Friday, January 9, 2009

doing a PhD and getting paid for it - How to find a good supervisor

"Hyco how do I find a scholarship to do a PhD ?"  
How do I Find a good supervisor ? "Where do I start ?"

1) Understand how a supervisor thinks, what does a supervisor look for in a research student ?
2)Read this article.
3)Know yourself: do you have what it takes? Do you have the interest, tenacity and ability to keep going with something that might bore you to tears for some of the time and thrill you for the other time ?
I you are doing a technical/Engineering PhD Read this article and see if this is really what you want to do.  

If you are doing an Arts PhD similar stuff applies, the only difference is the nature of the thesis. 

You see: no one really cares what the TOPIC of your PHD is, they just care that you DO it properly. To do it for 3.5 years and to be a master at anything you have to 'really be into it'
Doing a PhD is one of those times when you can choose whatever your heart desires, let yourself loose, go for your dream. 

This guy says it pretty well here and here

So, iff you are sure (ok 80% sure, pretty sure...)  that research is for YOU, and you want to go ahead, then:

Ok here is the low down: My personal experiences, recommendations and ideas from having done a PhD and supervised PhD students.

Research students doing Masters or PhD's by research are the workhorses of academia.
What do the students get out of it ?

  • time to research, usually paid,
  • supervision and guidance
  • training in how to research, how to write, how to think scholarly,
  • life training in how to "stick it out" (and everyone feels like just throwing it all out the window at some time)
  • publications and the start of an academic career if you want that, or the start for a wider careers in the big wide world out there...
  • time on their hands to deal with life issues: relationships, personal stuff, family etc... (for some reason these things happen a lot to research students)
  • prestige
What does the supervisor get out of it ?
- work is done on her research area. Her research is advanced.
- publications (conference, journal papers)
- prestige: graduating a PhD student gives great benefits for the supervisor and government income for the University.

How to find a potential supervisor
- internet, Google, (the hardest way, but the only way for many)
- ask friends, use your social network of connections, be daring.
- read articles in the topic you are interested in, look up the references, follow them up. SHOW the academics you talk to that you have some idea of the area you want to do research in. 

I'm not going to go into much more detail than this.

Doing a PhD requires independence, self discipline and get up and go. Contacting potential supervisors is the first step on that path, and the first filter :-P
Good luck.

Luxor 2008 Egypt

How do you impress an academic so they will want want you as their student (and hopefully find you a scholar$hip, or use their grant money to pay you to study) ???
assuming you HAVE made contacts with some potential supervisors, how do you impress them ?
By impress I mean: convince them you CAN do a good job of your PhD.

Try to enter into the mind of a supervisor: what motivates a supervisor and how does he gets his 'brownie points' from his superiors ?

Remember at the basic level a supervisor is looking for certain benefits from a PhD student (his "workhorse")i.e. he wants to see a thesis, journal papers, solid research.
Any supervisor wants to minimize the risks of the student not completing.

Below is a list of things that are likely to impress potential supervisors:
- papers, conferences ? If you have already written papers or presented your work at a conference, that's a bonus point.
One of the questions that any supervisor asks of a potential student is "Can she do the work ? Can she write ?" Providing evidence of having done something that is similar to a PhD will help convince the supervisor.  This is really the BEST way to impress a supervisor: it proves you can write. Make sure YOU wrote the material, or else your time will be short lived. (I've seen that too.)

- If a potential supervisor asks you to do some writing work to show him what you can do, - do it! - on time - if you are serious.

- a well written proposal. This means you have done some real research on your topic YOURSELF ! Nothing impresses me more than a student who comes to me and says: "Sir, I'm interested in the effects of frequencies on the human body and I've looked at these 5 key papers and I've read these 7 articles and it seems to me the most of them say that frequency is the key. But I would like to pursue this other angle..." 
A student like that has done some real work ! Wow !

- read the supervisor's profile: i.e. his research interests, show that you have understood the topic and taken the time to look at the profile.


A good way NOT get a good response: 

"Dear Sir,
I would like study in your esteemed University, do you have scholarships ? I'll do anything you want me to, just give me a scholarship."

This type of email will not get you far.

The last paragraph in this article "Tips for supervisors in choosing a PhD student:" offers some more clues.

Looking for a good supervisor: Tips for students:

Let's assume you have a couple of suitable supervisors in mind. A good supervisor is one who:
- is careful about who she takes on as a student. A lot of time and energy goes into good supervision, as well as that money stuff.
- has already graduated a few students ON TIME.
- gets good informal reports: talk to current & past students of that supervisor and ask about the real background story. Be realistic.

- Given that PhD students make a significant contribution to the research reputation of a University and its academics, scholarships are offered to good students.

Scholarships come from the following sources:

- competitive scholarships: a pot of money is given out the to the best students. Universities and Faculties are given a certain quota of scholarships. For Example: The Engineering School of University HeikoRudolph might receive 10 scholarships to give out to its top 10 applicants.
How this pot of money is divided and how fairly can vary. Having a well published and well known supervisor on side and barracking for you, is generally a good thing. 

- grant money scholarships: this is a scholarship paid for by grant money of a particular supervisor. Supervisor Heiko might have a $300K grant to do research work, with half the money allocated for PhD scholarships. Being from a grant, the topic area is usually fairly well defined. Equipment and materials should be well funded. 
An important thing about grant money: Often the supervisor will chose people he wants directly. He will choose people who have some connection to him already and where he is confident the student will be able to do the work. In others words: grant money scholarships are not as competitive. The selection and the competition happens earlier on, by proving to the supervisor that you are good, can do the work, have written some publications etc....

Note: some scholarships only pay for tuition costs, and the student needs to find money for her cost of living in some other way. Sometimes casual tutoring work is offered to such students.
My personal advice is: avoid such scholarships. Tuition and casual work tends to take over and crowd any PhD studies into a minor role. Students often they spent most of their time working for money and their studies suffer.

The scholarships that are really worth pursuing cover the cost of tuition and pay a stipend for the cost of living. In Australia in 2009 this about $25K per annum tax free.

If you are interested in a particular supervisor:
Find out how long it took his students to finish ? If all his students took 10 years... keep looking. If most of his students finished in 3-4 years then fine ! :-)

Does the supervisor have money, grant money ?
---- you might need equipment, travel costs for research or conferences.

The 'clout' factor: Does he have a senior position ?
--- Can be useful if you need access to equipment, if you need world wide contacts, need to get stuff done and approved.

Does a junior academic do all the real supervision work or does he do it himself ?
--- ask around how well this works, if its a working and good arrangement, then fine.

Can you get along ?
--- you don't have to be best of buddies, but can you work together in a professional working relationship - 99% chance you can.

Talk to a few (not just ONE) of his past or current students.

Tips on choosing a thesis topic:
- Face it: Once you are finished with your PhD, hardly anyone is going to be interested in your thesis topic. All people care about is that you did it, that you survived and did something hard, rigorous and disciplined for 2-4 years. Sorry but that's the reality.
BUT there is good news in this: Since no one really cares too much WHAT you study, you are FREE to indulge yourself, to research whatever it is that takes your fancy.
Do the patterns of butterfly wings in the Amazon basin hold the mysteries of life for you ? Great, study that.
Do the marriage customs of Pygmies intrigue you ? Go for it.
Does the atmosphere on Pluto fascinate you ? or a do you want to save the world with an antigravity widget using inverting Laplace step functions capacitors ? this is the time to do it.

Not that often in life do you get full support and prestige and help to do what you want.
Choosing a PhD topic is one of those times.
Use it.

Ok there is always a price: No matter what it is you choose, you need to do it in a scholarly rigorous, logical and methodical way. The WHAT you study is up to you (largely), the HOW you do it is NOT up to you.
Doing a PhD is a course in learning to become fluent in the scholarly tradition. Whatever you do must be done in the scholarly way: logic, clear thinking, step by step progression, referencing your sources, exposing your ideas to scrutiny etc... these are the HOW of doing a PhD.
That's the deal.

An excercise: ask someone with a PhD about their actual PhD thesis. You'll either get shocked surprise, an evasive answer, or a looooooooooooooong lecture. If you are very lucky you'll get a brief comprehensible summary in everyday language.

- could you make your thesis into a book that sells ? Are there people who would love to learn from the marriage customs of Pygmies ? Can you choose your topic in such a way that you can turn your thesis into something people would want to read ? depends on your topic, on your area, etc... - but worth considering for Life AFTER the PhD (there is life after a PhD I'm told)

- do you like to travel ? choose your thesis topic in such a way you get to indulge your interests and hobbies. If you like to meet people, then a thesis in abstract physics theory is not likely to get you out there meeting people.

Tips on being a PhD student (might sometimes feel like being in an underground cave)
- treat it as a job - and have fun !
- get a life outside research (this is really the same idea as the line above).

- work hard & play hard.
- don't do it part time - unless NO other choice (usually can't get scholarships for part time study either) .

- do fun things: look at spending 3 - 6 months in another University while you do your PhD. Most Universities have an exchange program, there is usually not extra charge to pay. This idea comes from the old European idea of the 'wandering scholar'. A scholar was not considered fully 'baked' until he had wandered from University to University and studied, worked, done post-doc work under a number of other Professors (if you like, research the historical idea behind the German concept of "Wanderschaft" ).

Note: in order to find a good University to do the exchange in, spend time in your first year finding out who the top 5 heavy weights in your field are. Contact them, read their papers. Perhaps only 2 of the 5 will want to talk to you. Fine. Talk to them.
By year 2 or 3 you might be over there spending time in their lab or doing some kind of work with them.

- read this: REALLY read this link:

Using Computers:
- The 3 golden rules of Information Technology when you type your thesis or do your research on a computer:
1) back up, 2) back up, 3) back up. ---That's all there is to it.

Tips on actually writing your thesis:
- keep it simple and clear.
- keep sentences short and clear.
- don't don't don't try to sound 'academic', sophisticated, convoluted and hard to understand (Unless you have no f***ing idea of what you are talking about or you are trying to hide that fact, or you are really into obfuscation of the obvious).
More on 'academic mental masturbation' in a separate blog

From day ONE, start making a reference library. Every paper, every article your read, record the full citation reference details PLUS the abstract and perhaps even the intro and conclusion. Trust me: it's really worth doing this.

I personally really need to use this programme:
it kicks me off regularly and stops me from overusing my hands and prevents RSI.

- you WILL feel like it's all a HUGE WASTE of TIME and effort.
- you will at some point want to throw it all down the .....@&#(
- you probably will overwork and
- you probably will underwork.

You WILL get over all these and finish !
Staying the course, and finishing is part of the real test. It is part of the deal, part of the achievement.

Likely only 1 or 2 people in the world out there really care about your thesis topic (there are exceptions). What people value is that you did it even though it was hard, boring, tough, felt like giving birth to an elephant.

Celebrate, every step of the PhD, give yourself a reward, a trip away or whatever you value.

Tips for supervisors in choosing a PhD student:
Rule #1: test them before accepting them as your student: "try before you buy" - ask them to write something for you by a certain date. The work they show you might be by someone else. Ask them to do some simple research, fully referenced on an area you specify. Set a clear deadline. If they can't do it, forget them. You are making a big time and money investment which only worth it for a student who can do and DOES do the work.

Rule #2: test them: see rule #1.

Rule #3: offer only small steps: successful completing of basis Masters degree before allowing progress to PhD.
Yearly review of progress, and scholarship only continues if progress satisfactory.

Rule #4: review after 6 months and 12 months and be TOUGH!!!
The longer a student is in a PhD program the harder it is to remove them, to discontinue them. After 2 or 3 years too much time and energy has been invested by yourself and the student. A student who stops after 2.5 years and has nothing to show for her time is not a good thing. Does not make the student or you feel good.

If after 12 months it is best that the student stop, then it is best if the student agrees, and comes to understand and sees that it is in her best interest to stop. A student can always come back. A student can always take leave of absence.

Meet your student regularly, weekly or every two weeks. Students can drift, stuff happens, they loose focus, things go off the rails etc...

Note to students who have read this section: This section was really aimed at you and beginning supervisors to show you what an experienced supervisor will do and looks for.
Any good, experienced supervisor won't have to read this, they got to their current position by doing all these things.

Finished your PhD ? Congratulations, you can be proud of yourself ! Reward yourself.

Let me know how useful this has been, any feedback welcome.
Questions, just email me (tell me what you've done, tried, and where you are aiming to go)

**************************** UPDATE *****************
March 2016 email to an anonymous inquirer:

Hi D

1) read the papers that interest you and get a very good understanding of your area. 
- do some more research, 
- look at the research in the last 3 years. 
- what are the key new things ? 

2) Write a summary of the current state of research, what is being done, 
- what the current issues and challenges are. 
- reference them properly. 

3) Think about what you would like to research and HOW. 

4) read  the links below

5) contact the academics who are doing the work you want to do, area you want ot work in 

good luck 




  1. holaaaaa! qe xulo tu blog! me gusta muxo! el dibujo es genial! espero qe te pases x el mio! y me sigas1 yo te sigo ok?? bs!

  2. This is Grace,Hyko.
    For me, I am mentally combating with the pressure from my English abiltiy and how the profs comment on my performance.
    Just polish my English, pass and then leave here.