3 Qualities of Successful Ph.D. Students: Perseverance, Tenacity and Cogency

It all begins from the blog post 3 qualities of successful Ph.D. students: Perseverance, tenacity and cogency. I put it in our mailing list and here are some insightful disucssion (with authors' permission).


Haha, definitely agree and have definitely gone through some of the things he mentions. I especially agree with the last portion about cogency; although, I would say that the necessary skill is more general -- communication. I think the term speaks for itself.

At the same time, I'm also inclined to think that "cogency" can be very double-edged if not honestly used. What I mean by that is, if a researcher is incredibly skilled at this power of persuasion, he could easily convince others that his failed research is still publishable. This "possibility" is already a reality in our field and there are more than handful of papers that satisfy the research rule of "80% of the time, it works 20% of the time", but the authors have persuaded others to accept it. Of course, it's possible that they become famous and get jobs by this dishonesty, but it really does more than hurt research progress -- it whittles their soul away. And it would be a sad sight to see their last moments on a deathbed recalling up lies past. At the end of it all, research is not chief here, integrity is.


Yeah, I am also gaining more experience about the "cogency", both the positive aspect and the negative aspect as you pointed out. I feel it's essentially linked to "thinking", both on the curiosity about the research itself (when and why will it work, why it's useful, etc.), and how to present it to make others feel easy to digest and accept. And a related question having puzzled me a long time is, what's the advantage of PhDs against masters or undergrads in industry. From the blog, my current answer is, 1) Curiosity about the problem itself and methodology on exploring the solution (when you don't know it), 2) Persistence against the failure, the pressure, etc., 3) The ability to present the work and make others understand it easily. And such dishonest persuasion helps none of the above (well, maybe a little for the last one. Maybe we should add one word "honestly" there).

About the honesty, it turns a lot trickier when getting to marketing, promoting ideas, and persuading the funders. That world still looks mysterious (but critical) for me.


Sure. You bring up a great point, which is that dishonesty can surface with marketers selling a product as equally as researchers selling their research.

As for the aspect of "cogency" personally, I've been fortunate to have go through a liberal arts program when I did my A.A. degree in high school as well as various management positions, but I hope you'll be encouraged to know that I do think this skill can be developed outside that context. I've met many engineers (unfortunately not too many researchers yet) that are able to command language with elegance without being excessive. There are plenty of areas I'm improving in myself. I would say that one of the best ways to improve is to read, read, and read. Mark Twain was known to have said, "The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read."

Regarding the industry distinction between:

  • PhD vs Master's: This depends what you are comparing: (A) Recent PhD grad. versus recent Master's grad. yields an obvious advantage for the PhD for all the reasons you mentioned plus more, (B) Recent PhD grad. versus Master's who has been in industry for the time that it took the PhD to get his/her degree: I would say that there isn't really a distinction unfortunately here and it's possible for the Master's to be actually worth more here. For (B), I believe this is true because of the critical fact that PhD students are NOT cost-minded in the financial sense and usually do not work exclusively in teams. They don't think about the monetization of their research because usually, it's not monetizable; and a thesis is of course, a one-person endeavor. On the other hand, a Master's who has 4-7 years under their belt in industry is very versed in those two. The reality is a company does not hire based on curiosity and persistence, they hire on the basis of ability to drive up revenue and drive down cost -- and again, usually not the "potential for" but "ability to."
  • PhD vs Undergrad: Not much to be said here. The PhD just knows more via experience and education.


Brendan brings up very good points here.

I would add that often times I have heard that M.S. students for non-research based jobs in industry can often be preferred to PhD students. Multiple managers that I have had have mentioned that to me, at both Qualcomm and MITRE. A couple of reasons why, for one PhD students when they are finished are generally very well versed (hopefully the world leading expert), in a very narrow sub-field, and the industry company would be paying for that expertise, but the graduate may not be actually working in that narrow sub-field, so the narrow skill set developed during a PhD is not always directly applicable to many industry positions. Where if you would want to be paid accordingly to your level of expertise there may not be many jobs available where that narrow skill set is valuable in industry.

Another thing that is interesting to note, is that working in a company can also be very archaic and specialized. Using internal systems or understanding company processes are very valuable to a company due to improved efficiencies, but the only way to become good at these are actually working at the company and understanding their processes. There is also always little jobs that are very specialized that a person works at a company for a couple years and becomes great at (this was very very common at Qualcomm), but the expertise gained could only be obtained working at that job for a year or two. This is one other example of how an M.S. student with 2-3 years of experience at a company may be more valuable than a fresh on the market PhD student without that specifically developed skill set.

At Qualcomm in the quality engineering team they didn't really want students even with M.S. degrees, undergraduate was fine and experience with their internal company policies and ability to interface with customers was even more important. Where as getting a job designing their most advanced chips and what not without a PhD degree would be quite difficult. So it's obviously very different depending on position as well.

Anyway, just wanted to share some of the stuff that I have found interesting about working in industry.


Totally agree. My experience echo the same.

By and large, PhD's don't have to deal with either of these...

  • the curse of legacy systems in industry
  • the curse of internal systems, internal languages, internal APIs, and license-restrictions
  • the curse of needing approval on e'rything (that's right, not everything, but e'rything)