Howard started with the overarching question "should you be here (in graduate school)" by asking the audience "If you won the lottery and would never have to work for money would you still be here?" and if the answer to that question is not a convincing "yes" then get out.
I like the approach, though I have my reservations. Fact is, a substantial amount of people make their PhD as a job qualification and not to continue in academia. Just two weeks ago the European Commission released the results of a new survey which (among other things) asked students about the significance of the role of higher education in: ensuring employability; enhancing personal development; and educating people to play an active role in society. They find that all three of these factors were considered to be important by a large majority of respondents: 97% of students believed it was 'very important' or 'rather important' to provide students with the knowledge and skills they needed to be successful in the labour market, 91% agreed that the enhancement of personal development was very important or rather important, and 87% of respondents considered that the education of people to play an active role in society was an important aim of higher education (PDF here). Thus, I'd think it's fine if you'd leave if you won the lottery but aiming for tenure probably isn't for you.
Howard then continued with listing the five excuses for not to fully use one's potential:
- I'm not smart enough.
- I don't want to work on fashionable topics.
- My supervisor is a(n) $#@&%!
- I don't have enough time.
- I don't know enough.
- Not being smart enough is not an excuse. We recently discussed the question how important is talent? I believe that talent is generally overrated and hard work underrated. You just do what you can and do it your own pace.
- If you don't want to work on fashionable topics, well, then don't.
- If your supervisor is really unbearable then get a different one, otherwise just grin and bear it. Consider that one day you'll be in his position and can shove around poor graduate students.
- If you think you don't have enough time, folks, it's not getting better than this. Howard is right on this point. I used to think I never had time to finish anything because constantly somebody wanted me to attend a seminar, or give a seminar, or to write proceedings, or I had to grade student's exercises, or I had to go for a coffee. Especially those coffees took up a lot of time. These days the most quiet time to think I find on planes. And I'm not even teaching! I secretly believe with tenure you get a little time-machine like the one Hermione uses in 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' so you can squeeze in 30 hours into a 24 hour day.
That leaves youth. Howard argues that it endows you with a "rebellious spirit," "time to be sufficiently self-indulgent/monastic," and "flexibility". I think he confused youth with not having responsibilities which isn't necessarily the same thing. That then leaves the "rebellious spirit". Frankly, I find today more rebellious spirit among the fifty-somethings than among the graduate students.
But the true reason I'm saying that is of course that I'm a grim old lady now, counting my grey hairs and I'm not going to write about the advantages of youth, no way. Indeed, I read recently that creativity peaks both in the arts and sciences in the late thirties to early forties. Thus, the best years of my life are yet to come. I'm waiting.
Having reached the end of my notes on Howard's talk I am pretty sure I have completely garbled up its meaning. Sorry! Let me therefore just add my own advice: You only have this one life. Don't waste your time. Be clear about what you want and don't lie to yourself about your interests, your goals, and your commitment.
The discussion following Howard's talk poked around on the "fashionable topics". Most of the students in the audience seemed to be considerably less idealistic than the speaker and pointed out the need to compromise to be able to continue doing what one really loves. And they are right, it can be difficult. But it's only going to get more difficult from grad school on, so whatever you do, don't give up your dreams too easily.