Some advice nobody asked for

Related to the previous post, here is some free PhD advice for all three people who occasionally read the blog, none of whom it’s probably relevant to. I really did not excel in my PhD and then left academia, so this advice may not be worth having, but I felt like writing it down anyway.

I saw this really insightful answer on academia.stackexchange, in response to someone asking how they could attract more good applicants to a PhD programme in an ‘awesome’ but (implicitly) not super-top-level-wow-prestigious university. The core part:

So currently, you are getting two types of student: A) Those for whom you are accidentally special, e.g. they live in your city and don’t want to move, and B) those who dreamed to get into Harvard. A will contain the usual mix of brilliant and average students, while from B, Harvard picked all the chocolate chips from the cookie.

The solution is that you become top player by getting into a niche which has been overlooked. It may be completely new, or it may have 1-2 players which are in it accidentally, so you can beat them easily. Suddenly, you’ll start getting applications from C), the students who dream of being in that niche. Not only did you open yourself to a new set of students, but those who know early on what they know, and find out which university offers it, tend to be the best. This is a set of self-selected people who are motivated and effective.

I joined one of these sort of research groups and they are fantastic. They are obviously not as good for your future career as getting into Fancy Subfield at Imperial or Stanford. On the other hand, you won’t be expected to chew each others’ limbs off to get to the top of whichever bullshit status ladder is currently dominating the field. Also, nobody has gone there just to show off how amazingly brilliant they are, because if that was really important to them they’d have picked a trendier field/university/city. So you get a relaxed, collaborative atmosphere where people just really care about the subject and want to help each other learn.

Obviously the usefulness of this advice depends on the general intellectual health of your subject. If you reckon the existing status ladder in the field does line up nicely with actual useful progress, then it might be worth risking your limbs at the top groups. If instead you look at the ladder and think um, not so much, then you may as well go and have fun somewhere else.

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