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Projects as papers August 22, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, papers, research, teaching.
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1 comment so far

While I was working on my MS, I read the book Getting What You Came For. (I highly recommend this book to anyone going to grad school, BTW.) I remember one section where the author suggested trying to take a class project or paper and making it into a publishable paper for a journal. At the time, it was a suggestion that totally made sense as I was in the process of deciding whether I should do that for one particular class project.

Now, however, I’m not so sure it’s always doable. I have a few reasons for this. First, I compare the quality of the projects I did when I was starting my MS versus finishing. (For reference, I was only going part time as I was also homeschooling one child and had a baby along the way. My MS, therefore, took me five years.) When I first started my MS, a lot of my projects involved finding a paper from a journal and attempting to replicate the results. In one class, for example, I built an antenna and tested it. At that point, it was rather overwhelming to learn how to use this new equipment alongside the process of learning about the specific topics we were studying. I honestly think there was no way I was ready to produce something that would eventually be publishable.

Toward the end of my degree, I started doing ‘seed projects’. These were things that probably couldn’t be published based on what I had accomplished in the class but, with work, would definitely result in something noteworthy. I attribute this to progression in my understanding of the topics I was working with, more proficiency in the lab, etc. A lot of that competence came from doing previous projects, so I was building on a lot of the stuff I’d done before.

I find it interesting, therefore, when I recently heard about professors who use class projects as a way to generate papers. That is, the outcome of a student project is to be a publishable paper, and the student needs to do this in order to receive a passing grade. Looking back at my own experience, I think getting research of that caliber out of a class project would have been dubious, at best.

First, lack of proficiency is not easily recognized by new learners, and quality research is going to be difficult for someone who’s never done research before. The whole point of doing a master’s degree is to learn how to do that, and usually get at least one publication in the process.  Second, doing research quality work is probably going to take longer than a semester. Third, and slightly related, most students should be spending their time working on their own research, which they need to graduate. (I am making the assumption that the work necessary to generate something that is publishable is going to be considerably more than that of a standard class project.) Finally, I’m not sure it’s beneficial to all students. In some fields, a lot of students go into industry upon graduation, and forcing them to publish research beyond their graduation requirements really isn’t going to be helpful for them.

I do see one circumstance where it might be appropriate to generate a paper from a class project. I can see this as viable if the whole class is involved in writing it such that each student or group of students contributes a small chunk. This would ideally be easier to handle for all of the students. In fact, I see that as a wonderful way to get students introduced to research without the pressure to do a whole project themselves.

What do you think? Do the benefits of writing papers outweigh the down side? Are there aspects I haven’t considered?

Advisor Red Flags: choosing your project May 26, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, grad school, research, science.
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I’ve been thinking about student/advisor interactions this week, and I started wondering if I should list some of the red flags I’ve seen over time.  These are the little comments or interactions that I’ve observed.  I would like to say that these are things you should watch out for when choosing a grad advisor, but, sadly, they may not show up until you’re hooked on to a particular advisor.

Today’s red flag is what to be afraid of when approaching a grad advisor about a potential dissertation project.  I admit that, for some people, this isn’t going to qualify: some people’s advisors choose their projects for them.  However, there are some advisors who feel that their students should choose their own projects.  I generally believe this is a good thing, but it can lead to problems if you don’t choose the ‘right’ project.

You see, the frustrating thing is that some advisors say they want their students to choose their own project, but they won’t give the student any guidelines for the project.  No ideas of where to look, no feeling for what the advisor is comfortable advising.  And, rather than trying to flesh out these details if they aren’t comfortable with the idea you’ve developed, you get one of the following responses:

1 – I don’t have funding for that.

2 – I don’t think that’s a good idea.  *silence*

3 – (sometimes) This would be a better project.

One and two are bad…three depends.  The first response means: I have no interest in your project, and I’m not going to take the time to show you how to write a grant.  (Before you say the advisor may not have money, there is a better response.  Read to the end.)  If you’re planning on becoming an academic, this is a sign your advisor isn’t interested in your research and isn’t going to be a good mentor, either.  The second one means the advisor may let you do the project, but they probably won’t be giving you much in the way of constructive feedback as the project progresses.  They may not outright forbid you to do that, but they are going to be rather passive aggressive about helping you along.

The third comment is neutral.  It may be good or it may be bad, depending on how your advisor works with you.  If it’s something related to what you’re interested in but is a bit more cutting edge, it may be great.  If it’s a pet project the advisor wants done, run away.  I’ve seen both scenarios.  The slight redirection worked out well.  The other one happened to a friend who spent two years working on the project before it became obvious that nothing was going to ever come of it.  He put a significant amount of effort into it, didn’t really enjoy the research, and ended up paperless at the end.  He finally went in and blew up at his advisor, who let him finish up his original project and finally graduate.  (Fortunately, he wasn’t looking at a job in academia or he may have had a tough time after graduation with lack of papers.)

So what are good responses?  There are two responses that let you know you’ve hit the jackpot.

1 – I think that’s a good idea (and maybe, “although we want to try to look at it from this perspective”).

2 – Let’s see if we can get some funding to do that.

Either one of these is a good sign.  It means they will (hopefully) be supportive by providing feedback.  The second is even better, as it means the advisor is (hopefully) willing to show you the ropes and provide some mentoring opportunities.

I know the common advice on grad school is to know what you want to do before you go in.  If you are that far ahead of the game, then being able to pitch your idea before you start is an excellent way to gauge how an advisor feels about an area of research.  The downside is that you may really click with an advisor who may not be into a particular field of research.  If you’re stuck on that area, you obviously don’t want to work with them, but if you find someone who is good to work with, you might be able to find something they’d be okay with.  Sounding like you’re too focused may make them think you wouldn’t be interested in working with them.  Being too focused and pitching ideas can have its drawbacks, especially if that person isn’t good about keeping people informed about their current research interests.

If you’re already with an advisor, it’s pretty important to make sure early on that you can communicate with them and that they’re giving you at least a little guidance in choosing your project.  If they aren’t, that can also be a red flag.

What responses have you seen to project ideas and were they positive or were they red flags?

My project is your project January 10, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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1 comment so far

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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