Planning Research

This summer I have two undergraduate students doing research projects with me funded under Maynooth University’s Summer Programme for Undergraduate Research (SPUR). They’re actually making Monte Carlo simulations of galaxy clustering and using them to test various statistical analysis tools. The Department of Theoretical Physics actually has five students on three different projects, which is quite a lot for a small Department. The University as a whole has 57 SPUR students so we have almost ten percent of the total!

The SPUR students are paid for the projects, which last for (usually) six weeks but can be extended. I wish we could offer these projects to every student who wanted one, actually, but we just can’t afford to do that. I don’t agree with unpaid internships as these can only be taken up by students who have access to enough income to cover living expenses over the summer, so are discriminatory. We select students based on an application and their academic performance.

Anyway, at the start of the SPUR programme students attend a briefing session (which was last Wednesday) and they have to do various tasks along the way and, at the end, construct a poster. At the beginning they have to complete an agreement and “work plan”.

I was very amused to see the following template for a research plan in the pack given to students:

I’m at a loss to understand how any of this relates to how research is actually done in theoretical physics. The many amused reactions from colleagues when I posted this on Twitter yesterday suggest I’m not the only one. As a matter of fact, I don’t understand what many of the buzzphrases even mean. What for example are “As-is process flows”?

Obviously this template is intended for students doing business management courses in which they presumably learn to speak this language. Fortunately this is Template 3 and Template 1 just consists of a list of tasks to be done with key “deliverables” of the sort you need to complete when applying for a research grant, so my students used that.

I find it uncomfortable making detailed plans because to me the whole point of doing research is that you find things out that you didn’t expect and alter your strategy accordingly. If everything were predictable it would be a very dull project. Indeed I would say that if the outcomes were entirely predictable it wouldn’t even deserve the name “research”. Much theoretical research is accordingly rather open-ended, unlike say engineering or product design. On the other hand “give me the money and I hope to discover something interesting” is unlikely to go down well with funding panels. So you have to find a middle ground between convincing the panel that you know what you’re doing and allowing yourself space to adapt in the light of new developments. I think grant bodies in science largely understand that. Or at least I hope they do.

I had better end there as it is time for me to GO-LIVE (sic).

One Response to “Planning Research”

  1. perhaps the whole thing should just be replaced by ‘what-if?’

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