Monday, December 1, 2008

The Tao of Grad School part 2

Part 2: Where should I take my Ph.D.?
Compared to the US system, there are way fewer considerations to take in Norway. Whereas the ranking/reputation of the university matters a great deal Stateside, the pseudo-egalitarianism of the academic system i Norway pretty much negates most of the importance related to which institution you get your Ph.D. from. What research group you get your degree from still matters a lot, but being able to evaluate that is another matter, and odds are overwhelmingly against someone who just got their M.Sc. being able to separate the groups which are Da Bomb from the lesser ones. Besides, it doesn't necessarily have any significant bearing on the quality of your Ph.D. within the Norwegian system, unless you've hooked up with a certain Sudbø or that fake diet GP who got busted recently.

Stateside, normal practice is to accept classes of graduate students on an annual or biannual basis, which then are filtered through potential advisors to projects which can be tailor-made or which are prone to change according to the direction the research is going, etc. The reality in Norway is that you've got to apply for available positions linked to specific projects, or that a tenured faculty member must apply for a scholarship in your name. In the former case, you're one applicant out of many, depending on the job market, the general appeal of the project and how "hot" the research group is. If you get hired on a pre-approved project, you probably won't get much input into the overall goal and timelines of the project. You're hired into a pre-determined project with subgoals and timelines which are approved by the funding party, and you'd better have a good reason for wanting to mess around with this. On the plus side, your application is probably ranked according to a more holistic image, where relevant research experience etc. are taken into account. If you apply for a scholarship in your name, be aware that grades are what's up. If there are more applicants than positions (and it is), then the pre-selection is done pretty much entirely by GPA. If there are ten positions available and your GPA ranks you number 11, you're what's known as shit out of luck. Moreover, if an application is filed in your name, you can (probably) have a say in the project description, and thus have more of an ownership of the project at an early stage.

Funding for a Ph.D. project typically comes from one of three sources (or a linear combination) - Industry, Research Council or University/Department funding.

Industry funding:
If applied research is your thing, and you want to see how your lab work stands up to scrutiny in the real world, under real conditions, this is probably where you want to be at. Odds are you'll also be working within a team rather than this being a solo effort. Moreover, the entire Ph.D. basically serves as a giant, prolonged job interview, and at the very least you're networking with potential employers and key reference people.

Research Council funding:
Depending on the program under which the funding was given, you could be working alone or in a team, and the project may or may not have industrial partners. Any project funded by the Research Council probably involves an international collaborative effort, where you get input from other research groups. These types of projects range from applied to very fundamental science. In many ways, these projects could represent the "best of both worlds" if you like to balance on the razor's edge where you want your work to have a practical application, but you still want to be able to address fundamental concerns.

University funding.
University positions are few and far between, and usually reserved for those with really good grades. Most often, the types of projects funded by the University encompass fundamental research, and as one applies for a specific candidate, the project is probably going to be an individual effort.

None of these categories shut the door on any future job prospects in either academia or industry, but obviously the private sector might be more prone to hiring someone with whom they know and who has worked on and become familiar with "their" technology, organization and research. While the paycheck is going to be the same while you do your Ph.D., there's no question that you'll make more money if you're hired in the private sector than what you'll earn if you're academically inclined. Still; if you even consider accepting a position where the project and underlying science doesn't really interest you because of the pot of gold waiting at the rainbow's end when you get a high-paying job in a large corporation, then you're either the greediest person alive, or you're massively underestimating the amount of work you've got to put into a Ph.D.. This also applies for anyone going into a more applied research project when they really want to do fundamental science, except for the part about the paycheck... Unless you're really interested in the project, you're better off applying your talents elsewhere.

Another thing to consider is whether the Ph.D. position is scheduled for three or four years, or alternatively; whether or not you're expected to teach while you get your degree. I'm not sure whether this could or should be considered a dealbreaker, but it's something you should take into account. If your goal is to go into academia, then you'll get teaching experience which'll look good on the ol' resume. Moreover, graduate TA's now get an abbreviated version of the infernal mandatory pedagogic course for faculty members. In other words, you get teaching experience and a pedagogic diploma which'll give you one leg up on the competition. Conversely, if you were a TA during your undergraduate years and you absolutely hated it, you probably still hate teaching, in which case the extra year of teaching is going to substantially add to the suck-factor of grad school.

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