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Grad student advice: Picking a topic April 17, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, physics, research.
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It happened again yesterday: one of the email updates I received had a post from someone asking someone to give him a good topic for a dissertation.

It’s not an absurd question: some of us don’t have much if any guidance from advisors, though I get worried that this is indicative of a problematic advising relationship.  I’m also not saying an advisor should give a student a topic (at least not for a PhD), but they apparently aren’t even addressing the topic with the student.  However, I figured it’s a question worth addressing on the blog.  If nothing else, I can post a link whenever I see the question pop up, which it seems to do with regularity.

The real simple answer, in my experience, is to start reading.  Read journals in your field.  Look at what interests you.  Try to think of gaps or problems that aren’t addressed in the research you’re reading.  And don’t forget to go back and read the references for the most interesting articles.  Other ideas are to get involved in projects or try to choose something from a class project (I discuss this here).  Generally, you’re going to be spending several years on something, so let your curiosity guide you.  If it’s not interesting now, it certainly won’t be in four years.  (In fact, even if it is interesting now, you might be sick of it in four years, but it’s best to make that four years as tolerable as physically possible.)

The question in my mind is whether you should talk to your advisor before or after you start doing this.  Some advisors do give their students projects, but my experience in physics and electrical engineering is that most don’t.  (My friends in the biological sciences, particularly medicine, have indicated that, in their fields, getting a topic handed to you is the norm.)  However, even if your advisor doesn’t give you a project, s/he is likely to have an area of interest where they’d prefer you work.  My MS advisor was very much the exception in that he expected his students to pick topics outside of his primary research area as a way for him to learn more about other areas.  I think his rule of thumb was that it had to require electromagnetics…beyond that, you were pretty much on your own.  On the other hand, if you had no particular interest, he did have suggestions, so he didn’t leave you hanging, either.

Therefore, as you’re looking at topics, be sure to check in with your advisor on a fairly regular basis to make sure that you’re not going too far astray (been there, done that) as well as making sure they still ‘buy in’ to your project (done that, and it’s not fun when they aren’t terribly interested).  You also need to take into consideration whether or not you have the facilities and equipment and, probably, funding for your project.  If you want to go into a certain area and need funding, you’ll likely need help from your advisor.  It’s also a good idea to do this early because it gives you an idea of how invested your advisor is in your project and how well you communicate.  Figure it out early before you get four years into a thesis project only to have your advisor tell you you’re an idiot and won’t be graduating.  (Yes, it does happen.)

The take away message should be that you should try to use your curiosity and creativity to find a project, and that you need to make sure your advisor buys into it.  Don’t ask total strangers as they’re so far removed from the situation, you’ll never get anything useful.

Some of my readers are wise in the way of advising, so I’m curious what they have to add.

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