ABDs agonize far too much about finishing, and not enough about finishing right. A successful Ph.D. experience, as opposed to a merely completed one, is one that leaves you with self-assurance, confidence in your own abilities, and full of the creativity and energy required to go after more ambitious pursuits. A completed but unsuccessful Ph.D. experience, on the other hand, can leave you cynical, broken, and effectively ruined for further research work. Many, of course, acquire “successful” mindsets via postdoctoral experiences, but you should aim to get it right the first time.
I have a magic formula for a successful Ph.D. Through the course of your doctoral work, you must make at least 3 significant leap-of-faith decisions, that turn out to be right. Here is a picture of what a leap of faith looks like:
(this piece was written for the All But Dissertation Survival Guide (ABDSG) newsletter, which targets PhD students)
A leap of faith is a decision that goes against the best-intentioned advice of your supervisor, committee members, mentors, coaches and peers. A decision that is poorly supported by evidence or reasoning. A decision that exposes you to some real risk. In the more courageous instances, it is also a decision which actually goes against plausible (but not conclusive – that would be dumb) evidence and reasoning. I’ll tell you about my top three in a bit, but first let’s ask: why do you need leaps of faith? And why three?
The why is simple. Think about the four most common ways of justifying a choice or decision:
1. “Because Expert X says so,”
2. “Because the numbers say so,”
3. “Because A and B imply C,”
4. “Because I just feel it is the right choice.”
The first three — people, data and analysis — are all external loci of trust. The fourth, intuition, however, is trust in gestalt/subconscious perceptions and computations that bubble up into conscious awareness as an inclination to choose (or avoid) a particular option. Call it right-brained decision-making if you like. You can’t externalize it except with hindsight. Intuition isn’t random guesswork though: it is just thinking you can’t see. Trusting your intuition is like trusting a hidden person inside yourself who gives you oracular answers without much explanation.
Every leap of faith moves what psychologists call your “locus of control” more inward by teaching you to trust your instincts. Leaps of faith are also what get you engaged in significant work, and allow you to let go and be creative without losing the sense of owning your destiny. Leaps of faith build up your resilience, and you’ll need plenty of that in the face of the inevitable setbacks and losses that come with a life in research.
Now why three? Again the answer is simple. One successful leap of faith, especially if it is significant, can seem like luck or even a divinely-ordained moment of enlightenment for the spiritual among you. Two can be explained away as coincidence. But get to the magic number three, and suddenly you start to trust yourself in a deep way; you’re doing something right in your subterranean thinking. It is a moment that unleashes enormous reserves of positive energy.
Of course, if in the process of making three sound leaps, you make ten cripplingly unsound ones, you are likely to lose all credibility. So you do need to do all the commonsense things that increase your chances, like reading widely, talking to many people, practicing your skills, spending time reflecting, and so forth. Your subconscious computer obeys the garbage-in-garbage-out rule. If you don’t feed it enough of the right input, it won’t suggest inspired decisions.
If this sounds more risky than you like, you can work your way up by making smaller “practice” leaps of faith and making increasingly larger leaps where you seem to have a better “hit” rate. (Don’t analyze why though, just find the areas where you seem to be lucky. Is your judgment sounder on mathematical questions than programming questions? Make bigger leaps of faith there.)
But eventually baby leaps won’t do. You need the three significant ones. And you’ll know when you make them. There are some disciplined ways to tease out good intuitive judgments (see, for example, Focusing by Eugene Gendlin), but the key is to find some way to listen to your intuition and then learn to trust it, one decision at a time.
Now let me tell you about my three leaps of faith.
Leap of Faith #1: Doing a Romantic Ph.D.
My first big leap of faith was to commit, at high risk, to what I call a romantic Ph.D. All around me, I saw wise, skeptical and pragmatic people who seemed to believe that a Ph.D. was merely an apprenticeship that would teach me a few specialized skills and get me a passport that would open certain doors. But I was craving a philosophical growth experience, not a piece of paper or a passport into a professional elite class.
Three years into my graduate program, I was depressed, uninterested in my work and hating every minute of my life. But I had all the trappings of progress — I’d written a couple of journal articles and passed my qualifiers. My then-supervisor was trying to be encouraging, telling me I was only one more result away from a defensible Ph.D.
My leap of faith was deciding to quit this first direction, despite my heavy investment. It seemed completely irrational at the time. I gave up my funding, found a different advisor who seemed interested in the half-baked ideas I wanted to explore, and went off to work at a job for a year while waiting for his funding to come through.
I know today that I owe my career and sanity to that decision. You may not, as I do, view the Ph.D. as the modern day equivalent of a Zen retreat, with similar expectations, but the point is, I made a leap of faith towards my expectations. You will need, at some point, to make a leap of faith towards yours.
Leap of Faith #2: Ignoring the “Simplest Problem” Heuristic
My second big leap of faith was choosing to go against what amounts to gospel in my field, control theory. Pretty much every professor I’d interacted with offered me one piece of high-level advice: write down and start with the simplest model of the problem you are working on. This is excellent advice, but I did not trust it, because it always seemed to guide me away from interesting problems.
I wanted to study the dynamics of swarms of spacecraft and aircraft, but the rule-of-thumb, applied blindly, told me to study the simplest case (two interacting aircraft or spacecraft). After following the “simplest” rule-of-thumb for my first problem, I made a leap of faith and started working with models of arbitrary numbers of spacecraft. Systems that were much too complex to analyze with pen-and-paper mathematics and would only yield to computer models.
This was uncharted territory for my supervisor and most of the experienced researchers I interacted with. My indulgent supervisor openly indicated that in his mind, he was giving me enough rope to hang myself. Yet this was where interesting things were happening in the field. I struggled, but eventually I found ways to do very interesting things with my models of arbitrary numbers of spacecraft.
Again, today, five years down the line, I know I am most appreciated by my peers for my ability to deal with complexity, and resisting the urge to simplify too much. My leap of faith bought me my professional identity.
Leap of Faith #3: Going Truly Interdisciplinary
This last one may not seem like much of a leap of faith. Everybody declares his or her work is interdisciplinary. But true interdisciplinary work is still the exception, not the rule. Much of what is packaged as interdisciplinary is just that — packaging. I’ll write another time about what “true” means, but from a practical point of view, deciding to “go interdisciplinary” carries significant risks.
In my case, I ended up putting a significant number of elements in my work drawn from two fields that are adjacent to control theory — operations research and artificial intelligence. I had to learn the sociology, culture, language and literature of three distinct communities, and build relationships with people who understood some parts of what I was doing, but had no idea what the other parts were about. Going interdisciplinary also required learning to listen to, and respond to, feedback from committee members who were looking for drastically different (often conflicting) things in my work.
The leap of faith here was that there was interesting stuff to be found in the interstices of the three disciplines, even if I could only fumble with my self-invented methods there, without recourse to the well-honed methodologies of disciplinary work.
This decision, too, has turned out to be absolutely critical to me. The rather unique opportunities that have opened up for me since my Ph.D. were created by the interdisciplinary elements of my Ph.D.
I finished my Ph.D. almost five years ago. Looking back, with a few years each of postdoctoral and industrial research experience under my belt, one observation stands out: I learned almost nothing from my mistakes, but I learned a huge amount every time I did something right that I didn’t know at the time was going to turn out to be right. In a very fundamental way, the leap of faith is the atomic unit of true learning.