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My project is your project January 10, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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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.

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Comments»

1. Strigiformes - January 10, 2011

Constrains is the word. I just wish I could articulate that point as well as the way you do here when I had his attention for that one millisecond.

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