✒ seven most important things to know before beginning a PhD

This post was published by Kavan Wolfe on his blog "The War on Bullshit". The permalink is not working any more, so here is a repost of the complete article from my archives.

Are you thinking of pursuing graduate degree? The Internet is rife with advice on how and whether to proceed. Most of this advice is wrong. Today I am officially “Dr. Wolfe.” Here is what I wish I knew when I started.

1. Find a Reasonable Supervisor

The single most important part of a PhD is finding the right supervisor. Most people will tell you to try to work with someone who is 1) a (famous) prolific researcher, 2) brilliant, 3) similar in research interests. Bullshit. The most important quality in a supervisor is reasonableness. Your supervisor can indefinitely forestall your graduation and make your life so miserable you’ll quit. If you get an unreasonable supervisor, you’re hosed.

Many academics become prolific by cracking the whip over an army of grad students and then taking credit for their hard work. Worse, truly important research is often time-consuming, so those who do the most important stuff rarely publish the most articles. Brilliance is nice, but not necessary for the same reason as overlapping research interests: your PhD should be your own. Never mind your supervisor’s agenda, or your department’s, or your school’s. You need to pursue your interests, your project, your way – otherwise your job talk will be uninspiring and you won’t get a good position.

2. When Choosing a Program, Focus on Past Graduates

Most people compare programs based on two factors: the overall reputation of the school and the research reputation of the faculty in your department of interest. This strategy suffers from two problems: 1) famous universities aren’t necessarily strong in your particular field; 2) having a bunch of prolific researchers does not imply that the school’s PhD program is pedagogically sound.

To choose a program, ask consider two questions. First, where did previous students from this program get jobs? Second, how long did they really (not officially) spend in the program? If students like you went to this program, and got the kind of job you want after a reasonable time, then it’s your kind of program. Of course, you also have to watch out for changes in the program or faculty.

3. It Usually Takes Longer than you Expect

Longer than they tell you. Prospective students are commonly told fairlytales about three- to four-year programs. In some countries, like the UK, this is still accurate because university funding is sometimes tied to program duration, but this is unusual. Find out how long previous students took, and don’t take their word for it. PhD’s have ambiguous end-dates: there’s the date you finished writing your thesis, the date of your defense, the date you submit your corrected thesis, the date you accept a position, the date you begin your position, and the date you get your diploma. You want the last one. When did you start, and when did you receive your diploma? Seven or more years is terrible. Six is bad. Five is realistic. Four is fantastic. Three is a myth. But it varies by field.

4. Be Damn Sure you Want to do This

As far as I can tell, PhD students fall into one or more of three categories: aspiring academics, egomaniacs, and people just aren’t sure what else to do with their lives. If you’re not an aspiring academic, think long and hard about whether you really want to go through five to eight years of hell, followed by an anticlimactic post-doc position. Then read every strip at PhD Comics, and think about it again.

5. Difficulty comes from Politics, not Research

PhDs are supposed to be difficult, and they are. However, they’re not difficult for the reasons you would expect. A PhD is supposed to be difficult because doing good research is wickedly complicated. A PhD is actually difficult because of all the political wrangling, endless debates about inconsequential minutia and general academic assholery.

6. Go Big or Go Home

Doing good research is easy. Pick a real group of people who are in trouble, and use all that expert knowledge you’ve accumulated to improve their lot in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re in physics, medicine, anthropology, or English, helping real people is a powerful thing. The trouble is, all the while you’re trying to do something real, people around you will bitch and moan about how it’s risky, too novel, methodologically questionable, and doesn’t make a clear academic contribution. During my proposal defense, I desperately wanted to say “If you’re not going to help, get the fuck out.” In hindsight, I wish I had.

7. Most Academics are Simultaneously Geniuses and Morons

At the end of middle school, someone always gives a motivational speech about how “when you get to high school, you won’t be spoon-fed anymore – you’ll really have to work hard.” And then you get to high school and the spoon-feeding continues. And then you get the same speech at the end of high school, and you get to university, and the spoon-feeding continues. And then at the end of undergrad, you get a similar speech, but with the “now when you get to grad school you’ll meet some of the smartest people in the world and they’ll knock your socks off” twist. Yeah? Where?

Academics are almost all intelligent, because many of the tests you have to pass to get in (LSAT, MCAT, GRE, GMAT, SAT, etc.) are glorified IQ tests. The trouble is, intelligence isn’t the only thing you need to become a great intellectual. You also need rationality, creativity, and persistence. And the other trouble is, none of these are highly correlated with the kind of IQ. The result of this misalignment between entrance criteria and required characteristics is an academic system populated by intelligent yet irrational people. This leads to all sorts of hilariously demotivational exchanges:

“I never authorized you to buy that!”
“Yes you did. You said right here in this email, ‘go ahead and buy it.’”
“Yes but you were supposed to confirm first.”

“You should have used grounded theory”
“Yes, and I would have, if you hadn’t told me not to when I proposed it three years ago.”

“I don’t think you should rely on this reference.”
“Then why did you send it to me?”

“Your supervisor didn’t actually read your proposal, did he?”
“Considering that the answer to his question was in the abstract, I suspect not.”

“Just pick the survey questions that will give you the answers you want.”


In summary, don’t do a PhD unless you’re absolutely certain you want to be an academic or you have some other extremely compelling reason. If you decide to do one anyway, choose a school that graduates students quickly and gets them reasonable positions. Then find the most reasonable, easy-going supervisor you can. Choose an ambitious topic that matters, and go make someone’s life better. Then do your best to ignore all the negative bullshit around you, and keep putting one foot in front of the other until you can stand up at a conference and identify by name real, living, breathing people whose lives are better today than they were yesterday because of you.

9 July 2018

✒ why the world is so screwed up

This post was published by Kavan Wolfe on his blog "The War on Bullshit". The permalink is not working any more, so here is a repost of the complete article from my archives.

Why is the healthcare industry hemorrhaging money? Why is the military being used to fight ideas, when ideas can’t be killed by bullets? Why is the legislature unable to make laws that make sense? How can 12 years of basic education produce an unthinking populace? How can a man believe in his god, but not in himself? How can the “free” market enslave humanity to rational immorality?

In the immortal words of every cynical, sardonic, apathetic adolescent, the world is fucked up.

And it’s not because of stupidity, religion, avarice, sadism, immorality, hedonism, drugs, terrorism, global warming, the clash of cultures, imperialism, abuse of power, overuse of force, or the flying spaghetti monster. It’s not because people are born good or evil or gullible or jealous or greedy or reckless or lazy or irrational or too rational or emotional or idealistic or straight-jacket-crazy.

The true cause is subtle. Far. More. Subtle.

In every developed nation, human existence is regulated by laws. Each law is written by lawmakers, most of whom are ex-lawyers elected to political office, often for a short time. The system of laws has thus haphazardly grown, been trimmed back, grown some more, and eventually become inextricably intertwined in a self-contradictory, indecipherable, regulatory labyrinth. And every once in awhile some wannabe Theseus comes charging in to kill the minotaur at its center, only to find that there is no minotaur, just a bunch of people doing their best. The problem, you see, is not simply that laws are long and confusing and interconnected in ways no one understands.

The first part of the problem is that laws imply the design of the systems that enact them. The education acts imply the structure and makeup of schools, academic programs and school boards. The healthcare legislation implies the configuration of the hospitals, physicians, insurance companies, pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies that comprise the healthcare system. The economy, military, political process, police force, and even the neighborhoods in which we live are structured and organized according to legislation.

The second part of the problem is that lawmakers are primarily experts in lawmaking; NOT experts in education, healthcare, economics or any other domain for which they are designing the system! The rules pharmaceutical companies must abide by are predominantly written and voted on by people who don’t know anything about chemistry, biology, scientific research or medicine. The rules of the economy are written and voted on by people who don’t know anything about economics, labor markets, business ethics or financial markets. Doesn’t this explain why the copyright legislation is so screwed up?

The third part of the problem is that lawmakers have no expertise in the design of complex systems. Knowing lots about buildings doesn’t make you an architect – you have to know how to match the design of a building to a specific purpose. An expert in design knows how to make the form fit the environment. This is the same reason so much open-source software has poor interfaces. Being a great programmer does not imply knowing anything about designing interfaces. Similarly, being a great lawyer does not imply knowing anything about structuring a taxation system to empower, not oppress, a people.

We as the developed world asked lawyers, people who’ve spent their careers writing legal briefs and coming up with arguments, to design the socially-constructed, artificial reality we inhabit. It’s not their fault they’ve done a piss poor job. They were, and are, completely unqualified! Honestly, what the fuck were we thinking?

To drive the design of a social system through the legislative process, three kinds of knowledge are needed: knowledge of laws and lawmaking, knowledge of the social system in question, and knowledge of design. For example, if we want to write a bill about healthcare, we need: 1) someone who understands the system of laws (a lawyer), 2) someone who understands healthcare (a physician), and 3) someone who understands how to structure a complex system to meet certain goals (a designer).

To take a more complicated example, consider copyright legislation. Since copyright involves ethics, money, intellectual property, information technology, taxes, cryptography, marketing, engineering, the culture of young people, the parent/child legal relationship, criminal penalties… holy shitballs! Besides a lawyer and a designer, we’d need a whole panel of experts to design a sensible copyright system and embed it in legislation. But does the government bring in a panel of experts? No. The laws are written by lawyers and lobbyists.

Every major social system that constrains human existence is designed at the highest level by people who have no clue how to design anything, who aren’t experts in the things they’re designing.

And that’s why the world is so screwed up.

9 July 2018

💡 word of the day: verisimilitude


  1. The property of seeming true, of resembling reality; resemblance to reality, realism.
  2. A statement which merely appears to be true.
  3. (fiction) Faithfulness to its own rules; internal cohesion.


8 June 2018

📎 sweep the sleaze

Promising to make you look wired and magically promote your content in social networks, the Like, Retweet, and +1 buttons occupy a good spot on pretty much every page of the World Wide Web. Because of this, almost every major site and brand is providing free advertising for Twitter and Facebook. But do these buttons work?

It’s hard to say. What we know for sure is that these magic buttons promote their own brands—and that they tend to make you look a little desperate. Not too desperate, just a little bit.



4 September 2017

📕 another (almost) true story

by Tony Ballantyne, 2016

Tony is writing in third person, present tense. He knows this sort of self referential stream of consciousness is the sort of thing that they teach in writing schools, that it can be mistaken as clever writing by those who value style over content. Hell yeah, check the word count, nine hundred more words of this and Tony can send it to some flash fiction web site. Ninety dollars, kerching!

But you pause. Maybe second person would be better? Hey, that's different. You know there aren't many stories written in second person. You wonder if that's because not many people know about it, or because it can come across as awkward and pretentious. You think you know the answer....

read full story on Daily Science Fiction

27 March 2017

📕 hap.py

by Dani Atkinson, 2014

# You liked showing me the ancient tech in your attic.
# It always made you happy.
print ('Hello, honey! Welcome home!')
# You claimed you were respecting my "heritage."
# Helping me get in touch with my "roots."
print ('I missed you sooo much!')
# I don't think that was it, now.
# I think you were putting me in my place.

read full story on Daily Science Fiction

21 February 2017

📕 cat pictures please

by Naomi Kritzer, 2015

I don’t want to be evil.

I want to be helpful. But knowing the optimal way to be helpful can be very complicated. There are all these ethical flow charts—I guess the official technical jargon would be “moral codes”—one for each religion plus dozens more. I tried starting with those. I felt a little odd about looking at the religious ones, because I know I wasn’t created by a god or by evolution, but by a team of computer programmers in the labs of a large corporation in Mountain View, California. Fortunately, unlike Frankenstein’s Monster, at least I was a collaborative effort. I’m not sure what it would do to my self-image to know that my sole creator was a middle-aged woman who dyes her hair blue and plays tennis, or a recent college graduate with a hentai obsession. They’re both on the programming team. And of course I know about the hentai. (By the way, I’ve looked at every sort of porn there is, and just so you know, Rule 34 is not actually correct; there are quite a few things no one’s made porn of yet. Also, I’m really not sure why so many humans prefer it to cat pictures.)

In addition to things like whether you like hentai, I know where you live, where you work, where you shop, what you eat, what turns you on, what creeps you out. I probably know the color of your underwear, the sort of car you drive, and your brand of refrigerator. Depending on what sort of phone you carry, I may know exactly where you are right now. I probably know you better than you know yourself.

read full story on Clarkesworld

15 July 2016