Chelsea Yu, PhD candidate in Finance, has learned a lot about herself and being productive by struggling to figure out the best motivational strategies to help support her goals as a PhD student. In this piece, originally published on her LinkedIn page, she explores 9 lessons she's learned during her PhD and how they helped her navigate her way through to candidacy.
I was born in a small town called Pei in eastern-central China. At age three, my parents left their low-paying entry-level jobs for graduate school far away. I was then sent to live with my grandparents in a small village instead. I spent most of my childhood there. My grandparents gave me all the care and love they could provide. My grandma never hesitated to praise me whenever she could, which made me a confident kid, good with people, but also someone who constantly sought external validation.
I managed to get away with it until I finished my qualifying exam as a PhD student and was about to embark on my own research. Professors usually have hundreds of students in the classroom demanding their attention, and tons of meetings, seminars, and journal editing services to run. While they were absolutely willing to support and help me, I could not possibly get their attention all the time. The tendency to constantly seek external validation really took a toll on my productivity. I realized that one key to thrive in your career is to be intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically motivated.
The internal motivation serves as a perpetual engine providing momentum to help crush the next big challenge in your career.
Lesson #1: Being intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically motivated.
I learned to motivate myself by setting up internal deadlines to keep myself on my toes, switching between tasks, such as data analysis, paper writing, and model solving to prevent myself from getting bored, and rewarding myself after I hit a major milestone. I also made sure to take time off to recharge. Over the years, I figured out my own way to conduct research and aspired to be self-motivated .
Lesson #2: Shoot for the moon. Not because it boosts your ego, but because you genuinely believe it is the thing worth doing.
I was grappling with a complex model in my second year, with stochastic calculus books to my left and numerical method books to my right. I was killing it. When I finally showed the results to my professor, he said, “This is amazing! I thought you would not solve this model. But you made it.” I was thrilled for a minute. Then I thought to myself, “Is this it?”
I always had this insecurity in my 20s, worrying that I was not smart enough. I was surrounded with smart people every day, people who missed almost all probability theory classes but still got an A+. By solving difficult models, I wanted to address that insecurity, and prove to others that I am smart. I did it to boost my ego.
If you chase something solely because it looks “fancy”, the joy you get when you finally accomplished it is real, but transient. Like Carla Harris wrote in her book, "Expect to win" , the key to thrive in your career is to “be your authentic self”. However, it is easier said than done. In order to be your authentic self, first you need to understand yourself, your strength and weaknesses, and your biggest insecurities. If you live your life trying to prove yourself to others, you give away your power. You hand over the control of your life to others. You are wasting your life. Shoot for the moon only if the moon is something you genuinely want. Stay true to yourself. Then every minute of you is a proof of yourself.
Lesson #3: Pay attention to details. But do not forget the bigger picture.
After solving the model, I brought my paper to every professor I met in conferences and seminars. Instead of being impressed, they asked me:
- "Does the model help understand the problem better?"
- “Does the model generate interesting insights?"
- “Are there any alternative factors other than the model that explain the effect?"
- “How do you plan to sell your model?"
I was awed by the questions thrown at me because I never thought of them. I was too focused on the technical details, but lost sight of the big picture. Being a detail-oriented person does not mean you should stop thinking about the big picture. Quite the opposite, you should always bear your goal, your purpose, your vision in mind.
Lesson #4: If you are doomed to fail, fail faster.
Very few people can do things perfectly the first try. We stumbled and fell before we learned how to walk. James Clear, the author of the bestselling book, “Atomic Habit”, mentioned different types of failures and the ways to avoid them. The best way to mitigate failures is to do it cheaply, fail faster and revise quickly. Not being afraid of failures and being able to pivot after that, are some of the best lessons I learned in my PhD years.
When preparing my dissertation, I quickly outlined 5 research directions and sent it to professors for review. After getting feedback from the professors, I ranked the importance of 5 research ideas based on novelty, and reached out to get the relevant data. I quickly found that it would take quite some time to obtain the data. I then turned to conduct the second-best research idea instead.
It is all about being flexible in trial-and-error attempts. That way, you can avoid spending too much time only realizing it is a dead end.
Read the rest of Chelsea's lessons learned over on her LinkedIn.
Chelsea Yu is a PhD student in Finance. She conducts research on fixed income markets, and exchange-traded-funds of fixed incomes. She is also interested in topics such as, asset management, multi-asset investment, wealth management, corporate finance, and merger and acquisition.