Advice For ph.d. students

By Wei Gao

Edited by Natalie Grace Sipula

[3 minute read]

Are you a Ph.D. student? If you are, or you are considering pursuing a PhD, I have some advice for you. I am currently a PhD student, and without receiving advice from different individuals in my life, I wouldn’t have the outlook I do now. I want to share one particular word of advice that had a great impact on me, which I think could have an impact on any PhD student.

To fully explain why the advice I received was so important to me, I must introduce the person who gave it to me: meet my friend Tanya [ˈtɑːnjə]. Tanya is from China (the Chinese pronunciation of her name is Tanya [tán yǎ]). I met Tanya for the first time a few years ago in 2016 at an academic conference in Shanghai. As a graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tanya was certainly a rising star in academia. I was responsible for her reception when she came to my university as a guest for the conference. Since it was such a rare opportunity to speak one-one-one with such a distinguished scholar, I asked her, “Tanya, I plan on pursuing a Ph.D. degree in the near future. Could you please give me some advice about how to do good research?” She replied, “Lady Gaga is a great singer; a real artist. You should listen to her music.” Then she left. Needless to say, I was confused after hearing that. I thought to myself, “So does she mean I should listen to Lady Gaga’s music to become a good researcher?” Following her suggestion, I started to listen to Lady Gaga’s music. However, after I listened to all of Lady Gaga’s songs, my research skills had only marginally improved.

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

One year later, someone told me that Tanya hadn’t published any papers this year. I couldn’t believe it, but after checking her website I realized this person was right. Soon after, I heard people starting to gossip, “Tanya is not a rising star any longer,” “Tanya flops”, “Tanya isn’t what she used to be”. I was genuinely worried about her, and I kept wondering what had happened.

A year later, I met her in person again at another academic conference in Washington DC. After some small talk, I had to mention, “Tanya, I have been following your research, but it seems that you haven’t updated your website for some time.” Although I didn’t ask directly why she hadn’t published anything notable, she quickly understood what I meant. Then she said, “Remember a couple years ago when I asked you to listen to Lady Gaga’s music? Here’s why I did that. Lady Gaga had a commercially successful career for several years. Then, she flopped in 2013 when she released her album Artpop. So what happened? Instead of just satisfying the public, Lady Gaga was trying to produce an album created from an artist’s perspective. Thus, the album Artpop was not accepted by the majority, although it had a large influence on the music industry overall when we look back at it today. The subjects of this album, art and pop, can be considered by many to be antithetical. She caused a stir with her pop fans when she picked sides. Lady Gaga chose art, but that came with a cost.” 

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

Then, Tanya turned to me with this statement that resonates with me until today, “It’s no different in academia. One can publish many papers in a short time, but how many of them will actually be remembered by history? I know this may sound harsh, but one could argue some of the work is just garbage in, garbage out. During your Ph.D. program, you should publish one or two papers you can be proud of in your life. And then, let’s talk about methodology and application. One can have very complicated models, but are they all useful in reality? Someone once said ‘all models are wrong but some are useful.’ Make your model useful. Young man, think about what you are doing, make wise decisions, and always keep the light in your eyes.” Then she walked away once again.

I learned a lot from Tanya. I learned that everything has its time. I learned that patience is the greatest virtue. And I learned that failures are often our biggest successes. I hope above all you can enjoy your Ph. D. experience, and I will leave you with some advice of my own: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Your biggest success is right around the corner.

Featured Image by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

Wei is a Ph.D. student at USC majoring in Operations Research. His research interests lie primarily in shared mobility transportation, supply chain and logistics, and online platforms and marketplaces. This article was in part inspired by an ALI course coached by Tessy Tzoytzoyrakos. Michael Neufeld, his one-on-one conversation partner, helped with polishing the language.