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How NOT to get a PhD

Posted on 2009.06.23 at 15:23
Every year, I get a couple of emails from random researchers who want my help finding papers or learning about the area. It's flattering that they think it's worth asking me, I suppose, but many of them do so with such an utter lack of tact or understanding that they border on insulting. They manage in so few words to indicate that they have no clue what they're asking. Here's part of one I got last week:

i am Interested in doing my Phd from one of the very good Candian University.but i dont know which are the best schools in canada.please help me out in this regard.

Now, at least he wasn't insulting, but... umm... I sincerely question the wisdom of cold-emailing a stranger on the internet for advice about a PhD. Doing a doctorate is more of a personal intellectual pilgrimage, and where you do it is, as far as I know, generally heavily reliant upon who you want to work with. This is actually not that far off asking some random stranger, "I hear there are nice girls in Canada. Who should I marry?"

Edit: I should mention that he says elsewhere in the mail that he's currently doing a Master's at an American university, so there shouldn't be a huge cultural divide here. I'm really quite perplexed that he would ask the stuff he did of a complete stranger.


(Anonymous) at 2009-06-28 21:23 (UTC) (Link)


...there is a big cultural divide between the USA and Canada. Most of my peers here, especially the overseas foreign students, do NOT have a good idea of who they want to work with until they finish their programs in the courses, and actually the design of the system often makes people like that get through faster as they are more "moldable" by whatever advisor they happen to fall in with, will take up projects that actually have funding rather than come up with their own, and so on.

Add that to the fact that, especially with overseas students, the biggest factor in a decision of where to go for grad school are the USNWR rankings. They'll figure out the rest later, they just want an American PhD.

I get cold-emailed questions like that every so often. The writer is probably equally as perplexed that you view a PhD as a personal intellectual pilgrimage. This works somewhat better in Canada, but from personal experience in the USA (as a certain other friend of ours as well), it can be a recipe for a prolonged graduate experience.

(Anonymous) at 2009-06-28 21:28 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Actually...

I should add that this is because there is a wide stratification in degree quality, both real and perceived, in the USA. In Canada, there's some cachet about, eg, McGill, but it's not that far off an experience from U of Ottawa. There is less pressure to play the rankings. In the USA, a good chunk of the population will go to whatever graduate school is highest-ranked that accepts them---I mean, it's simply assumed that whatever you liked at a respectable university like MSU, you will find something better (even if completely different) at MIT.

Whether that is true or not, that's the perception of most students coming out of ugrad (and directly into a PhD programme, which is the normal course).
(Anonymous) at 2009-06-28 21:28 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Actually...

That was me again :)

ostraya at 2009-06-30 17:49 (UTC) (Link)

Re: Actually...

Well, I stand corrected! Although even so, I still question the wisdom of emailing some random stranger on the internet to give you an idea of the most prestigious places... You'd think he'd go find Macleans with a quick web search.
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