How to ‘game’ your PhD

I was talking to a friend about my PhD last week, who expressed mild surprise at the fact that it is estimated to take 8 years to do a PhD part time in Australia. “Surely you can do it quicker than that!” he exclaimed. It’s true that a lot of time in a PhD student’s life is taken up by coffee runs, distractions in the office and admin work. In fact, many PhD students say that in hindsight they really did most of the work for their PhD in the last 3 months. I know from my honours project that it can be fun to work in an office environment with your fellow students, but potentially a huge time sink. In a way, perhaps it’s good that I’m doing most of the work from my home office. I also recently saw THIS blog entry about how to maximise the effectiveness of your PhD program and complete it quickly. This got us thinking about other ways one could quickly publish 3-4 (quality!) papers, write a thesis, then graduate.

First, a summary of the key points from the above blog:

Andrew Critch is critical of lab work, saying that it’s time consuming, and if you want to do a PhD quickly you should do one with minimal lab time. While there isn’t likely to be a lot of lab work for my PhD, some field work is a high possibility. I’m hoping to do a lot of my experiments via simulations (which will be necessary in some parts as I can’t do field work on an asteroid yet!) and rely on computing power to cut down the time spent. Critch also recommends doing a PhD in something like economics or philosophy where having a good idea can accelerate you a lot. It’s maybe a little late for me there, but I am interested in branching out a little into space economics, law and ethics.

Being surrounded by highly productive researchers is a positive, and you can take the opportunity to learn how they get their work done. A lot of researchers have multiple roles on the go, including collaborating in a lot of different projects, so they have a lot of expertise to share. Which brings me to my next point…

Collaborate! At last week’s Off-Earth Mining Forum I met a lot of mining engineers and other researchers who were working on the more engineering side of space mining. After listening to their presentations, I thought of a lot of ways that I as a geophysicist could offer a unique perspective and expertise to move the research forwards. This is a good way to potentially be a co-author and have other researchers co-author your work and help you. One idea I have is to collate information on the types of geophysical and geological characteristics that are required/ideal for developing a block model (used for mine planning) and resource characterisation. Then, using what I know about geophysics, I can look into the best ways to determine these characteristics. The same applies for mining techniques. A wide range of structural models are proposed for asteroids, each with their own implications for the ideal type of mining technique. It would be inconvenient to have to take every mining technique possibly required to an asteroid to plan for every contingency. So I’d like to work with the mining engineers and determine what each structural type would imply for mining, and determine the best ways to characterise the relevant structure for an asteroid.

After seeing some of the conference papers presented last week, I realised I already have the workings of what could turn into some papers. I tend to find that I work well with a deadline, and will usually complete a piece of work around the deadline no matter how long it is. So setting some hard, short term deadlines for yourself may help to motivate you to work harder and produce work. For example, I intend to submit one of the above ideas as a paper abstract for a geophysics conference here in Adelaide next year. This will motivate me to get some quality work done by the conference.

On a related note, a lot of time spent writing work is in agonising over small details. Another piece of advice from the above blog that I have found really useful is to use a co-author (or find a partner who is working on something similar) and shoot drafts back and forth. Send on a draft even if it’s not complete, get some feedback on it and repeat. I find you make progress a lot quicker in this way.

The recommendation for completing a PhD, at least in Australia, is to publish 3-4 papers and then collate them into a thesis. A little simplified, but that’s the gist of it. I had always assumed that, for a science PhD, these papers would have to involve collecting new data, but my supervisor told me last week that isn’t necessarily the case. A review paper, which summarises all of the current knowledge about a particular topic with a specific theme, can count. In fact, a review paper is apparently preferred, as they are cited more often and have higher prestige associated. This is handy, because typically when you start writing a PhD you will do an extended literature review on one narrow area to catch up with the existing research. What better time to summarise a small field than when you have just spent several months reading all there is to know about it. Make sure you take notes and summarise as you go to make writing such a paper possible.

It is a good idea to contact a few journals with your idea for a review paper to see if they would be interested in publishing it or something similar, as many review papers are solicited by a journal ahead of time. Other easy publications might include a meta-analysis, which analyses the data and statistics of a strain of research, similar to a review paper. This allows you to produce good work without having to do a lot of labwork and data collection yourself. Another easy publication, which doesn’t count towards your publication count but is still useful to do as it gets your name out there and is good experience, is to submit a comment about a journal article. This can be as short as a few paragraphs, and as simple as suggesting another line of analysis, or that a particular statistical method is not appropriate for the study.

On a similar note, applying new analyses, statistics and interpretation methods to existing data can allow you to break new ground without having to collect your own data from scratch. As I found out in my honours year, a lot of time is spent in quality checking data and taking precautions.

When I first met my supervisors they told me about one PhD candidate someone had who was also managing a research and development style team for work. They ended up summarising several years of work that the team had done (and the candidate had managed/supervised) and submitted that as their thesis. While technically acceptable, this way of finishing your PhD is certainly frowned upon! But for a part-time PhD, working on similar things in your full-time job, as I am, can be beneficial as you develop useful skills even while not working on your research.

The last thing I can think of is to just work hard. I’m sure most PhD students do, but I know one geoscience PhD student who finished his thesis in two years because he worked all day and into the evenings for most of his program. This may sound unattractive, but just imagine what you could do with those extra 1.5 years of life from completing a PhD program early.

Well I’ll keep you all posted on how this little social experiment actually goes over the next X years while I finish my PhD. If my supervisors are reading this, don’t worry, I promise the quality of work won’t suffer from my trying to ‘game’ my PhD!

Until next time.

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