Raising the bar

November 15, 2018

If you're doing a PhD, it's quite likely that you did well at all the previous levels of the education system.

But a PhD is a completely different challenge requiring completely different skills. This means that many PhD students find themselves struggling for the first time in their academic lives.

Whereas an undergraduate degree, generally, has a clear structure and timetable that's the same for everyone on your course (you're told where to be, when to be there, and what to do while you're there), a PhD does not.

The other key difference is that an undergraduate degree has a clear standard to reach, which, again, is the same for everyone on your course. In your PhD, though, the standard you have to reach is not only unclear, it's different for every student depending on the project and the individual subjective preferences of the supervisor.

In the absence of a clearly defined standard, if you want to impress your supervisor or examiner the temptation is to aim as high as you can think of. A PhD is a bit like doing the high jump in the dark; if you don't know where the bar is, naturally you'll just try to jump as high as you can.

But this approach , no matter how natural, doesn't work. If you want to develop the skills you need to succeed, you have to start easy and raise the bar gradually. If you skip this process, you'll just end up overwhelmed.

Example: Working with Literature

When I started my own PhD (way back in 2003), one of the first things my supervisor asked me to do was to write a literature review. Desperate to impress, I decided that I would write the best literature review the world has ever seen. I even thought that I might be able to get it published. Of course, I failed to live up to my own expectations. I didn't have the skill or experience to write a literature review that good, and felt a tiny bit demoralized by my own failure.

What I should have done, and what I now coach people to do, is lower the bar.With the literature, this means starting with just a small number of papers and figuring out

  • What problem they were attempting to solve
  • Why it was a problem
  • What they did (and how)
  • What they discovered
  • Why that discovery was significant

It's best to do this with important, groundbreaking papers, because these give you a foundation for understanding the incremental work that followed.

This is far more effective than taking a stack of 200 papers and trying to write summaries of them all.See also: How to read a journal article

Example: Data Analysis

Data analysis is a skill, not just a process to follow. This skill needs to be developed over time, rather than at the end of your PhD. Obviously, you also need to learn how to interpret the data, but one of the key meta-skills that's often overlooked is to know how the analysis can go wrong. This can only be developed through experience.

Again, the way to do this is by starting easy, with a small amount of data, getting to know each step of the analysis deeply. This way, you can make and correct mistakes at a manageable level, with each correction gradually improving your skill.

See also: Don't neglect your data

Example: Project design

Part of my own PhD involved working on an instrument development project. The original plan was basically to build a machine that did everything, combining atomic force microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy and near-field optical microscopy, in ultra-high vacuum at low temperature.

The technical details don't matter here. The point is that in trying to do everything at the same time, none of it worked.

It was only when we simplified things, getting one part working before adding another, that we managed to make any progress. You have to start with a low bar, then raise it gradually. We would have saved a lot of time (and money) if we'd done it this way.

If you want to develop the skills you need to succeed, you have to start easy and raise the bar gradually. If you skip this process, you'll just end up overwhelmed.

See also
The "Good" PhD Student
What to do when your PhD project gets too big

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