Yesterday I talked to Indraneel, who is my senior ar CMI, and is now joining the Computer Science program at Princeton. I asked him how students select their research problems and work under advisors.
Some points that I learned:
(i) Students in U.S. universities are expected to finish their Ph.D. within five years. The first two years go in attending some courses.
(ii) The student must make a thesis presentation under an advisor in order to begin formally preparing for a Ph.D.
(iii) By and large, the student is expected to select his or her own resaerch topic. The advisor looks at the student and gives him/her feedback on whether the problem selected is a good one.
(iv) The student does not need to collaborate with the advisor on reearch. Indraneel said that many students he knew had written all their Ph.D. papers without an advisor.
(v) A student can finish his/her Ph.D. in any time within five years. If the student exceeds five years, then he/she must continue at his/her own expense, or the advisor must convince the university that the student’s delay has legitimate reasons.
Ph.D. is the first stage in life where a student selects his/her own problem and works hard on it. A very easy problem could be anticlimactic, while a very hard problem may result in a waste of several years. A problem in an area the researcher doesn’t like could mean five unpleasant years! There are two questions:
(i) How much choice does the student have in choosing his/her research problem?
(ii) How much choice does the student want in choosing his/her research problem?
The second question is interesting because a number of research scholars I talked to have said that they prefer that their advisor pick the problem.
This reminds me of the “love marriage” versus “arranged marriage” distinction. In a love marriage, two individuals marry due to mutual attraction and comfort with each other, whereas in an arrange marriage, the decision is taken partly by people other than those marrying. In a love marriage, the commitment is only to each other, whereas in an arranged marriage, the commitment and responsibility are also to the others who arranged the marriage. The main distinguishing feature of a love marriage, however, is that one must seek and confront one’s lover, fear rejection nad take full responsibility.
Analogously, selecting a research problem on one’s own requires the researcher to seek and confront, fear rejection, and take full responsibility. One cannot lean upon more “experienced” people.
Proponents of arranged marriage argue that arranged marriages have fewer expectations, are more based on the head than on the heart, and take into account the views of more experienced people. It is further said that even in an arranged marriage, love can develop after the marriage. On similar lines, proponents of “having the research problem chosen by others” argue that if the problem is picked by somebody else, they have less emotional attachment to it and can work on it more dispassionately. Further, a problem picked by an experienced advisor based on the student’s talents and preferences is likely to be more lovable than a problem the student would naively pick.
And one cannot fall in love on demand. In the same way, picking a research problem under external demand is difficult. On the other hand, it is easier and possibly more fruitful to work on a research problem assigned by somebody else.
Since the ultimate aim of selecting a research problem is to learn the art of loving and giving to the subject, I am (was) of the opinion that the student should select his/her own research problem. But how? How does one fall in love on demand? And is it really better or is my personal bias coming through?
Hope to have your comments.