Monday, January 12, 2015

A Clausewitzian Approach to Graduate Studies

While reading an article on SlashDot today on the debate about the importance of Grit vs. Intelligence in academic success, I was reminded of an old paper idea on a Clausewitzian approach to grad school.  It is one of those papers that I never got around to writing, but I always thought it might be helpful to Army graduate students going through programs behind me.  It is the approach that I used with great success, both as a Master's student at Duke University (Computer Science, '96 - '98) and during my Ph.D. studies at Virginia Tech (Computer Engineering, '05 - '08).  

Despite my lackluster grades in my History of the Military Art class during my senior year at West Point, I have always had an interest in military history.  One of the great military theorists of the 19th century was Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian general who studied the campaigns of Fredrick the Great and Napoleon and wrote extensively on the nature and philosophy of warfare.  In his most famous work, On War, he says that war is "as fascinating trinity", composed of "violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation."  He goes on to (loosely) describe how these elements are embodied by a country's population, it's army, and it's government, and he describes how success in war relies on a balance of the three, and not on one alone.

While a master's student at Duke, I proposed that success as a graduate student relied on a similar "fascinating trinity", and I often used it as a device to advise graduate students that followed me.  My "trinity" included raw intelligence, work ethic, and politics.  A student that mastered two of three was very likely to succeed and finish school on time and on budget.  Possessing all three made it almost impossible to fail.  Possessing only one of the three, even to the extreme, was usually not sufficient for success.  My evidence is circumstantial.  Time after time I observed students whose intelligence shone like a bright star against the pale flicker of me and my ilk, but who, through laziness and either disinterest or misunderstanding of the political landscape, toiled for years in the trenches of research assistantships with little or no hope of ever finishing their degrees.

The Trinity:

Intelligence.  This is pretty straightforward.  People assume that Ph.D. holders are exceedingly intelligent.  Once you are in the club, you realize that this isn't necessarily the case.  Don't get me wrong - I'm not claiming you can earn a Ph.D. without some level of intelligence.  I just know that my pre-Ph.D. perception of how smart Doctors of Philosophy are was a bit off base.  It sure helps to be super-smart, though.  The best thing it does is it saves you time that you can otherwise devote to research and writing.  There was many a weekend and evening that I toiled over readings, math problems, and programming assignments that I could have otherwise devoted to work related to my research.  What raw intelligence doesn't necessarily do is give you a corner on the market of clever solutions to interesting problems.  Those come to everyone if you are willing to put in the effort, which brings me to the second leg of the stool . . .

Work Ethic.  Success in grad school, especially in a Ph.D. program, requires a hell of a lot of work.  Especially if you are time-constrained.  I completed both of my graduate degrees in the Army's Advanced Civil Schooling program and they only give you two years as a full-time student to finish a Masters degree and three years for a Ph.D.  (Three years for a Ph.D. seems awfully quick, but keep in mind that most Army Ph.D. students are building on a Masters degree.)  The willingness and ability to put in the time can make up for deficiencies in your background as well.  I entered my CS masters program with little experience in C programming and virtually no C++ experience, but I was expected to use both starting in the very first term.  I audited an undergrad C++ course and put in significant effort to bring myself up to speed.

Politics.  This is probably the least understood, but I would argue the most important aspect of a successful graduate experience.  And perhaps 'politics' isn't the most appropriate term, but to me, it is a term that gets closest to my point.  A graduate student has to do the basic mission analysis to understand course requirements and research/thesis/dissertation parameters, but this provides only a baseline understanding.  You have to understand the whole degree-granting system within you department and what role individuals play in it.  Of critical importance is the selection of your graduate adviser.  For you to be successful, this must be someone who understands your constraints (for example, the Army requirement to finish a Ph.D. in three years), and who has the standing in the department to declare, unilaterally if necessary, that you have completed the requirements for your degree.  Be careful picking anyone who is not at least an associate professor who is well-liked in the department and has a proven history of graduating students of whatever flavor you are (Masters or Ph.D.).  Don't pick the 'hungry' assistant professor that is trying to make a name for himself on the backs of his wage-slave grad students and who hasn't graduated a single student of your type!  I don't care if his interests exactly line up with yours - this is a recipe for disaster.  Be careful, also, in selecting your committee members.  They should either be close colleagues of your adviser, or young faculty that will do what he or she says.  Don't pick your advisers sworn enemy, even if he is your neighbor and you like him.  He may value screwing your adviser more than he does taking care of you.  There are lots of other political considerations, from the courses that you take (and who teaches them), to the fellow graduate students that you partner with on projects.  Be sure to do the complete mission analysis early.  There are some things that you can do early on that can be hard, or impossible, to undo.

So there it is.  I could perhaps expound more on each aspect of the trinity, but I'm not sure it would clarify much.  Maybe there's a reason I never got around to writing the paper . . .

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