Two researchers offer their take on how to succeed as a PhD student.
The idea of a one-size-fits-all model for PhD study is simplistic, patronizing and bad for science. A recipe such as Georgia Chenevix-Trench's, detailed in “What Makes a Good PhD Student?” (Nature 441, 252; 2006) is just one model for PhD success.
It is a mistake to promote a corporate culture of bulging briefcases, long hours and working weekends as signs of good research practice. PhD students should be judged on their insight and the outcome of their work, not by the number of hours they spend working.
Ernest Rutherford once asked a student who was working one evening whether he also worked in the mornings. The student proudly answered yes. “But when do you think?” Rutherford replied. He was convinced that the creative scientists spent evenings and holidays relaxing with their families, and imposed strict limits on the hours his students worked. A high proportion of them went on to win Nobel prizes.
Chenevix-Trench's model ignores calls from employers and graduates for PhD programmes that build transferable skills. In 2000, a survey by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students found that most graduates believe that there are few research-only academic positions. Those surveyed wanted more interdisciplinary PhD programmes that encourage teaching experience and provide a meaningful entrée into faculty life. A survey by Bettina Nyquist and Jody Woodford of 365 individuals, including PhD students and people working in education, academia and government, also found graduate education to be too narrow (Reenvisioning the PhD: what are our concerns? Centre for Instructional Development and Research, University of Washington, Seattle; 2000).
Chenevix-Trench errantly blames high PhD attrition rates on poor academic standards and lack of passion or hard work. A study by Barbara Lovitts and Cary Nelson (Academe 6, 44–50; 2001) found no meaningful difference in academic performance between completers and non-completers. Graduate students who don't finish their degrees are typically less integrated into the department, suffer intimidating, hostile or laissez-faire departmental culture, and have poor relationships with supervisors.
Academics must heed the serious consequences of poor supervision if they are to strive for the best outcomes for students and society.
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Bekessy, S., Wintle, B. More than one route to PhD success. Nature 443, 720 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nj7112-720b
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