Is technology making PhD students lazy?

There was a time, not so very long ago, when searching for an article meant a trip to the library, finding a physical copy of the journal and taking it to the photocopier.

There was also a time, not so very long ago, when theses were typed on a typewriter. There were no word processors, there was no referencing software. Everything was done by hand.

Technology has made life much easier for academics; you can find, download and print an article in seconds, plus there are countless pieces of software and online resources now available. But is this same technology making some PhD students lazy?

Please note: I am not saying you should use a typewriter and search for literature by hand. These are examples of technology being a good thing! I’ve had some comments reacting as if I am arguing against the use of any technology. This would be ridiculous!

Lazy questions

By far, the most common question I get asked is,  “I’m studying X, please provide me with a thesis topic“. I must have been asked this 100 times in the last few months, and I’ve seen the same question in a number of online forums.

This is a lazy question, not because a student should think of it themselves, but because they haven’t taken the time to think about whether I’ll be able to answer. How on earth does anyone expect me to  instantly come up with a viable topic on demand? Yet the question keeps coming…

OK, so most students don’t ask this kind of question, but there is a sizable minority expecting instant answers. To those students, sorry, but it doesn’t work that way… The availability of online help does not absolve you of the responsibility of thinking.

Lazy use of software

Some analysis would be impossible without the use of software, but there is a risk that you end up not understanding your own analysis.

Take statistical software for example. It can save you a huge amount of time, but it is possible to use it without understanding what it is doing with your data nor the results it presents.

If it spits out a bunch of numbers, what do they mean? What is a p-value? What’s the difference between standard deviation and standard error? You have to take the time to understand these terms before you use them in a report.

Don’t pass responsibility onto the software!

Lazy searching

While search engines and other online resources give you instant access to information, sometimes what you need isn’t at the top of the results list. Sometimes it’s hidden away on page 27 of an article published in volume 4 of The International Journal of Obscure Research. Sometimes you need the patience and persistence to dig a little deeper and search a little longer.

Patience and persistence are crucial attributes for successful researchers. While search engines are great as an initial tool, what do you do when they don’t give you what you need? Do you have the patience to try searching in other ways?

Problem solving

Research is all about problem solving. It rarely, if ever, goes exactly according to plan, and you will have to adapt and solve problems as they arise.

Often, the first solution you try won’t work, so you’ll have to try something else… and something else…. and something else, but eventually you get it right.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer

– Albert Einstein

Success is often determined by the amount of time you are willing to spend with a problem, plus your willingness just to try things out and see whether they work, or in other words your willingness to make mistakes and keep going. Technology, whether search engines, discussion forums or software, is no substitute.


13 thoughts on “Is technology making PhD students lazy?”

  1. This reminds me with a little chat with my advisor

    He told me that when publishing his paper, he wrote it on type writer and sent it by mail ( traditional mail) and I am writing it on word processor and email.

    • OK, it seems I didn’t make my point very clearly.

      I am not advocating the use of typewriters. I am not saying we should not use technology to make things easier.

      I am saying that the ease of use sometimes seems to have a downside, in that people sometimes become lazy.

  2. I’d argue the opposite. If you’re spending a large percentage of your free time searching for information, that’s dead time you could be using to do some deep thinking. Likewise typing on a typewriter. The internet, Google, word processing packages – these are all tools designed to take the tedium out of what went before. They allow us to leverage our brains into doing better things by giving us more free time. The real danger is a lack of analytical thinking, watching dross on TV, or reading tabloid newspapers. What is being tested is surely the ability to do good, solid, verifiable research, not typing skills or an exhaustive familiarity with the Dewey system?

    • I don’t think I said that we should return to the typewriter or that we shouldn’t use technology. I said that technology is useful, but it seems to make some people lazy.

      I don’t think you’re arguing the opposite to me at all.

  3. iI think the quick-info-at-a-glance culture has made people lazy, wanting instant information or success at something without having to put much attention in. But it’s much more fulfilling to go into some depth. I am surprised that so many people ask you specifically to give them a topic, just off the top of your head! My topic came about through my own interest and experience and my SV helped me shape it a bit in developing it more, but it was mine essentially. No spoon feeding here. If I had asked my supervisor directly for a topic he would’ve probably said to go and think about it, mull it over, think about what I am interested in, and maybe ask me why I am doing a research degree. Perhaps technology is making people expect that they can quickly Google something and bingo it is done. But a PhD is so much more than that.

    • It’s amazing how many people ask me to provide a topic… it’s sad, because I get more questions like that than insightful comments like yours!

  4. So true James, great insights, I like your emotional informational intelligence! Scatty thinking and scrambling around in a sea of information is not deep-thinking. I also find listening to music (especially anything with lyrics) as a break a big no-no, it just makes me feel full of other people’s thoughts/feelings rather than problem-solving something in my own head. Unfortunately I have taken up smoking in my PhD as a way to deal with this break-but-not-disconnected effort. As a yogi it is kind of ‘bad behaviour’ for me but I have to say, a lot of my sentences form while I take a smoke break and gives me just a little reprieve, creating more deep-thinking momentum in the long-run.
    P.S would you have anything to post on how to deal with deep-thinking tunnel-vision while also freaking out about where-is-my-career-going-after-this-phd?

    • Thanks Annie!

      The music thing is very subjective… I always listen to music while I write, and it makes no difference whether it has lyrics or not. Smoking isn’t a good habit… why not do a few sun salutations instead?

    • Are you joking? For goodness sake it’s a project, we all did it, we went and got jobs or worked out we couldn’t. The phd isn’t more special than anything else, it’s a journey or a project or a job or a hobby, but it’s just that. Do it, build a career or don’t but just get on with it and get the most out of it, esp the generic skills you learn.

  5. Well said,James. Software may serve us faster in searching for relevent information in search of a topic,but it may take some time to locate the exact logical information leading to the pursuit of your derteminism as to define the absolutes of your topic. I have written many essays,but I don’t rely on the speed of software. My attention is focused on context. It usually takes me an extended period of time to gather my thoughts,including searching many documents before I can put the words in a logical order. Students can become complacent if they are just interested in speed. Marv

  6. Hi. Well said. Thinking process is sometimes tiring. What the phd students should do when they experiencing these? Sometimes taking rest might disturbing the thinking momentum. What is ur opinion? Thanks

    • I’d say step away from the computer, maybe take a walk, but keep turning the thoughts over and approaching the problem from different angles. Worst thing to do is check email or anything else online as the influx of information can destroy the thinking process. Unfortunately that can become a default habit (which I fall into too).

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