Grad student advice: Picking a topic April 17, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, physics, research.
Tags: advice, advising, advisor, dissertation, grad school, research
add a comment
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.
Advice to grad students September 14, 2010Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
Tags: advice, grad school, Murphy's law
Before I started my PhD program, I found a reference somewhere to the book, “Getting What you Came For.” I read it cover to cover. It’s great advice.
On the other hand, it’s the same advice you can read everywhere else, just well synthesized. A couple days ago, I came across this advice. It started out with probably the best advice you can get:
Always prepare for the worst.
This was the one piece of advice I don’t remember reading before, and yet it’s really the only one that has been universally true. The thing with most advice on grad school is that they deal with common problems that the person who really doesn’t know about grad school may encounter. They seldom talk about the really odd or horrible things that can and do happen in grad school.
It’s bad enough if your advisor leaves to go someplace else. I’ve seen people finish their degrees despite this and others who did not. I have chalked that sort of thing up to personality and drive, as well as how far along they are in their research. In all situations, it wasn’t an easy thing to deal with for the student, whether or not they managed to finish.
But what about the friend who’s MS advisor died before he was finished? In this case, it turned out that someone else was actually supervising most of his research, so he was able to finish. But I can imagine that, for a lot of people, it would mean catastrophic upheaval beyond that of an advisor leaving.
My experience is simply that Murphy’s law is bound to strike any time. Read all the advice you want. It does help. But there are times when things will happen that you don’t expect and didn’t prepare for. Sometimes you simply can’t prepare for them.
When those things happen, all you can do is decide how badly you want to keep moving. If you really want that degree, you keep moving. If not, if the stress becomes too much or something catastrophic happens, you change gears. Sometimes it’s permanent, but I’ve also seen people recover. There are those who quit, those who quit and come back, and those you just keep plugging as best they can.
There are circumstances for which there really is no ‘good’ advice because it’s very personal. One person can deal with a situation and another cannot, and the only person who can really judge what the best decision is will be the one making the decision, despite all the advice out there.