The quick and dirty dissertation

Mar 23 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

As the longer and longer post-doc becomes more and more standard for us, I would argue that there's more of a reason to do a quick and dirty dissertation. Because as the standards for post-doc TT applicants rise, (I feel like) there's less and less benefit to doing something impressive as a graduate student. Getting high profile publications is essential for a post-doc, but beyond some low threshold, doesn't matter as much for a grad student. Not as much as it did 25 years ago, I would imagine. I've heard people who have votes in faculty hiring say that they discount grad student C/N/S publications, since they are thought to reflect mostly the PI. And even if this is wrong, who cares, since the grad student isn't going to be applying for a faculty position for several years, and it's the most recent papers that matter most (the "what have you done for me lately?" principle).

When you apply for a post-doc, it mostly comes down more to whether you seem smart, and give a good talk, and have good letters. When you apply for a F32, my impression is that the reviewers discount impact factor in favor of just having a few reasonable pubs.

My hunch is that a job applicant with big papers as a post-doc and nothing as a grad student has a much better shot at that faculty position than someone with the reverse record.

Maybe the dissertation is becoming more of a pre-post-doc. The goals are to learn the skills, and to begin to form the friendships, that will serve one as a post-doc. What's the incentive not to just get through it as quickly as possible? [And I realize many people don't want to stay in acedemia - but I think these arguments apply equally well to them: why wait to get started on the preferred life path?]

These are the thoughts I had near the end of grad school. Due to various reasons, I was faced with only two options: graduate in 5 or in 6. Had I gone with 6, I would have likely had another pub, but I reasoned, that pub was not in the field I wanted to pursue, and wouldn't mean much for me professionally. I left in 5 and tried to get the pub out from long distance, but it's still in limbo, 7 years later. And here's the thing: I don't regret it at all. I was sick of grad school, I was eager to go do more interesting stuff, and I did. And as a post-doc I got paid more.

So I wrote a crummy dissertation at top speed (still ~3 months, I'm a slow writer), and one of my committee members (who I adored) told me I would never succeed in science if I continued to write like that. "But," I thought "I can write better, I'm just doing a poor job because no one cares what I write in my dissertation." And as far as I know, he was the last person to ever glance at my dissertation.

I realize that everyone is in a slightly different situations and there are going to be large numbers of exceptions to my generalizations here. And I realize that I am overgeneralizing from my own experiences. But I have several friends who are reaching the same decision point I was at in my 4th year of grad school. And many of them, unlike me, have perfectionistic tendencies, and desires to write an A+ dissertation. And in most cases, I am gently nudging them in the direction of just getting it done and moving on. I think that would make them happier, and would most benefit them professionally.

16 responses so far

  • Wow, this is astonishingly relevant to me. Do you think the same discounting of your graduate work applies if you stay in the same field for your post-doc?

    • neuropolarbear says:

      Probably not. Then the capital you acquire as a grad student has more value. But I still think that the trend goes the same direction.

  • TheLabMix says:

    This is why some people like the PhD systems in places like the UK/some of Europe. Three year PhD courses, or four if you include a masters. It would be nice to get a jump on being a postdoc, or good for older students to get through quickly, relatively speaking.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      I agree. I wonder if the US system is moving in the UK direction, and if that would be a good thing.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    This is a bit parasitic. The mentor who uses hard-earned grant money to fund the tuition and stipend to advance a research program that they have developed and is presumably important. This post sound like you're advocating taking the skills learned to do the least amount possible. What's the incentive for the advisor to take a student like this?

    • neuropolarbear says:

      I agree it is a parasitic attitude, but I think that for a student, having a clear vision of what is best for them personally is useful to have - and I think a lot of students don't realize this. This then helps them avoid being manipulated by selfish advisors (who after all have most of the power).

  • JD says:

    I think you should get all your struggles out as a graduate student, even if that means taking your time. Given that the postdoc publications will be more critical than those as a graduate student, you don't want to get held up as a postdoc because you can't get a western blot to work. But yeah, the time spent on the dissertation is a waste unless chapters are going to be submitted as a manuscripts.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      This is a good point, and a corrolary to my thesis. If what you do in grad school doesnt matter (or at least, matters less than it used to), then that's the best time to "get all your struggles out" as you put it.

  • BugDoc says:

    It is really good advice for students to regularly evaluate where they are in their graduate work and what if any benefit is to be gained by staying longer. In general, students should be encouraged to finish in 5 yrs or less, rather than to stay longer.

    I would disagree with this though: "I can write better, I'm just doing a poor job because no one cares what I write in my dissertation." It's not about who reads your dissertation, since it is true that few people have the chance to read it. It's about setting a standard for yourself in your work. Why should your dissertation be any different? It doesn't have to be an A+, but I would argue it should be a good reflection of your ideas and overall writing skills. Throughout your career, there will be people other than your student & postdoc advisors writing you letters of reference. Unlike your advisors, these folks have fewer opportunities to assess your scientific thinking, speaking and writing capabilities. Every chance to show them your best work is well worth the time.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      The reasons that I think my dissertation should be different is it's demonstrably less important. I would argue it should be a poor reflection of your ideas and writing skills. Unless those committee members reading it are the ones likely to write you letters and help your career. Obviously *anyone* is a potential advocate, and you don't want to turn in a piece of complete garbage, but the time it takes to polish the thesis is (in some cases) time that could be spent writing another paper.

  • BugDoc says:

    One other point to make is that none of us (unfortunately) can predict the success rate of future projects. Having few or no publications as a student, then having great publications as a postdoc is fine in many cases. But if your postdoc isn't as productive/lucky/exciting, having great publications as a student makes your CV look a lot better than having few publications in either place.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      This is a very good point. When I left grad school and started my post-doc, I felt that my post-doc was likely to be more successful than my grad school, but I could have been wrong. So I took a calculated risk. I think that, in the end, this is one of the biggest, most difficult elements of the calculation, since as you say, no one can predict the success rate of a future project.

  • qaz says:

    This is extremely bad advice. What matters is to establish yourself. If that means taking the time to have an impact as a grad student, great! If that means taking the time to have an impact as a post-doc, great! What matters is that the work you do has an impact. It is never a good idea to rush through something half-a**ed in your scientific career.

    I know lots of people in the last decade who are known more for their contributions durng graduate school than during post-doc.

    And to follow up on what BugDoc said, part of the goal of a thesis is to teach you what it takes to run the full 26 miles. One of the best lessons I learned from my thesis was what I could do if I was really pushed all the way.

    By the way, as one example, I had a dozen pubs in grad school, and only two as a postsoc, but that filled a gap, and I got a faculty job after one PD. My point is that everyone's mileage will vary, but doing a poor job to rush through a thesis is rarely a good idea.

    • neuropolarbear says:

      I stand by my advice, but I will readily admit that this is very general advice, and it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. I do think that, as post-docs get longer, the relative importance of grad school inevitable declines. And I do think that a large number of people I know have put in a lot of work on the thesis under the mistaken impression that anyone would read it outside of their committee.

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