Archive for graduate students

Your PhD Questions Answered (?)

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2013 by telescoper

As I mentioned last week, one of the main items on the agenda at the moment is recruitment of new PhD students. As usual, this finds me having to operate on both sides of the fence,  playing a role in selecting students whilst also trying to advise students on how to target their applications, prepare for interview, and choose between offers (for those who manage to get a place).

In my field (astrophysics), the primary route for funding a PhD comes through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which operates a national deadline (31st March) before which candidates can not be required to make a decision. This deadline sets the timescale for departments to decide too, as we clearly want to make sure all our first choice applicants get their offers before the cutoff date.

The national deadline prevents students from being pressured into making decisions before they have heard back from all the institutions to which they have applied, so in that sense it’s a good idea. On the other hand, it does mean that there’s often frantic activity on deadline day as offers are accepted or declined. Reserves have to be contacted quickly when a favoured candidate withdraws to go somewhere else and not all of them may still be available. A student who has been waiting anxiously without a first-choice offer may suddenly receive a lifeline on deadline day.

Getting offers is one thing, but deciding between them is quite another. There are many things to take into account, and the criteria are by no means clear. I’m not the only person to have been thinking about this. There are personal matters, of course. Is it a nice place? Are the people friendly? Do you think you can get on with your potential supervisor? That sort of thing. But there’s also the actual research. Is the project really what you want to do? Is is likely to open up a future career in research, or just be a dead end? Is the mixture of theory and experiment (or observation) what you would like?

One of the issues that often arises when I discuss research with potential PhD students is how structured the project  is. Some projects are  mapped out by the supervisor in great detail, with specific things to be done in a specific order with well-defined milestones against which progress can be measured. Others, especially but not exclusively theoretical ones, are much more of the nature of “here’s an interesting idea – let’s study it and see where it leads”. Most PhDs are somewhere between these two extremes, but it’s probably true that experimental PhDs are more like the former, whereas theoretical ones are more like the latter. Mine, in theoretical astrophysics, ended up evolving quite considerably from its starting point.

I’ve always been grateful to my supervisor for allowing me the freedom to follow my own curiosity. But I think it was essential to be given an initial focus, in the form of a specific project to cut my teeth on. Getting a calculation finished, written up and published gave me the confidence to start out on my own, but I did need a lot of guidance during that initial phase. We a;ll need to learn how to walk before we can run.

Another aspect of this is what the final thesis should look like. Should it be a monolithic work, focussed on one very specific topic, or can it be an anthology of contributions across a wider area?  Again, it’s a question of balance. I think that a PhD thesis should be seen as a kind of brochure advertising the skills and knowledge of the student that produced it. Versatility is a good quality, so if you can do lots of different things then your thesis should represent that. On the other hand, you also need to demonstrate the ability to carry out a sustained and coherent piece of research. Someone who flits around knocking out lots of cutesy “ideas papers” may get a reputation for being a bit of a dabbler who is unable or unwilling to tackle problems in depth. The opposite extreme would be a person who is incapable of generating new ideas, but excellent once pointed in a specific direction. The best scientists, in my opinion, have creative imagination as well as technical skill and stamina.  It’s a matter of balance, and some scientists are more balanced than others. There are some (scary) individuals who are brilliant at everything, of course., but us mere mortals have to make the most of our limited potential.

The postdoc market that lies beyond your PhD is extremely tough. To survive you need to maximize the chances of getting a job, and that means being able to demonstrate a suitability for as many opportunities as possible that come up. So if you want to do theory, make sure that you know at least something about observations and data analysis. Even if you prefer analytic work, don’t be too proud to use a computer occasionally. Research problems often require  you to learn new things before you can tackle them. Get into the habit of doing that while you’re a student, and you’re set to continue for the rest of your career. But you have to do all this without spreading yourself too thin, so don’t shy away from the chunky calculations that keep you at your desk for days on end. It’s the hard yards that win you the match.

When it comes to choosing supervisors, my advice would be to look for one who has a reputation for supporting their students, but avoid those who want to exert excessive control. I think it’s a supervisor’s duty to ensure that PhD student becomes as independent as possible as quickly as possible, but to be there with help and advice if things go wrong. Sadly there are some who treat PhD students simply as assistants, and give little thought to their career development.

But if all this sounds a bit scary, I’ll add just one thing. A PhD offers a unique challenge. It’s hard work, but stimulating and highly rewarding. If you find a project that appeals to you, go for it. You won’t regret it.

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How many hours per week should a graduate student work?

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 11, 2012 by telescoper

Here’s one of those things from Blogland that is flying around the Twittersphere today..

The original post revealed a leaked email  “sent to the entire graduate student body enrolled in the well-regarded astronomy program at Unnamed Academy” containing such gems as this:

We have received some questions about how many hours a graduate student is expected to work.  There is no easy answer, as what matters is your productivity, particularly in the form of good scientific papers.  However, if you informally canvass the faculty (those people for whose jobs you came here to train), most will tell you that they worked 80-100 hours/week in graduate school.  No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.  We were almost always at the office, including at night and on weekends.

This missive has already provoked a number of responses (e.g. here and here), but I couldn’t resist putting in a few comments myself.

The first and most obvious thing is that I don’t think the faculty members mentioned above were telling the truth. It’s by no means a new phenomenon for oldies to pretend that they worked harder than the younger generation. “When I were a lad…”, etc. This is either  form of delusion that accompanies ageing or a kind of one-upmanship designed to create a impose some sort of authority over the junior members of the department.  A supervisor who demands such things of a PhD student is likely to be someone who regards a grad student simply as a form of cheap labour and doesn’t care at all about their development as a researcher or indeed as a human being.

The following sentence gives the game away

No one told us to work those hours, but we enjoyed what we were doing enough to want to do so.

It is clearly intended to mean No one told us, but we’re sure as hell telling you…“.

My advice to a young PhD student would be: if your supervisor tells you to put in 100 hours per week on the project, find another supervisor –  because he/she clearly hasn’t put sufficient thought into the practical feasibility of your project. The fact is if you have to work 100 hours per week to get your work done you must be exceptionally inefficient or working on a stupid project or simply nuts. Or all three.

The email is correct in saying that it’s “productivity” that counts. I’m sure there are many people who can sit at their desks for 11 hours a day without producing anything very much at all. It’s not the hours that matter, but what you do with them. In no way will indulging your outside interests (sporting, cultural, political, or “other”…),   or simply relaxing, detract from your ability to do research. I think such diversions actually improve your work, as well as (of course) your general well-being.

I had plenty of outside interests (including music, sport and nightlife)  and took time out regularly to indulge them. I didn’t – and still don’t – feel any guilt about doing that. I’m not a robot. And neither are you.

In fact, I can think of many times during my graduate studies when I was completely stuck on a problem – to the extent that it was seriously bothering me. On such occasions I learned to take a break. I often found that going for a walk, doing a crossword, or just trying to think about something else for a while, allowed me to return to the problem fresher and with new ideas. I think the brain gets into a rut if you try to make it work in one mode all the time.

But there is an element of truth in the paragraph quoted above. There were indeed many times during my time as a research student – and have been since – that I worked extremely long hours. I wouldn’t say exactly that was because I “enjoyed” it, but that I wanted to know the answer and couldn’t get the problem out of my head.  I’ve stayed up into the early hours of the morning trying to finish a crossword too. Not because I had to, but because I couldn’t put it down unfinished. I know that makes me a saddo in many minds, but I think that’s the sort of obsessiveness and tenacity a researcher needs: becoming so absorbed by the task in hand that you don’t notice the passage of time.

Anyway, as  a research student I certainly didn’t work 80-100 hours per week routinely, although I might have done a few times when things were getting interesting. I think an average working week of 40 hours is perfectly fine for a PhD student, as long as you use that time efficiently and are prepared to step up a gear when motivated to do so.

It’s been a while since I last had a poll, so let’s see if we can generate some statistics on this…

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.