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Jocelyn Paine

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

How to Waste a PhD

May 18, 2008

We all love hearing of others' misfortunes; it's such a relief from predicting our own. So here for your Monday morning is a brief cautionary tale I found in Gordon Rugg and Marian Petre's excellent book The Unwritten Rules of Phd Research. Dear reader, do not try this yourself.

An agriculture student started an undergraduate research project on growth rates in mushrooms, something of great interest to mushroom farmers. The student took over a mushroom shed for a term, composted and cultivated, measured heights and regressed least squares. The mushrooms, it turned out, grew not at a constant rate, nor in daily cycles, but in stages a few hours long. This astonishing effect clearly had to be investigated further; so, after writing it up in a dissertation, the student duly took Finals, applied to start a PhD,  commandeered the mushroom shed for the duration. Mountains of experimental data on all kinds of mushroom ensued. All exhibited the effect.

The student finished collecting data, wrote up, submitted; the day came for the viva. Questions about composts, about fertilisers, about statistical analysis and error bounds: all was going well. Until the external examiner asked, "I take it you did allow for the heating?".

The student had, in effect, wasted three years — three years and a term, if you count the undergraduate dissertation — timing central heating in the mushroom shed.

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