Sunday, January 3, 2010


Like my good friend Justin, I'm looking for some advice on grad school. I'm currently in progress toward a Master's of Engineering in Systems Engineering, and I'm thoroughly enjoying the program. I want to pursue a PhD next, but I'm not sure what kind of program I want to enter or where I'd like to go to school.

My goals in pursuing a PhD are as follows, though not necessarily in this order:

  • Learn and grow and enjoy my studies.
  • Learn how to do, and actually do, meaningful research. 
  • Meet more people who are both intellectual and practical - people who care about results as well as ideas.
  • Increase my career choices - this is not about money, it's about being able to do work that is meaningful and significant.

    My primary interests are in the concept of emergence (how organization emerges from complexity), and in how to engineer emergence. That's very broad with applications ranging from public policy, to international development, to organizational management, to the design of transportation (or other) systems.

    My question is, which programs at which schools are most likely to help me achieve my goals, and allow me to study and do research relating to the engineering of emergence? The way I see it, there are many kinds of programs that touch this concept at least tangentially, and any of those might work for me as long as I was given a measure of freedom to emphasize my interest. And there are a few programs that either directly approach the topic of emergence (for example, the Systems Science program at Portland State University), or provide tools that are pertinent (economics, probability, etc.).

    Where I go to school matters for a lot of reasons, but most importantly because of the second two items on my bulleted list above. I want to work with high quality people and I want my degree to open doors for me. That said, there are some boundaries that I would like to stay within (though I'd consider going beyond them for the right program or the right school). Ideally I would like to stay in the western U.S., and I have a strong preference for the Pacific coast states. I'd also like to avoid the Los Angeles basin if at all possible (but I'd go there for the right program).

    What insights do you have into schools, programs, and faculty that might be useful to me? What cautions can you provide about whether or not pursuing a PhD is likely to help me achieve my goals?


    1. 1) Go to the best school possible. And don't worry about where it is - you will be too busy to notice much else about the area, and you will only be there for a few years. The better the school, the better the career choices, and the greater the likelihood you will meet people who are doing great (or at least interesting) things.
      2) Look for some articles re: your area of interest, find out where the faculty are, and call or write them to get their advice. I strongly suggest calling.
      3) Visit the schools you are considering, and talk to some doctoral students about their experiences. Also talk to faculty. This will let you find out if you would be happy there, and might get you some resources (students I knew had plucked all the plum assignments before we ever got to campus because they had visited beforehand and promises were made). This will also likely increase your chances of being accepted.
      4.) I would look at the salaries of faculty by discipline that are doing work in areas that fit your interest (e.g., social psychology vs. systems engineering), and then I would go in the appropriate field that has the highest salaries -- you will still enjoy your work, and have more resources. It makes life a little better living in a better neighborhood with some money to save for your kids' education (or that yacht).

      Good luck!

    2. Wayne's advice is excellent.

      I'd add:

      1) Go to the best school, and if possible, get grades good enough to transfer to an even better school.
      2) Look for young faculty in the area that interests you at the schools that interest you. These are the people you will do the most work with. Are they successful? Are they staying?
      3) Salaries are very underrated. No one ever has enough money once life starts to happen to them.

    3. Robert,

      I would agree with Wayne and Dave on pretty much everything except the money.

      Do what you love and the money will follow, and even if it doesn't you will still be happy. I've been around long enough to realize that at least for me money isn't the most important thing. You certainly need some, but I'd say family, friends, health, and the time to do what you want are worth far more than money. That's especially true for time.

      Follow Wayne and Dave's advice. Look for the best school you can find that is doing what you would like to do and go for it!

      Good luck, Joe Harralson

    4. Dr. Roberts,

      Thank you for your advice! A number of people are telling me to research faculty through their publications, through their students, and through talking with them and I think this is exactly right. I'm starting to understand how important it is to work with someone who will be a mentor and an advocate through the whole process.

    5. Dr. Tufte,

      Thank you! Your item number 2 is particularly interesting and not something I had considered!

    6. Prof. Harralson,

      It's good to hear from you! I was sad to hear that the MET program is being discontinued.

      My philosophy is a lot like yours. You have to enjoy life as you live it, and take care of the things that matter most. That's actually why I'm setting out to earn a PhD, because I feel like I'm not making the most of my time or living up to my potential.

      Take care!

    7. Hey Robert,

      I feel honored that you would ask my opinion. I don't know a lot about your area of study, so I can't recommend a particular University or program. But I think you will find that the people you work with will greatly define the quality and satisfaction of your work during school and after it. Also, the relationships you develop will be the most significant factor in the doors that are opened to you so you can pursue the work you want to accomplish. Fellow students can become lifelong friends and colleagues. Professors, assistants, researchers can all become part of your circle of influence.

      But in the end, no matter what you accomplish in your career, your relationship with your wife and children will be the one thing that brings you the greatest joy and the greatest sense of success or failure. Make sure that whatever you pursue, you make them your number one priority. They will have to sacrifice to help you accomplish your goals. But they still need you, especially your time, your involvement, your enthusiasm and support. Steve and I frequently have to remind each other that our lives are NOT about us, especially when we have to make hard decisions about what we want to do and what is best for our family.

      Good luck! I love you and wish you much happiness and success. Love your big sis, Gina

    8. Gina,

      I think so too, and meeting people who I will enjoy as friends and who may help me on my way is an important part of what I'm looking for.

      My wife and daughters are always first. It may sound like an excuse, but I honestly feel like I shortchange them if I don't make the most of myself. Elizabeth and Angela are sharper than I am, so if I can make a go of and earn a PhD then they should feel unlimited in their aspirations.

      Thanks for your support!

    9. Good thoughts, here. I am glad you posted this.

      Maybe it is just me, but I would worry about people being both intellectual and practical at the elite schools. When I think of students or faculty at schools like Harvard or MIT, practical is not a word that comes to mind, at least not in a "down to earth" sense. I could be wrong.

      Unlike other commenters, I would not worry about salary at all. I would worry about spending money on a needlessly expensive degree though. Most PhD programs would cover you, I would think, but I certainly would never pay the typical tuition at an elite university, even if it meant fabulous advisors and the rest. But as far as picking a course of study, I would place much more emphasis on the type of work someone with that background would do than on how much money they make. No matter what course of study you choose -- heck, even if you are kicked out of school for bad behavior -- you will be able to easily provide for yourself and your family, and that, in my opinion, is all that matters.

      Your interests sound fascinating. I wish I could help you with schools, programs, faculty, etc., but unfortunately I've got nothing.

    10. Justin,

      I hear that worry. The practical part of it is really important to me. I know a lot of people now who are very practical, but not very interested in ideas for their own sake. Adding a bunch of friends and associates who are interested in ideas but not in actually getting stuff to work would be only a marginal improvement.

      As far as making money goes, my best bet for increasing my earning potential is probably to stay where I am and keep climbing the corporate ladder, and definitely not to worry about education beyond a Master. The problem is I just can't get very excited about that idea. I feel like I've got a lot of corked-up potential, and the career path I'm on now does not seem likely to help me uncork it, even though it can give me a very comfortable living. I think that some more education, particularly at a school that is good at teaching...not scholarship exactly, but something really close to that, has a better chance of helping me live up to my potential.

    11. Robert, I just wrote a long response since you mentioned the SySc program at PSU, but as I was previewing it, the entire post simply disappeared. I don't have the energy to try to re-write the full post, so I'll just say that:

      1) I received a great education at PSU in this program in the '70's and I loved being in charge of my education

      2) I did not really learn how to do great research, but that was my fault (I was in charge as I said), and I ended up learning that later. I advise students not to do it my way, though.

      3) I agree with the advice you received from others: a) go to best school you can get into & afford that will teach you what you want to learn and allow you to do research you are passionate about, and b) location is not important.

      4) PSU/SYSC could meet your needs in a cost-effective way, but will not open doors at top-tier schools (for that you need to go to top-tier schools)


    12. Prof. Wakeland,

      I'm sorry that your post was lost. I've had that happen to me, and it's enormously frustrating. Thank you so much for taking the time to re-write some of it.

      One thing that is certainly becoming clear to me is that I need to make a strong distinction between pursuing a career in academia, and pursuing one in private business. To me the choice between these two is difficult to make.

      I think if I continue working in private industry that a PhD has a fairly small value to me professionally. I might still pursue one for my own satisfaction and fulfillment, but it is a pretty expensive way of finding life satisfaction (maybe not worse than buying a boat though). So under those conditions I might pursue a PhD at a school where I can do so as economically as possible.

      If I want to be an academic or work in public policy then I think I need to go to a top tier school. It's a bit intimidating, but I do think I can make the cut. I need to think hard about what I'm trading-off.


    13. Rob,
      Just let me say that there is no way I could possibly advise you on the subjects of school, career, or curricula. You think Elizabeth and Angela are smarter that you are. Well, I KNOW that you are smarter than I am.
      I'm proud of the way you have diligently pursued an education, worked hard to get good grades and to make the most of the opportunities you've been given, and the way you have been willing to take risks when necessary to advance in your career,( as in the move to St. George, when there was no obvious means of support in the offing.)
      I will support you in any way I can in whatever decision you make, because I'm certain it will be well-researched, that much thought and prayer will go into it. Much love, Mom

    14. Rob,
      I've been thinking somewhat about your dilemma, and remember a bit about a book which I read back in 1974 or thereabouts. In "Passages" Gail Sheehy wrote that it seems to be common for people to spend their thirties tearing up everything they worked so hard to establish in their twenties.
      Of course, that is exactly what your father and I did, which resulted in our moving about and changing jobs for ten years, until his untimely and tragic death in his early forties.
      Not to say that outcome is the usual result of changing one's direction after a few years.
      I remember, also, the many older men, with families, who were attending graduate school for advanced or additional degrees when your father was studying for his MA at U. of Iowa. We met some great and lasting friends there. Among them was Lael Woodbury, (whose oldest daughter was in her early twenties at the time). He later became the Dean of the School of Fine Art at BYU as a result of his additional work.
      Our experiences and friendships in Iowa were extremely rewarding. I guess what I'm thinking is that when you make a decision to change a direction, make certain that it is not just a symptom of bordom with the established and the familiar.
      Love, Mom

    15. Mom,

      Since this blog is oriented toward discussion, argument even, I have to challenge your position and ask, what is a good reason to re-engineer a life you've been building but are not content with?

      Not to say that I'm unsympathetic to your point. I don't want to senselessly destroy what I have for a trivial desire for novelty. I worry also about continually moving from one thing to another, and never gaining a real depth of competence with just one thing. But there is another side to the argument, and that is that standing still is moving backward. When you lose the initiative you lose the battle.

      I'm not just worried about being bored. I'm worried about doing less good than I can. I'm worried about failing to inspire my daughters to take on life and make something of it. And of course, boredom is a pejorative word for not being happy with stagnation.

      I want to be happy about my life's work while I'm doing it, and when I look back on it. I'm going to have to keep growing or neither of those will happen.

      Maybe a PhD is the wrong choice for me. I'm thinking very seriously about that question. But my general plan includes some kind of continual learning, and earning more degrees is one way to accomplish that.

      Thanks for thinking about me. And thanks for recognizing that this is a difficult time of life for me. I have lots of unanswered questions.

    16. Robert,

      I really liked your last comment.

      I just want to encourage you to keep asking the questions, in part because you might get some worthwhile feedback, but mostly because writing it out forces you to see things more clearly.

    17. Thanks Justin.

      "writing it out forces you to see things more clearly" may be the biggest benefit of blogging.

    18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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