Philip Guo's Advice for Early-stage PhD Students

Hongtao Hao / 2021-09-22


#1 Stop caring about classes. Just do what you need to pass.

  • Only spend some time on classes when you have made progress on your research.

#2 Undergrad versus phd research

  • Every student admitted into PhD programs has a lot of potential for creative research, but very few of them realize this full potential. The reason is not because they are not smart enough. The reasons are possibly lacking resilience, perseverance, metacognition, and self-discipline. But you can foster these traits through self-reflection and mentorship.

#3 Uncertainty, isolation, and project scoping

  • uncertainty: you have no idea whether your hard work on a certain project will pay off.

  • isolation: nobody around you cares about what you do, either because they are busy or lack technical background.

  • project scoping: you don’t know how big the scope of your paper should be.

What you should do:

  1. make consistent progress every day;
  2. get feedback from your mentor every week or two;
  3. get feedback from paper submission a few times a year.

#4 develop research taste

How to develop research taste?

  1. read good papers published in the past few years suggested by your advisor
  2. assist others on their own projects.
  3. A lot of mediocre work is needed before you have a good research taste. Keep grinding before you reach that stage.

#5 most of the daily work you do will not feel like research

If this is the case for you, be mindful of the big picture. Don’t be trapped in trivial stuff.

#6 understand your advisor

If your advisor does not have tenure yet, her primary goal is to earn tenure. Her job will be highly dependent on PhD students' performance.

#7 there is no perfect advisor

People succeed in spite of their advisor’s imperfection. Don’t rely on your advisor for your success.

#8 be patient

  • What you do in the first three years of your PhD probably won’t count towards your PhD dissertation. be patient.

  • If you don’t have publication after three years in phd, that’s okay. Don’t be stressed because of those ahead of you.

  • If you work with an untenured advisor, then she expects quicker publication from you.

#9 make professors want to help you

Professors want to help students who already know how to do research, those who need less help.

To make professors want to help you, you need to show them your potential to be a good researcher.

#10 find peer support

In PhD, isolation is the default. You need to proactively seek out peers for support.

#11 avoid infectious negativity

Negativity is infectious. Even if you feel negativity in life, academics, or research, try to stay positive, at least not infect others with your negativity.

#12 be careful about getting advice from senior students, especially those outside of your area

Advice from senior PhD students outside of your specialty may not apply to you. However, senior students are good sources of advice on how to interact with your current advisor.

#13 understand your job

What’s your job in PhD: publish high quality research papers that contribute valuable new knowledge to your chosen field.

#14 make yourself accountable

Try to make yourself accountable to other people or to a deadline. For example, work with a postdoc, an untenured professor, or sign up for a talk at a lab meeting.

#15 develop a fixed work schedule

  • Always do the most important thing first. This is because you’ll have other obligations and distractions which make it so difficult for you to focus on important things.

  • As a PhD student, research is your most important thing. ALWAYS prioritize your research over other things: class assignments, TA, department administrative paperwork, etc.

  • The author here suggests working at home or anywhere near your home (without commuting) on research from 8-11 am each and every day before doing any other things. Treat this as a sacred period when nobody is allowed to disrupt or distract you.

#16 do everything you can to protect your mornings

As the title says.

#17 politely turn down volunteer service work requests

As the title says.

#18 pushing back against professors who overwork you as a ta

As the title says.

#19 keep moving

if you get stuck in your research, let your advisor or other mentors know IMMEDIATELY.

Many Ph.D. students fail not because they’re not smart or hardworking, but because they get stuck for extended periods of time and they grow demoralized.

#20 avoid the dreaded loop of despair

It’s really a vicious circle when you get stuck, do not get help ASAP, and keep procrastinating. Many students fail this way.

#20 everyone is busy, but ask them for help anyways

If you do your homework, it’s okay to ask help from those who are super busy. They’ll emphasize and help.

Don’t be afraid of wasting others' time. If you’ve done your work and have a desire to grow, you are not wasting people’s time.

#20 managing your advisor

To have quicker and more meaningful replies from your advisor, leverage their skills: making decisions. To do that, don’t ask open-ended questions like “what do you think of this version of draft”. Give them a detailed description of your questions: “given the situation here, do you think I need to use model A, B, or C?”

This way, you are making use of your advisor’s time most efficiently.

#21 contact hours

Relying on external metrics like publications or awards isn’t sufficient since they happen only once or twice every year. Instead, focus on the number of your contact hours with your core work every day.

3-4 solid contact hours per day with your core work and 1-2 hours of advisor meetings per week is good.

focus on the action, and ignoring the result, moves you closer to the result. – quoted from the video linked in the article.

#22 My project stinks…should Ii quit and find something else?

  • If it’s your own project, try sticking with it for at least 3 months.
  • If it’s others' project, try switching if you’ve done enough to earn authorship from the first author after you quite
  • Try to develop transferable skills from a project you walk away from.
  • It’s easier to quit switch at the beginning of your phd

#23 writing papers

  • Writing a research paper takes a surprisingly long period of time. much longer than you expected.
  • Get enough content first. don’t worry about quality. even 12 pages of junk is better than nothing!

#24 don’t worry about big-talkers

95% of a researchers' time is spent silently, working alone. only 5% is social interactions. when you see a “big-talker”, don’t be too self-conscious about them, thinking that they somehow do better than you. if you do great work, and you keep silent, everyone will still think highly of you.

#25 don’t compare yourself to other students

As the title says.

#26 social media and online presence

  • You need a personal website. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but you need one.

  • Use social media carefully.

    • “when you check your feed it may seem like every single week somebody is publishing a newspaper or winning a new fellowship or getting a new award or getting their research covered by the press or starting a prestigious internship or landing a coveted faculty or industry job or getting a huge promotion at work or launching their own company or whatever. this can be hugely distracting and demoralizing if you let it get to you.”
    • “it’s a lot easier to complain, vent, and speculate online than to make slow, steady, hard-fought progress on research day-to-day.”
    • What really matters for career advancement … is publishing well-regarded academic papers in your field. everything else is secondary.

#27 commonly observed struggles

  • If no faculty can summarize what you are doing, then you’re probably not doing it right in phd.
  • It’s good if you can be on one single advisor’s critical path so that she can motivate you to work hard.

Last modified on 2021-10-24