Archive for August 24, 2012

Pathways to Research

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 24, 2012 by telescoper

The other day I had a slight disagreement with a colleague of mine about the best advice to give to new PhD students about how to tackle their research. Talking to a few other members of staff about it subsequently has convinced me that there isn’t really a consensus about it and it might therefore be worth a quick post to see what others think.

Basically the issue is whether a new research student should try to get into “hands-on” research as soon as he or she starts, or whether it’s better to spend most of the initial phase in preparation: reading all the literature, learning the techniques required, taking advanced theory courses, and so on. I know that there’s usually a mixture of these two approaches, and it will vary hugely from one discipline to another, and especially between theory and experiment, but the question is which one do you think should dominate early on?

My view of this is coloured by my own experience as a PhD (or rather DPhil student) twenty-five years ago. I went directly from a three-year undergraduate degree to a three-year postgraduate degree. I did a little bit of background reading over the summer before I started graduate studies, but basically went straight into trying to solve a problem my supervisor gave me when I arrived at Sussex to start my DPhil. I had to learn quite a lot of stuff as I went along in order to get on, which I did in a way that wasn’t at all systematic.

Fortunately I did manage to crack the problem I was given, with the consequence that got a publication out quite early during my thesis period. Looking back on it I even think that I was helped by the fact that I was too ignorant to realise how difficult more expert people thought the problem was. I didn’t know enough to be frightened. That’s the drawback with the approach of reading everything about a field before you have a go yourself…

In the case of the problem I had to solve, which was actually more to do with applied probability theory than physics, I managed to find (pretty much by guesswork) a cute mathematical trick that turned out to finesse the difficult parts of the calculation I had to do. I really don’t think I would have had the nerve to try such a trick if I had read all the difficult technical literature on the subject.

So I definitely benefited from the approach of diving headlong straight into the detail, but I’m very aware that it’s difficult to argue from the particular to the general. Clearly research students need to do some groundwork; they have to acquire a toolbox of some sort and know enough about the field to understand what’s worth doing. But what I’m saying is that sometimes you can know too much. All that literature can weigh you down so much that it actually stifles rather than nurtures your ability to do research. But then complete ignorance is no good either. How do you judge the right balance?

I’d be interested in comments on this, especially to what extent it is an issue in fields other than astrophysics.