It’s working! Bwahahaha! July 18, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, grad school, research.
Tags: computers, dissertation, grad school
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I really try not to let myself post too many blog posts when I’m overly tired. Usually this results in a post that is only semi-coherent and riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. (The other day on Facebook, I intended to write “more likely” but it came out “morely like”…which is a sure sign of sleep deprivation.)
However, I’m rather excited that after months of trying to deal with my bad programming, the compiler not being overly friendly with my code, and some sort of conspiracy between my compiler and the communications protocol on one of the computer clusters, I am running some code for real now. (Not just in debug mode!)
To celebrate, I am going to sleep as soon as I’m done with this post. I sure now how to live it up, don’t I?
(Official notice: spelling and grammatical errors have not been approved by this poster but will likely show up anyway. Especially wierd ones.)
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
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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.
Let me drop everything and work on YOUR problem March 23, 2012Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, grad school, work.
Tags: dissertation, schedule, schedules, work, work habits, workplace
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I appreciate the fact that I have very respectful and polite colleagues. I particularly appreciate it when it comes to my schedule. I only work half-time, and most of them have been very good about making sure to schedule things for when I am there. On those occasions where things had to be scheduled when I was supposed to be gone, my supervisor has usually asked me first to make sure there’s no conflict. My hours are pretty flexible, as well, so if I have to stay late one day, I can take time off the following day or something similar.
Still, I hate having things change around too much. Changes in schedule seriously seem to affect my concentration, and changes in routine just don’t sit well with me. I can certainly deal, but it always seems to throw me off.
In the past month and a half, things have gotten much worse, schedule-wise. I’ve had to do a lot of changing schedules because of some PR that the university has been doing both on my research at work as well as my dissertation project. I have gotten to the point that I now am dressing up half the time when I go to work because, more than once, I’ve gotten a call in the morning that they’d like me to talk to a reporter or in the afternoon. Half the time, I wasn’t even dressed like a nerdy engineer – t-shirt and jeans was it. It’s a good thing I live close to campus because I’ve had to make emergency wardrobe trips. However, despite all of the rearrangements, if I’ve said I had a conflict, no one has ever asked me to change anything. People have been willing to work around my schedule, which has been awesome.
The only real problem I hit is when deadlines show up. If the deadline is looming but not close enough that I can adjust a schedule for the week, that sometimes sucks time out of dissertation work (although I am getting more and more protective of that as time goes on, simply because it’s so easy to let it slide). What’s worse is when there are deadlines at work and the kids suddenly have a million and one extra activities as well. And I really hate it when someone gives me ‘vague’ deadlines, like “as soon as humanly possible”. I usually tell them what is humanly possible for me, but I suspect that on a couple of occasions, they felt as though they could do the same thing faster. It’s possible they could…but it’s also possible that, if they had the same schedule constraints I do, they might not. As cliche as it is, I go back to Stephen Covey’s 7 habits book. In it, he says he schedules everything out, and if someone drops something in your lap, you ask them what other thing you should get rid of to fit in this deadline. (Maybe it’s surprising, but my supervisor is very open to shifting priorities when it’s necessary. Other people…not so much.)
How do you deal with shifts in schedule and sudden deadlines?
Mother duckling March 9, 2011Posted by mareserinitatis in older son, work.
Tags: dissertation, working, working environment
I have this problem where I don’t work well at home. Somehow the
housework internet all the other things that need to be done (or not) just seem to suck me in and away from things like dissertations.
My solution, obviously, is to leave the house when I need to get work done. On the weekends, that usually means going up to my office. Sometimes I can do that during the week, although I also have to find a conference room or someplace to work lest someone finds me and starts talking about work when I want to be dissertating. (Yes, it’s a verb.)
Interestingly enough, I’m not the only one with this issue. My husband had the same problem, so when he was finishing his dissertation, he would go up to the office on evenings and weekends to work.
It seems that my older son also has the same problem. I did once bring him to work with me on a weekend so that he could get caught up on homework. However, I’m guessing that wouldn’t go over so well during the week, so we usually head out in the afternoons and hit Starbucks, where they will let us work for a couple hours while we suck down our chai frappuccinos™. If that seems too far away, we’ll go sit at the student union at the university, which has amazingly comfortable couches. Apparently, I’m not the only one with this idea because it seems like every other person in there is sitting there with a laptop of some sort. I guess there’s no free place to study: in one place, I have to pay for food, in the other, I have to pay for parking.
Going out is nice for both of us because then I know he won’t get distracted, and I’m available if he gets stuck on his math. But when we go out to study, I feel somewhat like a mother duckling, her (in this case, not so) little ones trailing along.
So what about you? What’s your favorite work space? Have you managed to keep a home office (if you need one) and stay productive?
My project is your project January 10, 2011Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
Tags: dissertation, project, thesis
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Stringformes is looking for a research project. Her advisor told her, “I’m interested in what you’re interested.” She goes on to say:
You could talk to the other lab members to see how they end up with their projects.
I did, all of them said that either a previous student worked on it before he/she graduated, or that PI got a grant working on something in particular, or a new project just got started when that person joined the lab.
So, no original thought. In the end PI still controls everything. So hypocritical and confusing.
I spent the past few days reading over all of his publications to see if I could find a pattern of what he’s been doing. Or what seems to be a particularly hot thing that I could contribute more to. But when doing that I can’t help feeling like cheating. Yes they are interesting to me, but no they are not my ideas. They are surreptitiously snatched from under his nose.
No it’s not even that. It makes me feel like I’m trying to impress him by kissing up to him. Not my intention, and I don’t want to feel that way no matter what it looks like to everyone else.
My observation and experience tells me that this isn’t a stupid approach, but it is a good question as to how one chooses a project. I’ve seen three types of advisors: those who really don’t care which project you pick (within obvious limitations), those who want you to pick from a very narrow area (which may involve a pet project of theirs), and those who hand you a project.
Before starting my PhD program, I wasn’t sure if I would be staying at NDSU or not. I spent part of my last year there starting a project that would be my PhD project had I stayed. The project was actually quite a ways outside of my advisor’s expertise, though it still dealt with electromagnetics. He specialized in one method of electromagnetic modeling, and I was choosing to do another technique in order to study a phenomenon with which he had only passing familiarity. I ended up spending a good chunk of time talking to a prof in the physics department. My advisor was the type of person who was interested in getting into new research areas, and he often encouraged his students to stretch their (and thus his) boundaries. There is a danger in this sort of approach: make sure that if you do this, you have someone else who is an expert in this field with whom you can consult. Also, the way things worked in this department, I was expected to take my project proposal and apply for funding (with my advisor’s help, of course). If I couldn’t get funding, I’d be on a TA.
So yes, there are people who are very willing to let you explore and choose a project even if it’s not in their predominant area of research.
On the other hand, I don’t know how many people are willing to do that. My first advisor in my PhD program turned down a suggestion I had for a project (which I still think would be a heckuva a lot of fun) because he said none of his funding could cover it and he didn’t want me TAing. (Apparently applying for funding wasn’t an option…) Other friends have advisors who have very specific projects that need doing under their grants, and therefore were more or less handed projects.
My advice when put in this situation is to have a frank discussion with your advisor and see what the limitations are, funding-wise. If you really have no constraints on a topic, does this mean you’ll be TAing or working in a lab on some other project while trying to eek out the time to work on your dissertation project? What are the limits? (Actually, the ideal scenario is having this discussion before you even choose to go to the school, but in some places, I realize that’s not possible.)
I do think being able to pick out a topic of your own interest is the best way to go. One of my friends had a project for a PhD in engineering. Somewhere along the line, his advisor wanted him to explore something similar to the device he was working on, but it would be used in a different type of environment. After a year and a half, my friend was growing increasingly angry and depressed because his advisor’s project wasn’t working at all, and if he’d continued to work on his project, he would be done. Fortunately, when he went to talk to his advisor about this, saying he wanted to finish up his original project and graduate, his advisor agreed that it was time to let the tangential project go by the wayside. (Of course, I think there may have been some mention of quitting in there…)
My advice, therefore, is to talk with one’s advisor and see what sort of constraints exist. Is it really okay to pick a project completely of your own choosing? If not, on what areas would they like you to focus? What are the funding possibilities for each? Will you be given sufficient time to work on things, or will you end up with a TA or RA doing something else while doing your project in your ‘free time’? How much guidance can you get from your advisor if you choose something outside his or her area? Do you have access to other researchers who can help you if your advisor cannot? If you work with someone else on the side, will this create conflicting levels of expectations from your advisor versus them?
And then, once you have some idea of your constraints, pick something that you’re really passionate about.