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I've been in the PhD program for a couple years now and I feel like people have a lot of expectations about the way I should think and feel about things. Not just my technical competence, but also my motivations and personality. I am wondering if my motivations disqualify me from being a good PhD student.

  1. People expect me to have a specific research area I'm very interested in. I would be fine working in any area and I'm not particularly passionate about any specific field. They also expected me to know who I wanted to work with before I applied to the school (or even choose the school based on the advisor), and I only started thinking about that during visit weekend, when professors pitched their research to the students.

  2. I chose which schools to apply to based on the US News rankings, and I went to grad school because it was more prestigious than the jobs I would be capable of getting. It seems like nobody in grad school does this, even though I feel like for most people it is natural to go with the most prestigious option.

  3. People expect me to go to talks and read papers for fun. I don't understand how most people could possibly find talks fun. Honestly I would rather watch a movie or play tennis. I also find papers boring and difficult to read, unless they are in very soft subjects with no math.

  4. When people come to my school to give talks, people invite us to meet with the speaker one on one. I have no idea what students would talk to the speaker about or why they would want to sign up to talk to a stranger. I guess they could collaborate with the speaker on research, but I would expect the professors to set up these kinds of collaborations instead of the students. (It would seem weird to finagle my own collaborations because the advisor might not want to collaborate with those people.)

  5. I have seen professors leave my university and expect their students to go with them. I think if my advisor left my university, I wouldn't want to leave, because I have good friends here and I am dating someone. It seems weird to be expected to uproot your life and move across the country just because your boss is leaving.

  6. I follow my advisor's instructions on things and once in a while he says that I need to be more independent. But if I did that I would be going against what my advisor tells me to do, and I think it's weird that my advisor tells me to do things and then tells me not to do what he tells me to do. He said he expects me to "push back" and I find that kind of intimidating, because he is a professor after all.

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    None of these are really personality issues per se. More like an issue of inexperience and misinformation. – Drecate Apr 25 '16 at 1:29
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    From all these it seems to me that 3 is especially something you should take into account. There will be some cultural difference in expectation here but at my uni you are not only expected but also required to read up on current research to stay on top of your game. To be fair, if that was your attitudes towards talks and reading papers (how did you ever write a thesis?!) it is unlikely you'd ever get selected for a PhD position where I am from. – Bram Vanroy Apr 25 '16 at 5:23
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    I pretty much agree with point 5, and I think many others do as well; I would rather change advisors than follow an advisor to another place unless that place is particularly good. But the other points are indeed red flags (2 and 4 in particular), and suggest that you don't particularly care about research, and regard it as a dayjob that earns you money and prestige. This isn't the kind of attitude academia is made for. Some people survive with this attitude either by being really smart or really good at faculty politics, but if you aren't one of them you're wasting your time. That, or ... – darij grinberg Apr 25 '16 at 15:30
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    ... you have not seen enough of research to find any of it interesting. This may very well have happened, although it doesn't speak well of your university and your advisor. EDIT: Or of the place where you were an undergrad; it might have left you badly unprepared. – darij grinberg Apr 25 '16 at 15:31
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    Do you know why you want a PhD? – Manuel Lafond Apr 27 '16 at 2:29

10 Answers 10

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It seems to me that many of these points could hit on very superficial differences — e.g., use of different words to describe essentially the same thing, or emphasis of one type of feeling over another, although most people have both. On the other hand, taken together these could be signs that you are not interested in a long term (i.e., post-PhD) academic career. Or not: that's up to you to figure out. Let me quickly address your points:

1) People expect me to have a specific research area I'm very interested in. I would be fine working in any area and I'm not particularly passionate about any specific field."

The negative way to spin that is that you're not passionate about anything. The positive way is that you're interested in everything and willing to be versatile. I am a tenured academic, and construing the above sentences in the positive way as I did applies pretty well to me. Why are modular forms or Shimura varieties more interesting than Galois cohomology or geometry of numbers? Answer: they're not, and I think it's slightly weird that most of my colleagues work exclusively in just one or two of these areas.

They also expected me to know who I wanted to work with before I applied to the school (or even choose the school based on the advisor), and I only started thinking about that during visit weekend, when professors pitched their research to the students.

You didn't mention your academic field. In mine (mathematics), most American PhD students don't give any serious thought to their research area until their second year. So… clearly not a fundamental tenet of "PhD personalities".

2) I chose which schools to apply to based on the US News rankings...

So? I see no issue here whatsoever.

3) People expect me to go to talks and read papers for fun. I don't understand how most people could possibly find talks fun. Honestly I would rather watch a movie or play tennis.

This seems like a conflation of what "fun" means. There is professional fun and leisure fun. You watch movies in the evenings and on weekends, and (except for weekend conferences, which I freely admit are not necessarily the events that I look forward to with bated breath) you attend talks during normal business hours. On the other hand if you never read papers except when specifically asked / required to do so, that could be a problem.

I also find papers boring and difficult to read, unless they are in very soft subjects with no math.

You didn't say what field you are in. (If it's math, this is concerning!) It is also worth pointing out that reading papers is really hard for most graduate students for the first 1–5 years or so.

4) When people come to my school to give talks, people invite us to meet with the speaker one on one. I have no idea what students would talk to the speaker about or why they would want to sign up to talk to a stranger.

I felt exactly the same way as a graduate student. Why would a famous mathematician want to meet a 24 year-old who is not yet fully fluent in the language the mathematician has been speaking for the last 20–40 years? I found it very strange that some of my classmates saw no awkwardness there. Now as a thesis advisor I wish my students interacted more with visiting mathematicians…

Somewhere between being a grad student and advising them I began to view myself as a professional. I now know that most academic jobs are offered based on some prior knowledge of or interaction with the candidate, so having visiting luminaries be able to connect a name to a face and view you as someone who is actively participating in the profession is very valuable. Getting students to understand, believe in and take part in their own professional development is one of my major goals these days (I've just accepted the job of departmental graduate coordinator)

5) I have seen professors leave my university and expect their students to go with them. I think if my advisor left my university, I wouldn't want to leave, because I have good friends here and I am dating someone.

Here I think you are probably suffering from "small sample size" issues. The majority of graduate students do not leave when their advisor leaves. It's nice for the advisor to offer the option, but it is not practical in many cases… for the reasons you say. On the other hand, if the idea of being uprooted seems sufficiently bad to you, then the academic lifestyle may prove unappealing, because the "uprooting" is probably going to happen several times before (if!) you land a tenure-track job.

6) I follow my advisor's instructions on things and once in a while he says that I need to be more independent. But if I did that I would be going against what my advisor tells me to do, and I think it's weird that my advisor tells me to do things and then tells me not to do what he tells me to do.

I think you are not properly understanding what your advisor wants. You make it sound like he wants you to sometimes stand up and refuse to do what he asks. That's insubordination / contrariness. Independence means that you do what your advisor asks and you do other things on top of it that you thought of yourself.

In summary: I see nothing definitive here. I could try to read the tea leaves but… it doesn't matter what you or I think right now. Unless you are miserable and/or failing out of the program, you should continue on in the PhD program, both doing your best work and doing your best to be happy about it. As you proceed, keep an eye out for both things. As you near graduation, you will have a better idea of where to proceed from there. You don't need to "figure out your personality" as a second year student, and I don't see much of anything positive coming from it. Definitely resist the idea that you must have a similar personality and/or similar practices to those around you in order to be successful. Even — especially — in academia, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

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    +1, This is overall a great answer, but can you expand on why you said Now as a thesis advisor I wish my students interacted more with visiting mathematicians...? – March Ho Apr 25 '16 at 9:29
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    @March Ho: Somewhere between being a grad student and advising them I began to view myself as a professional. I now know that most academic jobs are offered based on some prior knowledge of or interaction with the candidate, so having visiting luminaries be able to connect a name to a face and view you as someone who is actively participating in the profession is very valuable. Getting students to understand, believe in and take part in their own professional development is one of my major goals these days (I've just accepted the job of departmental graduate coordinator). – Pete L. Clark Apr 25 '16 at 12:02
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    Reading papers is still hard for professors. We're just used to it now. – Kimball Apr 25 '16 at 13:03
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    @Calchas: What I meant by my (somewhat brief) remarks here was that there is no inherent merit in a student simply refusing to do what their advisor asks (which is what the OP seemed to think). The merit rather lies in coming up with one's own ideas. When it comes down to "doing what your advisor asks", this must mean very different things in different fields and for different advisors: in some fields, the advisor is hiring the student to do a certain amount of work for them and refusing to do it really would be insubordinate... – Pete L. Clark Apr 27 '16 at 11:49
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    ...This is not at all the case in my field. For me, "doing what your advisor asks" means trying to work on / think about something. If I suggest that a student read a particular paper, and if for some reason they simply refuse to look at it, ever, then that sounds like contrariness, and is not particularly helpful. Moreover, in my field, what the student gets asked to do in any one meeting is a function of what the student and the advisor talk about together at the meeting. So a student who refuses to do something is being contrary to themselves as well as their advisor. – Pete L. Clark Apr 27 '16 at 11:56
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Pete's answer is, as usual, great. I just want to elaborate on this issue:

  1. People expect me to go to talks and read papers for fun. I don't understand how most people could possibly find talks fun. Honestly I would rather watch a movie or play tennis. I also find papers boring and difficult to read, unless they are in very soft subjects with no math.

This was the main comment that worried me, but as Pete says, the discrepancy between what you say and what I expect may be partly a matter of word choice. But I think a better question might be:

  • Do you enjoy learning about and discussing your subject?

If your answer to this no, then this is a big red flag. Otherwise, yes, there are different interpretations of fun, and here is a probable reason for your lack of enjoyment of talks/papers:

What should make these enjoyable is that you understand (at least parts of) them and learn something. Depending on the talk or paper, it takes a certain level of sophistication to appreciate it. You wouldn't expect a 4rd grader to enjoy reading Anna Karenina even if they know most of the words, or (normally) expect a toddler to appreciate the taste of a good beer. Learning how to read in grade school isn't necessarily enjoyable, but being able to read and reading books at your level can be very enjoyable. It does take a lot of effort to get yourself to a level where you can enjoy research talks and papers, and even then, some talk and papers are just unenjoyable. As with most pursuits, there will be more pleasant and less pleasant parts, and what to do is a question of your overall experience.

Edit: By the way, Ravi Vakil has nice suggestions on getting things out of (math) talks as a grad student here and here. Check it out.

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    There was a Nobel Prize winner who came to my university just a while ago to give a talk on quantum computing (which I understand on a basic level). He was incredibly difficult to comprehend because of his presentational skills, and took an hour to elaborate on something I explained to a coworker of mine in 2 minutes. I can understand why some people don't like conferences and such - some brilliant minds make their brilliant material very difficult to understand and worse, boring for listeners. These experiences, I believe, are crucial to one's interest in conferences and academia generally. – Chris Cirefice Apr 27 '16 at 21:49
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I will disagree with many of the other answers: a great many of the attitudes you express strike me as red flags. If you were my student, I would be quite concerned that you do not understand what it means to be successful in graduate school, or what it requires.

(You say you are a "couple" years into your PhD, but it's not clear what that means. And it makes a big difference, because independence and motivation are among the most important things students learn in their first years in grad school. If you are a first-year student: no problem, most first-years haven't learned how to work independently or motivate themselves yet. But if a fourth-year hasn't learned these skills yet, I'd be extremely concerned.)

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    "couple" usually means 2, as in e.g. "a married couple", but sometimes... – LLlAMnYP Apr 25 '16 at 15:14
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    @ruakh Language tends to evolve, even if out of ignorance. The population that never learned that couple = 2 seems to be growing and making it a reality. Also, possibly, difference between British and American English. – LLlAMnYP Apr 25 '16 at 20:45
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    Independence of thought and personal motivation, to me, is something that should have been learnt before embarking on an undergraduate degree course, never mind a PhD... Working at PhD level is tough enough without having to learn the basics. – PeteCon Apr 26 '16 at 2:27
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    "Couple" as "informal: indefinite small number" is seen in the OED. Discussion at StackExchange: English Language Learners: ell.stackexchange.com/questions/1427/… – Daniel R. Collins Apr 26 '16 at 2:37
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    I also see red flags. I was a PhD candidate with most of the same issues. It sounds like the OP needs to do some soul searching on WHY he is in his program. Getting a PhD is specializing in a very specific area and devoting some years that he could be making a good deal more than a grad student earns (and learning vocationally). Getting a PhD because you don't like your alternatives and also not being excited about the area of study sounds like the OP is not focused and moving toward a goal, so much as not wanting to face the working world. – BenL Apr 27 '16 at 19:39
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Every grad student must face his/her demons eventually, and I think the process has started in your case. One thing that stands out in your questions is "am I what 'people' expect of a regular grad student?" That is, the sum total of your questions is an attempt to evaluate whether or not you fit the mould. I suspect you are going to come across only unsatisfactory answers, since you already know that your expectations and personality are different. But I won't jump at the conclusion that you are an unsuitable grad student.

Try to think about what you want from this program. You say you chose this program as an alternative to jobs, hoping to find better jobs upon completion. But pursuing a PhD is unlike any 9-to-5 job. It is unlike any thing you might have experienced in your internships. Make no mistake, successfully completing a PhD program does require dedication, hard work, and mastery over at least one (sub-sub-sub-...) topic. You can't conjure dedication and hard work out of thin air. That requires motivation.

In an academic sense, you have been having fun so far... In two years, you haven't figured out a direction -- not necessarily an exact problem -- for your research. Time to reflect whether a PhD is really necessary for your goal of finding a better job, or whether you can do it already with the help of umpteen MOOCs available (almost) for free on the internet. Set a timeline for your decision. You will not be able to escape hard work anywhere; if you choose to stay, then buckle up.

If you think that nearly every topic is as interesting as the other, then pick a one that builds on your current strengths. Let's say you have already done work in topic X (read your CV to find possible candidates X). Ask your supervisor to steer you toward suitable problems in X. Supervisors are helpful in setting meaningful and achievable goals. But take it upon yourself to dive into it. Your prior background will take care of boredom and incomprehension. Read, experiment, discuss, refine, repeat. In a couple of iterations, you will not only have a problem statement, but something that you will very likely be passionate about.

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A few thoughts...

People expect me to have a specific research area I'm very interested in. I would be fine working in any area and I'm not particularly passionate about any specific field.

Maybe you're passionate about learning, or research, rather than the particular subject. But when you get deeply involved in a project, and start contributing your own ideas, you may become passionate about that project.

People expect me to go to talks and read papers for fun.

A few talks and papers are fun, but most aren't. And even the ones that are entertaining require some work on my part to understand them. I don't read papers or attend talks expecting to have fun, I do so in the hope that I might learn something useful or get some good ideas.

Now, if I find something interesting in a paper, I might excitedly describe it to someone else. That might give the other person the impression that I found the paper fun and easy to read. But chances are I slogged my way through it until I got the point.

I have seen professors leave my university and expect their students to go with them.

That's your choice. Following your advisor to a new university is not a given.

I follow my advisor's instructions on things and once in a while he says that I need to be more independent.

It's difficult for a lot of students to make the transition from seeing a teacher as the all-knowing font of wisdom, to an advisor, and eventually a colleague. But it's your PhD, and the advisor is just there to... advise. It might be helpful to think of your advisor as you would your doctor. If your doctor recommended surgery, for example, I'm sure you'd ask some questions before agreeing. And after listening to the pros and cons, you might still choose a different treatment plan.

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You have been in the PhD program for a couple of years now, and still surviving.

Presumably you have passed the qualifying exams / oral exams, and did ok for the coursework. I would say that you are doing well, from the perspective of a fellow graduate student.

I think the only personality trait you need now is perseverance. Only think about the rest once you have completed your PhD and decide whether you want to continue in academia.

The fact that your adviser wants you to disagree with him sometimes is a sign that you have a good advisor who doesn't mind being challenged.

  • I think that the time to think about whether you want to continue in academia is before you start. Pick a goal / endpoint, and do that. If something wildly seduces you in to continuing past that endpoint, well, OK. But to slog along saying "Are we there yet?" doesn't seem very decisive or mature. Or exciting. Or even fun. Pointless, really... "Better not to begin. Once begun, better to finish." - Chogyam Trungpa, regarding the spiritual path. – user28174 Apr 30 '16 at 14:19
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  1. The only issue I see is if you won't accept a more specific area of research. Maybe your advisor could help you narrow it down.

  2. No issue here, since you didn't have a focus to guide you.

  3. I'm not sure most people do it for fun. More to acquire greater knowledge. Not everything will be useful to your research, but you could gain exposure to information that helps you better able to understand / model your research.

  4. Access to an expert, who might be able to point you in the right direction. You can't expect them to partner with everyone.

  5. I'd expect this to vary based on individual circumstances.

  6. I think he wants you to say something if you feel that there is a better direction to go.

What most of this sounds like is how to leverage resources. Anytime you can leverage someone else's research, gives you more time to work on the specifics of your research. If you feel comfortable with your progress towards your goals than don't worry. On the other hand spending time at talks or reading papers could get further than you'd get on your own. Hope this helps a bit.

  • You seem to be looking at the situation very analytically, and the OP seems (to me) to have more of a feeling-level question. Your advice is very good, and correct. Perhaps the OP can take it, but he might just think / assess very differently from you. Turn this around and this is what the OP (seems me to be) seeing everywhere: surrounded by people different from himself. Feeling out of place. You are right that the OP's points are no issue, no problem, but he still feels awkward somehow. – user28174 Apr 30 '16 at 14:24
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An academic career is probably one of the most competitive jobs you can choose. If you are not extremely passionate about it, you will fail.

In my country (Germany), if you are enrolled as a Ph.D. student, you have three years to finish your degree. After 18 months your work until then will be evaluated. If you don't deliver, you will be kicked out. (This is, because you are wasting public resources. If you do your Ph.D. as an "extern", you can take as long as you want, but will have no resources and no support to speak of. That is the path people take who are working other jobs and want a title for career reasons, but not go into academia.)

Finally, I don't understand why you would want to waste your life on something you are obviously not interested in. Do what really interests you.

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I follow my advisor's instructions on things and once in a while he says that I need to be more independent. But if I did that I would be going against what my advisor tells me to do, and I think it's weird that my advisor tells me to do things and then tells me not to do what he tells me to do.

He's your advisor; he's there to advise you. He's not your boss (though see below).

Part of the purpose of the course is for you to develop your skills in independent thought and reasoning. Your advisor is expecting you to engage in intellectual debate and discussion with him/her about your work and the tasks comprising it.

Simply following instructions is not good enough!

This is not specific to academia; you'll find it in industry, too. A "yes" man is obedient but not valuable.

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People expect me to have a specific research area I'm very interested in. I would be fine working in any area and I'm not particularly passionate about any specific field.

This seems to be your only problem. The other issues stem out of your lack of passion for what you are researching into. Each PhD program is different and each field is different, but I think very few people find passion right when they start any PhD program. It would be like falling in love with the first girl you meet.

In the beginning of most PhD programs, you are exposed to a great variety of new research methods that you can use to better understand the world around you. Then you suddenly find yourself being able to research into issues that concern you. That is when you develop your passion. Just keep studying hard, be patient, and keep your mind open and you will find something you are interested in.

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