Heilmeier’s Catechism

George Heilmer (somewhat) famously proposed a list of questions that you should be able to answer before starting any new research or development project:

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares?
  • If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?
  • Every second year graduate student should have a worksheet containing this list as they prepare to propose their thesis project. It’s equally applicable to grant applications, product design in industry – damn near everything you do in science really.

    quoted from Wikipedia, after being mentioned by Titus Brown

    Advice for a potential PhD student

    Over at AskMeFi, someone asks whether a PhD program is right for them:

    On the one hand, I’d always sort of pictured myself as a PhD holder one day. On the other hand, I have no desire to do the level of grant-writing required of competent PIs, I don’t want to manage a bunch of other people in my research team – I want to do the research. . .

    1. Getting a PhD just because you’ve pictured yourself holding one is a horrible idea. There are lots of good reasons to get a doctorate, but they’re all about best positioning yourself for the career that you’d like to have. If you’re in a field where a masters is all that you need, then getting a PhD will be a colossal waste of time and earning potential. In those sorts of fields, you’d be better off with 5 years of job experience than with an extra degree.
    2. The main thing that you should do is think about what kind of job you’d ultimately like to get. Check the job postings – do they require masters? Do they mention PhDs as a plus? Dig around websites and find the bios of people who have that job already. Do they have PhDs?
    3. Talk to some faculty and/or grad students in the type of PhD program that you’d want to go to, and see what their thoughts are. They are immersed in the field and can tell you what kinds of job opportunities the PhD program opens up that might not be available to someone with a masters. (The most obvious, of course, being tenure-track faculty)
    4. As for not wanting to be a PI and spend your days writing grants, I understand that sentiment. Keep in mind that not all universities are research universities. If you’re happy working with smaller budgets and devoting lots of time to teaching, a gig at a small or liberal arts university might be right up your alley. As I said upthread, these will almost certainly require a PhD. Also look into research assistant or research faculty positions within labs, where you’ll have a boss who writes all the grants.