graduating).

Is this a common way to think at this stage? I've talked about this to a friend in the same program, and he doesn't seem to understand. He is the very opposite of me: he did quite poorly in the exams, but seems to have quite a few ideas (of which most are flat out bad and have been shot down by his supervisor). Whereas I haven't even presented any ideas yet because I don't have any good ones, and would rather study more.

I've realized that perhaps I am just an information sponge, and not a researcher? Can anyone relate to that? I feel like I want to know a little (well, a lot actually) about everything, and not everything about a very specific topic.

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Instead of thinking about research as 'thinking up my own problems' - is there something that you read that your immediate reaction was 'that seems weird, I wonder why that it is?' and then not been able to find the answer? While it is true that research is about finding problems that other people haven't investigated yet, it is more true that research is about finding answers to those problems.

Reading widely is a good thing as it exposes you to different approaches and different potential sources of the question that sparks your interest. However, you are probably getting to the point that you should be focussing on a specific problem (since you have passed exams you must be some way through). I don't know what your program allows, but you might consider an interdisciplinary area where the balance between breadth and depth is different.

  • "is there something that you read that your immediate reaction was 'that seems weird, I wonder why that it is?'" - Yes, quite often, but it almost as quickly results in me thinking "...but that is not important, it's a minor detail". I realize that most scientific research IS about focusing on the details and advancement is often very slow and gradual. But I would much rather use that time (e.g. 2-3 years) studying an entire field rather than seek to solve a series of (seemingly) meaningless problems in a very specific area. – tka26 Dec 29 '15 at 16:33
  • To clarify, I guess I am fundamentally thinking about it this way: Person A delves deep into a research question, struggles with it for a few years and emerges with a solution and a few research papers that in the end do not make an impact in the field. Person B abandons research and studies the same few years intensively, becoming an expert in topics x, y, and z. Who is more likely to be more valuable/impactful/ successful in the society? I think Person B, but I guess this is not how a true researcher would see it? – tka26 Dec 29 '15 at 16:38
  • @tka26 In that example Person A did not achieve what they probably aimed to do (and then died?), while Person B might find x, y, z isn't value by society as much as they thought. It's easier and more efficient to learn new things than it is to create new knowledge, just as it's easier to travel an existing road (and you'll go faster and farther) than it is to build a new one. The world needs both kinds of people. Sometimes the roads wash out and sometimes there are pile-ups on the highway, and sometimes the new road means the old experts aren't so useful anymore. No easy answer. – BrianH Dec 29 '15 at 18:06
  • Somebody has to come up with those techniques that you want to become an expert in. That person had a problem that they needed to solve and created those techniques to solve the problem. That's what research is about. I personally did my PhD later in life because that's when I discovered a problem that interested me. When I wanted to learn things, I did coursework degrees. – JenB Dec 30 '15 at 10:24
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Wanting to understand things deeply should be the main reason for getting a PhD, so I think you're okay there as long as you're okay with the deeply part. Now just realize that's what research is, and when you understand things deeply, you often discover something new.

You of course won't know if (novel) research is really for you or not until you try it out, but I don't see any warning signs. One of my friends (who is considered a major leader in his mathematical field) had thought that there is so much beautiful math out there that, if we didn't have to do research for our career, we might spend all of our time just learning different old math and not creating new math. (I think this is a bit of an exaggeration, as we would naturally create new math when understanding old math, but it illustrates the continual desire to learn new things as an academic.)

Also, there is a wide range in the research vs learning spectrum in academia. Many professors just work in a very focused area all their life, and others spend all their time teaching and learning and writing very few papers. But I think as a whole, PhDs love learning for the sake of learning.

  • Are there professors who actually focus on teaching? I thought they were generally called lecturers? – tka26 Dec 29 '15 at 16:47
  • @tka26 Most professors spend at least 1/3 of their time teaching, but depending on the university/department/individual, their main focus might be teaching (e.g., at many liberal arts colleges). – Kimball Dec 29 '15 at 17:14

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