What Is Research?

August 29, 2006

What others have to say…

Filed under: Uncategorized — vipulnaik @ 4:14 am

Indraneel gave me a nice link:

A Graduate School Survival Guide.

This piece is written by Ronald T. Azuma, a postdoctoral student in Computer Science who did his Ph.D. in 6.5 years. He tells us that while many of the lessons of graduate school are best learnt by experiencing it, there are some that one might as well know right at the outset. He details some of these lessons:

  • Be very clear about why you want a Ph.D. A Ph.D. is not lucrative on the surface: longer hours, delay in entering the workplace, frugal living, and many other demotivators. On the plus side, there is: the qualification and the preparation to do cutting edge research and expand the frontiers of knowledge. The author said he himself chose research because he wanted to contribute to knowledge, and he did not want that, five years hence, he would be in a job or position that did not satisfy him.
  • Understand that academics is a business and a full-time job: Academia is a peculiar type of business but a business nonetheless. The research guides and professors need to prove themselves to funders, and the students need to prove themselves to the professors. Resources are few and competition is intense.
  • Graduate school is about what you pick up and not what you are taught: Much of the learning in graduate school, especially for Ph.D., happens not in the formal courses, but outside the classroom, from books, from conferences, from discussions.
  • Many skills are needed: initiative, tenacity, flexibility, interpersonal skills, organizational skills and communication skills. The author details how each one is critical to performing well in graduate school.
  • Choose the advisor and committee carefully: The author lists advantages of choosing a non-tenured advisor: greater availability, greater personal involvement in the student’s research, a disposition for working hard (in order to get tenure). Advantages of a tenured advisor: greater experience, more resources and influence. The author balanced both by choosing a non-tenured advisor and a committee including some tenured persons. Other factors he says are important for choosing one’s advisor: (a) does the advisor push you to work? (b) is the advisor approachable? (c) is the advisor knowledgeable in all areas you want to work on?
  • Maintain balance and perspective: Getting the Ph.D. and churning out great research work is indeed top priority, but too much narrow focus on it can be damaging. A Ph.D. is like a marathon. Spurting unnecessary may tire one out early. The author alludes to Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) as one of the possible consequences of an unbalanced focus on the Ph.D. goal.

A very well-written and illuminating piece. I think I find answers to many of my earlier questions in this piece, particularly my question on primary and secondary responsibilities.

The primary responsibilities of a researcher are indeed working on problems; helping others work on problems; reading, learning and attending seminars and conferences; and guiding younger students. But for a Ph.D. student, the relative priorities differ. From what I understand, the primary responsibilities of a Ph.D. student are more towards acquiring basic capabilities and
establishing credentials. So, the list for a Ph.D. student runs as:

(i) Reading, learning and attending seminars/conferences both in order to get a working knowledge of all fields and in order to decide the topic of study.
(ii) Interacting with people and building good connections to be able to choose a research advisor and committee
(iii) Developing skills and competencies related to working on specific problems that can realistically by completed within the framework of a Ph.D.

Thus, guiding younger students and working on improving the theory or working towards a magnum opus are not responsibilities of the typical Ph.D. student. The Ph.D. student should focus on demonstrating his/her potential by doing something in a short span of time that sets the stage for later magnum opa.

I have heard a few stories about how people with highly ambitious proejcts for their Ph.D. ended up taking 12 yars to do their Ph.D.

The research student also has seconday responsibilities, one of which is continually getting resources, time, money etc. towards primary responsibilies. This is extremely challenging, and Azuma discusses it quite a bit.

Hope you have a nice time reading Azuma’s piece!

Looking forward to your comments.


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