What should my focus be during my PhD?

In summary, the conversation revolved around the best approach to achieving success in the field of astronomy, with some suggesting a more regimented path while others emphasized following one's own passion and making connections. The importance of maintaining a balance between work and personal life was also mentioned. The conversation concluded with the idea of having a plan but also being open to reassessing and making changes as needed.
  • #1
Phys12
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Hello everyone!

So I recently finalized attending UIUC for my PhD in Astronomy. Before beginning my undergraduate studies, after learning about what I needed to do in order to get into a successful PhD program, I made the following and laser focused on them:
-Maintaining a 4.0 cumulative GPA while taking the hardest classes possible
-Obtaining glowing hot recommendation letters from my professors by doing the best possible work in my research
-Working my hardest to get a great PGRE score (this one didn't go too well, I got an 800/990 :, wonk wonk)
-Publishing papers (this one was iffy since I published two papers and had about 4-5 in preparation, with like 4 as first author)

Now in grad school, I get the impression that my best bet (in order to get a good post doc and eventually a job in Astronomy) would be to work the hardest on my research (the one that I love the most), get As in classes (but of course Bs are not the end of the world, and a C is the end of the universe), have some publications out (at least 5 as first author, but it can be less if one is doing instrumentation/theory) and build connections outside of my university via conferences and workshops. And most importantly: keep plodding along and don't let setbacks bother me and be nice to everyone!

Am I missing something? Or is it better to have none of these goals and just do what I love and spend a lot of time doing and see where that takes me?
 
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  • #2
Yes, stay happy and don't neglect your social life. All work and no play...
 
  • #3
jedishrfu said:
Yes, stay happy and don't neglect your social life. All work and no play...
Oh yes! That's a very good advice and one that I didn't execute as well during my undergrad. I didn't completely ignore it, but neglected it more often than I should have. Thank you!
 
  • #4
Its your life.
I am amazed to be quoting the King James Bible, but here goes:

For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?
 
  • #5
hutchphd said:
Its your life.
I am amazed to be quoting the King James Bible, but here goes:

For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?
I'm sorry, I don't understand the point of putting that quote here, what exactly are you trying to say?
 
  • #6
Or this song from Bobby McFerrin for the trying times that come upon us all:

 
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  • #7
Phys12 said:
I'm sorry, I don't understand the point of putting that quote here, what exactly are you trying to say?
By my reading the OP was decrying a regimented path to "success" in physics, and I do believe that much regimentation is required. But his implication that (1) there is only one standard path and (2) one must follow that path is not only wrong but counterproductive. For reasons that escape me a quote from Jesus Christ surfaced in my head and seemed appropriate
 
  • #8
hutchphd said:
By my reading the OP was decrying a regimented path to "success" in physics, and I do believe that much regimentation is required. But his implication that (1) there is only one standard path and (2) one must follow that path is not only wrong but counterproductive. For reasons that escape me a quote from Jesus Christ surfaced in my head and seemed appropriate
Ah, I see! Well, it wasn't so much a path to success, I apologize if that's what it seemed like I was looking for. What I like having are some general guidelines to have so I have a direction that I am heading towards. That's another reason why I included the last line since maybe that approach is entirely wrong and I shouldn't have a direction/guidelines at all...
 
  • #9
Well I wouldn't suggest ignoring all the guidelines either! The one thing I would emphasize the most is to proactively (and sometimes in a calculated way) seek to make connections. I hate the term, but "networking" is important and actually positive on many levels. It sometimes requires real concerted effort.
Otherwise it is most important to follow your own muse in my estimation. Having a target is part of that process for me, but it should not be a constraint. Good Luck.
 
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  • #10
"Plodding along" does not seem like a recipe for long term success. Find something that excites you on the inside - something that delights you - something that you keep working on because it does not seem like work - it seems like love.
 
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  • #11
Dr. Courtney said:
"Plodding along" does not seem like a recipe for long term success. Find something that excites you on the inside - something that delights you - something that you keep working on because it does not seem like work - it seems like love.
I agree, but it did happen during my undergraduate, because of the amount of work I had, that it all just boiled down to getting stuff done rather than really think about what I was doing and have fun with it. I am not sure if that will happen again, but in case it does, I want to make sure I don't give up because of it...not sure if that makes sense
 
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  • #12
One thing that happens is you make a plan and evaluate between semesters. Sometimes students are evaluating their plan randomly whenever they get stressed and then making changes like dropping courses ... Their plan is like a meandering boat drifting with the currents.

By doing plan changes at defined intervals and staying the course (ie staying in a course making sure you'll pass) will put you in a better position in the long run.

We do this in software development, tools and libraries are always getting improvements. However, we don't upgrade until we complete our project and can now evaluate whether we should upgrade everything to the next level. This provides us with a consistent base of software to work with. One exception though is when a bug appears that a new library or tool has identified and fixed. We evaluate and upgrade that one item and try to keep the rest of the software at the same level until we finish.

Good portfolio managers do this strategy as well. You watch the trends and only make changes at the best time. Some folks may check once a month and make adjustments, others more or less often. Those that make continuous changes according to day to day market conditions usually do more poorly in the long run and they may get stressed out when losing money.
 
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  • #13
Phys12 said:
I agree, but it did happen during my undergraduate, because of the amount of work I had, that it all just boiled down to getting stuff done rather than really think about what I was doing and have fun with it. I am not sure if that will happen again, but in case it does, I want to make sure I don't give up because of it...not sure if that makes sense

There was certainly more "plodding along" for me as an undergrad also. In some ways this was because I was under-prepared in high school (weak math), and in some ways, this is just the nature of undergrad physics majors. One must learn lots of material that may not be exciting to them.

But there is a lot more liberty in grad school to focus on areas of actual interest and excitement, especially once one has completed the qualifying exams. For me, undergrad was 80% plodding along and 20% excitement, with most of the excitement junior and senior years. Grad school flipped the script and was 20% plodding along and 80% excitement.
 
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  • #14
Maybe some other things to think about...
  1. Consider a Backup Plan
    It's all well and good to be laser-focussed on achieving great things in graduate school, but what happens if you get the PhD and there are only N post doctoral positions but 10*N fresh PhD graduates? Think about the skill set that you're developing and how you might be able to pivot on it and apply it elsewhere.
  2. Teaching Experience
    If you really want to be competitive for academic positions, you might want to think about developing your teaching skills or taking advantage of university teaching workshops or programs.
  3. Mentorship
    When choosing a PhD supervisor, it's not just about output or name prestige. It's important to think about whether this person will be an effective monitor for you. How much time will he or she have to dedicate to you specifically per week? What kind of mentorship will this person offer? What will they expect of you as a student? How much opportunity will you have to explore your own ideas vs spend your time plugging away at a project they've assigned you? Can you communicate well with this person? Would you feel comfortable reporting bad news?
 
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  • #15
Dr. Courtney said:
There was certainly more "plodding along" for me as an undergrad also. In some ways this was because I was under-prepared in high school (weak math), and in some ways, this is just the nature of undergrad physics majors. One must learn lots of material that may not be exciting to them.

But there is a lot more liberty in grad school to focus on areas of actual interest and excitement, especially once one has completed the qualifying exams. For me, undergrad was 80% plodding along and 20% excitement, with most of the excitement junior and senior years. Grad school flipped the script and was 20% plodding along and 80% excitement.
I see, that sounds very true given that there are required classes in undergrad that one cannot escape but because of the specificity of graduate school, you're pretty much destined spend most of your time doing things you're very passionate about! Then I think the next thing I am looking forward to is finding out what area of research excites me the most (I already have some ideas) and find an adviser that I get along with
 
  • #16
Choppy said:
Maybe some other things to think about...
  1. Consider a Backup Plan
    It's all well and good to be laser-focussed on achieving great things in graduate school, but what happens if you get the PhD and there are only N post doctoral positions but 10*N fresh PhD graduates? Think about the skill set that you're developing and how you might be able to pivot on it and apply it elsewhere.
  2. Teaching Experience
    If you really want to be competitive for academic positions, you might want to think about developing your teaching skills or taking advantage of university teaching workshops or programs.
  3. Mentorship
    When choosing a PhD supervisor, it's not just about output or name prestige. It's important to think about whether this person will be an effective monitor for you. How much time will he or she have to dedicate to you specifically per week? What kind of mentorship will this person offer? What will they expect of you as a student? How much opportunity will you have to explore your own ideas vs spend your time plugging away at a project they've assigned you? Can you communicate well with this person? Would you feel comfortable reporting bad news?
I certainly agree with point #3. I've seen people thrive in groups that they felt comfortable in and others doing not so well with professors that were top notch because they didn't enjoy the work environment. Regarding number 2, I thought that no one cared about teaching at R1 research universities, the thing that will help you keep/get a job is research. Is that not true? (I got that impression from this article: https://www.preposterousuniverse.co...to-get-tenure-at-a-major-research-university/). Regarding number 1, I feel like if I get a PhD in Astronomy, I'll obtain those skillsets and it may not be the best approach to even have backups in mind before finishing my PhD. Would you not agree? One thing that certainly helped me do well in undergrad was that I told myself that I needed to do excellent with perfect GPA and excellent research and I have no other choice...
 
  • #17
Much of this advice differs from what i myself experienced. math grad school, perhaps quite different from astronomy, was like temporary perdition: an intense period of extremely challenging conditions, with a strict time limit. the one overriding concern was simply to finish. this meant impressing your advisor by your work on a problem he considered worthwhile. if you succeeded, he would provide the recommendations that would lead to subsequent positions. if not, you would not advance.

e.g. I had an office roommate who was a little more laidback than I. One day a professor came in and informed him that he should accept the offer of a terminal masters degree since he would not be continued for the following year, and the professor then walked out, no discussion.

"Fun" was limited to taking my kids to the zoo for a few minutes once a week. i noticed when i finished, after 3 years, a strange look in the mirror: a smile on my face that i had not seen since entering.

to summarize: the main point of grad school, which by no means all entrants achieve, is to have a phd in hand upon leaving. for most of us, this goal alone requires all we can muster. Indeed, I had to go to grad school twice to achieve it; the first time I was one of those dismissed, the second time I took it more seriously. This lost time cost me 10 years experience in my research career, as well as 10 years of higher earnings, before retirement age. "verbum sapienti".

To touch somewhat on the (good) advice to have fun, I suggest that one cannot finish the sort of intense program I have described unless you enjoy your work. So if you sign on for this, choose an area you enjoy thinking about, and an advisor you like working with, and whom you respect.

Good luck! It is not impossible, but it is hard.

Very successful examples: one member of my entering graduate class (about 10 people) at Brandeis in 1965 is Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck, PhD 1968, and 1983 recipient of the MacArthur genius grant; and another friend, J'anos Kolla'r, Brandeis PhD 1984, and co-recipient (with Claire Voisin), of the 2017 Shaw prize, now professor at Princeton.

added: my take away; brilliant and hard working students have the potential to end up as stars like my friends above, and good average hard working ones can have an enjoyable research career like mine.
 
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  • #18
My brother had a difficult PhD experience when his advisor lost interest in his work. It wasn't just him the advisor did this same thing to a lot of students.

Some left, my brother stayed and finally one senior member of the department asked why wasn't this advisor graduating his students and then something got done and brother graduated.

Losing interest meant the advisor was never available for the student to consult with. They were left to flounder with no end in sight. I don't know how my brother survived but he did.
 
  • #19
Phys12 said:
Regarding number 2, I thought that no one cared about teaching at R1 research universities, the thing that will help you keep/get a job is research. Is that not true? (I got that impression from this article: https://www.preposterousuniverse.co...to-get-tenure-at-a-major-research-university/).

Of course research is important. It's THE thing.

But in that article he's talking about getting into a top 10 research school.

What you have to remember when you finish your PhD is that there will be roughly an order of magnitude more PhD graduates than available professor positions. And you're looking at an even smaller sample if you're limiting yourself to "top 10" schools. (In fact with such a small number of schools, there is a non-negligible possibility that none of them will even have an open position in the time you're realistically eligible to apply).

The game strategy of working harder and get into the top x percent of your peers works great in high school. There you're competing with the general population. It's harder as an undergrad, but for the most part the strategy still works--keep your grades up, get your name on some publications, rock the entrance exams, get some glowing letters of recommendation and you can get into a competitive graduate program. But things change with subsequent bottlenecks. The vast majority of those who manage to make it through with a PhD are all incredibly hard working, extremely bright, and will all have publications in big name journals.

So what's left to stratify them?

One of the more frustrating realities is that the leftover factors tend to be rather serendipitous. If seven years ago you choses a project that happens to be hot right now, you've got a leg up. If instead, your niche of expertise has gone obsolete, you have to retrain while others surge ahead. The point is that once you go far enough the stats aren't in your favour, regardless of how hard you work.

Having some documented evidence of teaching ability can be one of those things that helps when you're looking at positions in schools that have more emphasis on teaching. It expands your pool of possible positions.

Regarding number 1, I feel like if I get a PhD in Astronomy, I'll obtain those skillsets and it may not be the best approach to even have backups in mind before finishing my PhD. Would you not agree? One thing that certainly helped me do well in undergrad was that I told myself that I needed to do excellent with perfect GPA and excellent research and I have no other choice...

So as per above, yes, I respectfully disagree.

You don't have to focus on a backup plan. And developing a backup skill set doesn't have to be mutually exclusive with research. But when you think about the kinds of research projects you want to get involved in think about the skills that you'll be learning as you do the work and whether or not those skills will have any application in the outside world.

A little bit of forethought now can save a world of hurt if you find yourself in a spot where he academic jobs are scare.
 
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Related to What should my focus be during my PhD?

What should my focus be during my PhD?

1. What specific research topic should I focus on for my PhD?

Your research topic should align with your interests and career goals. It should also be original and contribute to the existing body of knowledge in your field.

2. How can I balance my coursework and research during my PhD?

It is important to prioritize your time and set realistic goals for both coursework and research. Communicate with your advisor and create a schedule that allows for dedicated time for both.

3. Should I focus on publishing during my PhD?

Yes, publishing your research is an important aspect of a PhD. It demonstrates your ability to conduct original research and contributes to your academic profile.

4. Is it necessary to collaborate with other researchers during my PhD?

Collaboration can bring new perspectives and resources to your research. However, it is not necessary if your research can be conducted independently.

5. How can I maintain my focus and motivation during a long-term project like a PhD?

It is important to set short-term goals and celebrate small achievements. Additionally, regularly discussing your progress and challenges with your advisor can help keep you motivated and on track.

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