Thursday, 11 February 2010

Intellectual generosity?

"The lessons of scholarship begin with intellectual generosity to the scholars who precede us. Ironically – although perhaps not – candidatures also conclude there" . Mrs. Brabazon

Read the full article:

Pst: I have to confess that I am not agree with her advice, but sometimes is nice to think how terrible a bad supervisor could be. The most amazing thing in this article, from my point of view, is how many arguments some of them need to write to believe that they are powerful. Just be careful, because, in fact... they are!

How not to get a PhD

Discover how to avoid failure in this extract from Estelle M. Phillips' and Derek S. Pugh's How to get a Phd

We want now to examine some very well established ways of not getting a PhD. While most examples in this chapter are drawn from business studies, in our experience, these tried and tested ways of failing apply to all fields and have to be pondered continually by research students. You have to be clear what your position is on each of the seven ways of failing that we shall discuss if you are not to fall foul of the traps they offer. And as we shall see, just to have them pointed out to you is not enough to avoid them. Most offer real blandishments that have to be determinedly resisted.
Not wanting a PhD
The first method of not getting a PhD is not to want a PhD. This may seem very strange, considering that a student is likely to be 'starving in a garret', living on a studentship pittance, perhaps having given up a job in order to study, or relying on the earnings of a spouse to put them through the course. At the very least, you will be devoting a great deal of time and effort and energy to research. Surely, you might say, considering what I am giving up to the project, can there be any doubt that I really want a PhD?
Well, strangely enough, there can be. We think an analogy would help here. It is the case, isn't it, that none of us, research students and research supervisors, want to become millionaires? We should quite like it if someone gave us a million pounds and we didn't have to do anything for it, not even buy a lottery ticket - that would sound like a good idea. But we don't want to set out to become millionaires. Obviously we don't; otherwise we wouldn't be considering how to do research and get PhDs -we would be considering how to build a better mousetrap, how to play the property market, how to write a bestselling book. There are many ways of making a million pounds, but doing a PhD is not likely to be one of them.
Exactly the same phenomenon occurs in regard to PhDs. People think it would be a nice idea to do a PhD, they come with views of what they want to do and then they turn round and say: 'Please can I have a PhD for it?' And the answer is often 'No'. PhDs are given for a particular form of research activity and if you do not wish to carry out this form of work then you effectively do not want to do a PhD. It is precisely the same distinction as that between hoping to become a millionaire and setting out to make a million pounds.
Clearly the purpose of this book is to help you to set out to obtain a PhD; and for this you need a degree of single-mindedness, a willingness to discover what is realistically required, and a determination to carry it out. This is the sense in which you must want a PhD. And this 'wanting' is important in that it has to work very hard for you. For example, it has to carry you through occasions when what you are doing may seem very pointless or fruitless, or when you ask yourself the question 'Why have I got myself into this?' or 'Why am I inflicting this on my family?' You cannot expect with an activity as demanding as doing a PhD that the intrinsic satisfaction (such as the interest of doing the research, the enjoyment of discussing your subject with other like-minded researchers) will be sufficient on its own to carry you through. You must always have a clear eye on the extrinsic satisfactions (your commitment to the whole exercise of doing a PhD, its necessary place in your career progression, and so on); you must want to do it.
There are, unfortunately, many who turn up as beginning PhD students who do not want to do a PhD in this sense. Particularly vulnerable are those who are using the PhD process as a vehicle for a career change:
· Iris, a teacher for many years, developed an interest in a particular specialism (multi-ethnic curriculum development) and thought she would like to do research in order to establish herself in this new subject. She found that doing research was taking her farther and farther away from dealing with what she saw as the real issues of pupils in the classroom in favour of a measurement- orientated form of 'science' to which she was unsympathetic. She left.
· Jim was a journalist specializing in industrial issues. He wanted an academic career and started a PhD on a politically topical issue. He continued to write occasional newspaper articles to earn money as a student. After producing a series of articles as his inadequate research proposal, his supervisor told him he had to design a questionnaire. He did so and got a group of managers to complete it, but he never analysed it- he said that he didn't see the point. And, of course, there was no point -for him. He withdrew.
Not understanding the nature of a PhD by overestimating what is required
The words used to describe the outcome of a PhD project -'an original contribution to knowledge' -may sound rather grand, but we must remember that, the work for the degree is essentially a research training process and the term 'original contribution' has perforce to be interpreted quite narrowly. It does not mean an enormous breakthrough which has the subject rocking on its foundations, and research students who think that it does (even if only subconsciously or in a half-formed way) will find the process pretty debilitating.
Of course, if you are capable of a major contribution then go ahead and make it (there are still, for example, a few scientists who have an FRS but not a PhD) -but this is a strategy for getting an honorary degree, not for getting a PhD! For those not in that position- i.e. most of us -an original contribution can be rather limited in its scope and indeed should be: apply this theory in a different setting, evaluate the effects of raising the temperature, solve this puzzling oddity or review this little-known historical event.
We find that when we make this point, some social science students who have read Kuhn's (1970) work on 'paradigm shifts' in the history of natural science (science students have normally not heard of him) say rather indignantly: 'Oh, do you mean a PhD has to be just doing normal science?' And indeed we do mean that. Paradigm shifts are major changes in the explanatory schemes of the science, which happen only rarely when the inadequacies of the previous framework have become more and more limiting. Normal science is the ordinary research that goes on between major theoretical changes. It serves to elaborate the general explanatory paradigm used and to tease out difficulties and puzzles that are not yet sufficiently well explained. It is the basic useful activity of scientists and scholars, and PhD students should be pleased to make a contribution to it.
You can leave the paradigm shifts for after your PhD. And, empirically, that is indeed what happens. The theory of relativity (a classic example of a paradigm shift in relation to post-Newtonian physics) was not Einstein's PhD thesis (that was a sensible contribution to Brownian motion theory). Das Kapital was not Marx's PhD (that was on the theories of two little-known Greek philosophers). Of course, while doing their PhDs Einstein and Marx were undoubtedly preparing themselves for the great questionings that led to the big shifts, but they were also demonstrating their fully professional mastery of the established paradigms.
It is this professionalism that the PhD is about. To think it is more than that can be very debilitating. You can wait for a long time for a new paradigm to strike. Overestimating is a powerful way of not getting a PhD. Here are two classic cases:
· Bob insisted that it would not be 'real' research if he read up in books and journals what others had done on the problem that he wished to tackle; his thinking would be entirely shaped by what they had done and he would only be able to add something minor. He felt that his only chance of being really innovative was not to read anything further in the field (he had a bachelor's and a relevant master's degree in the subject) but to sit down and design an investigation into the problem he was proposing to research (concerned with adult learning of skills), which he knew well from a practical point of view as an industrial trainer. This took quite a long time, as his knowledge of research methods was not that strong.
When he did present his proposal to Dr Bishop, his supervisor, she was not impressed. As this field was not her own particular speciality, Dr Bishop went to the library and looked up all the current year's issues of the relevant journals. In one of them she found a paper reporting a study on Bob's topic that (not surprisingly, since it was completed and published) was considerably better than Bob's attempt. She used this paper to support her argument that he would have to make a comprehensive search of relevant published material if he were to have a chance of designing an adequate study which would make a contribution. But Bob saw this as a negation of what he wanted to do and withdrew.
· While Phil was carrying out the fieldwork stage of his research into the motivation of managers, he became very involved with his subjects. He felt that it would be a betrayal if they were to get no benefit from his research because it was written up in a dull academic book that no one would read. Most research was like that, Phil maintained, and was therefore neglected by everyone except the next lot of researchers. What was needed was a research report that could really communicate. Why couldn't we have a PhD thesis that would read like a novel so that it would become accessible?
Phil took this idea very seriously. He wrote to a novelist whose works he admired for some suggestions on how to write his thesis. He took an extra year to write up the material, letting no one see anything on the way, on the grounds that you don't show a novel to anyone until it is completed. When he did finally present his complete thesis, his supervisor thought it was inadequate, unrigorous and indulgently subjective. Phil was asked to rewrite it, but he refused and thus did not get a PhD.
We hasten to emphasize that this example is not intended to deprecate writing research results for lay people, a very necessary activity that all researchers should take seriously. It is about overestimating what can be done with a PhD and therefore falling flat on your face. Nor does it mean that in writing for your academic peers you should neglect clear expression and interesting presentation.
Not understanding the nature of a PhD by underestimating what is required
Underestimating what is required is, we find, particularly a problem for those researching part-time and continuing in their jobs, and for those coming back to academic life after a long period in the 'real world', as they see it. It is basically the difficulty of understanding what is meant by 'research', since the word is used much more strictly in the academic than in the non-academic sphere. We shall discuss the nature of research activity in later in this book, but here we can just note that the lay person's view that 'research is finding out something you don't know' is not adequate: that most of the activities described as 'market research' or 'research for a TV programme' do not fulfil the criteria of research required for a PhD.
PhD research requires a contribution to the analysis and explanation of the topic, not just description. It requires an understanding that it is as important a part of the research process to fashion the questions properly as it is to develop interesting answers. It is an underestimation of what is required to accept a 'lay' formulation of either questions or answers -even if they somehow appear more 'relevant' -and it is a clear way of not getting a PhD. Here are two examples:
· Tom was a management consultant who decided to take a three-year sabbatical in order to do a PhD and thus enhance his marketability .He had noted in his job that the time horizons that managers used when making decisions affected the decisions made, and he decided to do his research on this topic, to explore ways of helping managers make better decisions. He took a typical consultant's approach, going round to a number of managers and talking to them about their decision-making problems. He wrote up some particular cases, some particular problems, and some suggestions for getting better decisions made.
After some months, a few of his clients with whom he had kept in touch and who knew of his new interest began to ask him for help and advice in improving decision-making in their firms. Tom felt that he helped them and therefore that his work was on the right lines. What he wanted to do was write up his knowledge and experience on managers' time horizons, present this as his PhD thesis, publish it as a book, and henceforth be an authority on this subject, thus obtaining more consulting opportunities.
It took until the end of his first year to convince Tom that, while his approach was a sensible career strategy in itself and his consulting opportunities would certainly improve if he published a book that was interesting and useful to managers, it was not a strategy for obtaining a PhD. His approach seriously underestimated what was required, and he was not doing research in the terms which are necessary for a PhD. When Tom accepted this, he decided that in that case a PhD was not worth doing anyway, and withdrew.
· Chris was a financial manager who thought that a research degree would be a good insurance should he wish in the future to become a management lecturer. He wanted to do his research on the financial control systems of his firm, about which he naturally knew a very great deal. He thought that it would be easy to do some research into a topic on which he was one of the experts, but he seriously underestimated the fact that research means finding good questions as well as good answers.
Chris was not able to formulate research questions very well himself; when his supervisor began suggesting a number of questions that he might investigate, he would take them up enthusiastically in discussion and give 'the answer' as he knew it to be. After treating a series of possible topics in this way, it became clear that he really did not have any need to do research since he knew all the answers anyway -at least at a level that satisfied him. After it was borne in on him that research requires actively challenging old explanations and finding new ones if necessary, his enthusiasm waned and he dropped out.
Not having a supervisor who knows what a PhD requires
If it is important for a student not to over- or underestimate the nature of a PhD, it is equally important to have a supervisor who does not do so. We shall be discussing issues of supervision in detail later, and so here we will just point out that: first, inadequate supervision is a major cause of not getting a PhD; and second, since the penalties to students of not succeeding are much greater than to their supervisors, in the end it is up to determined students to get the supervision they need and are entitled to.
· Sophia came to Britain on a government scholarship from a country that has little tradition of empirical research in her field. She was allocated to a supervisor who had good practical experience but who had not in fact done any research himself. She worked away by herself, with occasional comments from him that he thought a particular section very interesting. But he had badly underestimated the nature of a PhD. When she submitted her thesis the external examiner said that, in his opinion, it was so completely inadequate that there was no point in having the oral examination or in allowing a resubmission. She returned to her country sadder, if not wiser.
· Professor Shepherd is a supervisor very few of whose students finish their PhDs. This is surprising, because he is a well known academic in his field, has a lively intelligence and an outgoing personality -which is why he continues to attract students to supervise. But Professor Shepherd believes in treating research students as adults, as he puts it -forgetting that students are babes, in research terms! He believes that it is the supervisor's job to challenge his students, to shake them up mentally, to bombard them with new ideas. He goes on doing this throughout the duration of the research, even when more convergence, more limitations are required to complete the study. Because of this overestimation, many students find they have taken on too large a project, which they do not see becoming more focused. They get disheartened and drop out.
Losing contact with your supervisor
As we said above, the penalties of failure are greater for the student than for the supervisor. The relationship is not one of equality, so the student has to work harder to keep in touch with the supervisor than the other way around. The nature of the PhD process requires continual input from the supervisor if the student is to learn the craft of research and how to apply it to the particular topic under study .The details of managing this interaction fruitfully on both sides are covered later in this book. Here we will just illustrate the inevitably catastrophic effect which results if contact is lost.
· Tony got bogged down 18 months into his project. After a long session with his supervisor he decided that he wanted to change direction. His supervisor said that it was impossible to do so at this stage and he should carry on -even though it was now clear that more work would be required than originally envisaged, with a weaker outcome anyway. Tony did not agree and tried to persuade his supervisor to allow greater modifications. His supervisor explained that this was not sensible within the available timescale, and pressed him to carry on with the original design. They saw each other less and less because Tony felt that they were talking at cross-purposes. After four months they ceased to have any meetings; after six months Tony was observed rushing into a lecture room to avoid his supervisor whom he saw coming towards him along the corridor. He never submitted his thesis.
· David's supervisor, Professor Dickinson, was one of the leading academics in Britain in her field. She died tragically when David was at the end of his second year. His supervision was taken over by an experienced researcher whose range of concerns was different and who had only a general interest in David's topic.
David did not think it necessary to tell his new supervisor in any detail what he was doing, having it clear in his mind that Professor Dickinson would have given her approval. He thus worked without supervision for a further 18 months. When he came to submit his thesis the examiners felt that he had suffered from lack of supervision, which in the circumstances should be taken into account, but that they could award him only an MPhil, not a PhD. He appealed, but in due course the university confirmed the decision.
David's enforced change of supervisor was due to a particularly tragic event. Supervisors leave for happier reasons too, and often it is necessary to be handed on to another supervisor. In these circumstances it is particularly incumbent on the student to make good contact with the new supervisor, whose knowledge and skills are a crucial input to getting a PhD.
Not having a thesis
Words develop in meaning, and the word 'thesis' is nowadays commonly used to refer to the project report of the research undertaken for the PhD. Thus the regulations of your university may say that your thesis may be not more than a certain number of words in length, that it must be presented in black/blue/red binding, and so on. (Incidentally, these regulations differ for different institutions and they also change over time, so it is important for you to check those which apply to you.)
But there is an earlier use of the word 'thesis' that is very important to the task of obtaining a PhD. A thesis in this sense is something that you wish to argue, a position that you wish to maintain (the word 'thesis' derives from the Greek for 'place'). For example, the Reformation began when Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg church -statements of his beliefs, which he wished to maintain against the Roman Church of that time. C. P. Snow propounded the thesis that British intellectuals inhabit two separate cultures-literary and scientific - which hardly overlap. It is our thesis that it is crucial for students wanting to obtain a PhD that they understand fully the objectives of the exercise and the nature of the processes involved, which is why we have written this book.
Your PhD must have a thesis in this sense. It must argue a position. At the minimum this means that the study must have a 'story line' , a coherent thrust which pushes along an argument, an explanation, a systematic set of inferences derived from new data or new ways of viewing current data. Often, when trying to come to grips with the tough-minded pruning of material that this involves, you will feel that you are losing useful data, or important points. But relevance to the argument is the stern criterion. Your thesis has to organize data to increase the richness of your work, and focus argument to increase its cogency. It is not enough for your thesis report to be 'a short trot with a cultured mind'.
It may be that the thesis you are arguing has been decomposed into a number of 'hypo-theses' (usually pronounced hypotheses) each of which will be tested for its adequacy. In this case you must relate them to each other to maintain the general thrust of your argument. If you are not working in the hypothesis-testing mode you must still ensure that your discussions add up to a coherent argument. This is how the adequacy of your contribution is judged.
As with all the other ways of not getting a PhD, this is easier to say than to do, particularly if you do not have good guidance in the early stages of your research, when the temptation to spread yourself too widely and too thinly is greatest.
· Harry started out to study factors affecting industrial marketing strategies. This is a large field and he was able to tackle the issues only rather superficially. Some of the chapters in his thesis report made some good points, others were rather poor, but none of the aspects was at all related to the others in a cumulative way. The examiners said that his thesis 'did not add up to anything' and rejected it.
· Graham was the administrator of a voluntary organization. He registered for a PhD because he felt that not enough was known about how to manage such organizations; more research was needed to make administrators in this field more professional. He spent his first year reading a great deal about administration and thinking how the ideas could be applied to help administrators in voluntary organizations. When he was asked how his research could help them, he said that he wanted to write a textbook describing good administrative practices. There then followed a long period of trying to get through to him that without a thesis his work would not earn a PhD, though it might well be a useful thing to do in itself. In the end he reluctantly accepted this.
We must emphasize that it is not the notion of a textbook per se that makes it inadequate for a PhD but the lack of a thesis. A textbook which incorporated a well argued, justified thesis -for example, that accepted views are inadequate when the data are critically re-examined, or that the field can be reinterpreted fruitfully in the light of a new theory -would be very acceptable.
Taking a new job before finishing
Doing a PhD is an intellectually demanding enterprise, and this is true at all stages of the work. It is especially true of the final stage of writing up. Most students radically underestimate the amount of time and effort that this stage will require. They somehow think that having surveyed the field, designed the study, collected and analysed the data, it is downhill from then on to the presentation of the thesis. It is not so. Writing up demands the most concentrated effort of the whole process.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first is emotional: it is difficult to avoid feeling that this is a chore, after the 'real' work has been done. There are always ambivalent feelings about the study itself and a barely suppressed desire to run away from it all, now that the data are actually there for others to see. The second reason is intellectual: unless you are extremely lucky and everything turns out exactly as planned, there will at this stage be quite a lot of adjustment to be done in your argument, in your interpretation, in your presentation, to put the best face on the material you have available. This is an extremely demanding test of professional competence, and it is in fact at this stage that you have really to demonstrate that you are worth a PhD.
There is a third reason concerned with limitations in writing skill and experience. Few students have written anything as long as a PhD thesis before, and to complete it requires a considerable effort.
For all these reasons, writing up is not the time to take a new job. Apart from the physical dislocation, which makes intellectual work difficult and therefore easily postponed, a new job is likely to require you to concentrate your attention on a new range of issues, which, particularly if they are academic ones, will inevitably get in the way of writing up, through intellectual fatigue.
The only job it is possible to do, perhaps one which you are doing already or have done before, is one which allows you to operate in 'intellectual overdrive'. Taking a new job before finishing is a way of not getting a PhD. At the very least it will put off completion for several years (in our experience six to eight years and more), until the intellectual learning curve of the new job allows it -or else you join the ranks of those whom the Americans call the ' ABDs': the 'all-but-dissertation' brigade.
Action summary
Be aware of the seven ways of not getting a PhD: 
· not wanting a PhD; · overestimating what is required; · underestimating what is required; · having a supervisor who does not know what is required; · losing contact with your supervisor; · not having a 'thesis' (i.e. position, argument) to maintain; · taking a new job before completing.
Work to understand the implications of these traps fully in your own situation and determine not to succumb to them.
Re-establish your determination regularly when blandishments to stray from your programme of work recur.

Friday, 5 February 2010

A Guide for Students and Advisors

How to Succeed in Graduate School:
A Guide for Students and Advisors

figure Part I of II figure

byMarie desJardins
This paper attempts to raise some issues that are important for graduate students to be successful and to get as much out of the process as possible, and for advisors who wish to help their students be successful. The intent is not to provide prescriptive advice -- no formulas for finishing a thesis or twelve-step programs for becoming a better advisor are given -- but to raise awareness on both sides of the advisor-student relationship as to what the expectations are and should be for this relationship, what a graduate student should expect to accomplish, common problems, and where to go if the advisor is not forthcoming.


This article originated with a discussion I had with several women professors about the problems women face in graduate school, and how more women could be encouraged to go to graduate school in computer science. Eventually, the conversation turned to the question of what these women could do in their interactions with women students to support and encourage them. I volunteered that over the course of my graduate career I had collected a variety of papers and email discussions about how to be a good advisor, how to get through graduate school, and issues facing women. They were eager to get this material, and I told them I would sort through it when I got a chance.
After mentioning this project to a number of people, both graduate students and faculty -- all of whom expressed an interest in anything I could give them -- I realized two things: first, the issues that we were talking about really were not just women's issues but were of interest to all graduate students, and to all caring advisors. Second, in order to disseminate the information I had collected (and was starting to collect from others) it seemed to make more sense to compile a bibliography, and write a paper that would summarize the most useful advice and suggestions I had collected.
I solicited inputs from friends and colleagues via mailing lists and Internet bulletin boards, and collected almost an overwhelming amount of information. Sorting through it and attempting to distill the collective wisdom of dozens of articles and hundreds of email messages has not been an easy task, but I hope that the results provide a useful resource for graduate students and advisors alike. The advice I give here is directed towards Ph.D. students in computer science and their advisors, since that is my background, but I believe that much of it applies to graduate students in other areas as well.
In my experience, the two main things that make graduate school hard are the unstructured nature of the process, and the lack of information about what you should spend your time on. I hope that this article will provide information for both graduate students and advisors that will help make the process less painful. I want to emphasize that graduate school is not easy, and these suggestions will not always be easy or even possible to follow (and they may not even be the ideal goal for you, personally, to strive for). You shouldn't let that discourage you: start small, think big, and keep yourself focused on your ultimate goal, which shouldn't just be to get through graduate school, but to enjoy yourself, make progress towards being able to do what you want to do with your life, and learn something in the process.
I owe a debt of gratitude to David Chapman, whose paper [2] was an invaluable reference for me not only during the writing of this article, but during graduate school as well.
The goals of this article are to raise awareness of the need for a healthy and interactive graduate student-advisor relationship, to provide pointers and guidance for both advisors and graduate students in navigating the maze of a doctoral degree, and to give references and resources for those who hope to learn more.

Before You Start

Many headaches can be avoided by doing some advance planning. First, why go to graduate school at all? The usual reasons given are that a Ph.D. is required or preferred for some jobs, especially research and academic positions; that it gives you a chance to learn a great deal about a specific area; and that it provides an opportunity to develop ideas and perform original research. Wanting to delay your job hunt is probably not a good enough reason. Over the past decade, research and academic positions have become more difficult to find, and many recent Ph.D.s end up ``killing time'' in a series of postdoctoral positions, or taking non-research jobs. Having a Ph.D. is not a guarantee of finding a better job in and of itself! In addition, graduate school is a lot of work and requires strong motivation and focus. You have to really want to be there to make it through.
It helps to have a good idea of what area you want to specialize in, and preferably a couple of particular research projects you might like to work on, although many graduate students change their minds about research projects and even specialization field after they start school. Look for books and current journals and conference proceedings in your area, and read through them to get an idea of who's doing what where. (You'll be doing a lot of reading once you start graduate school, so you might as well get used to it.) This is where advisors first enter the scene: faculty members ought to be willing to talk to undergraduates and help them find out more about research areas and graduate schools. Try to get involved in research: ask professors and TAs (teaching assistants) whether they need someone to work on an ongoing project, or start an independent research project, with guidance from a faculty member.
Contact faculty members and graduate students at the schools you're interested in. Tell them about your background and interests and ask them what research projects they're working on. A good way to do this is via electronic mail if possible -- email is much easier and quicker to respond to than a paper letter. A good advisor will be willing to answer these kinds of inquiries (although if they're busy they may give you only a brief answer or point you towards a graduate student -- you'll have to use your intuition to decide whether they're brushing you off or just busy). If you can't get any answer at all, consider that that individual might not end up being a very accessible advisor. Asking these questions will help you narrow down your choices and may increase your chances of admission if the professors you contact become interested in working with you.
Your best bet is to find a school where there are at least two faculty members you'd be interested in working with. That way, if one doesn't work out, or is too busy to take on a new student, you have a fallback position. Breadth of the graduate program (i.e., high-quality faculty in a broad range of subareas) is also a good thing to look for in a school, especially if you're not entirely certain what you want to specialize in.
It's also important to most people to feel comfortable with the community of graduate students. It pays to talk to some of the graduate students (both junior and senior) to find out how they like it, which advisors are good, and what kinds of support (financial and psychological) are available. Because there are so many students applying to each school, even highly qualified applicants are often rejected. You should apply to a range of programs -- and don't take it personally if you do get rejected by some of them.
You can increase your chances of getting into graduate school by developing good relationships with your professors and work managers (this is very important for getting good recommendations), working on a research project, having a clear sense of what you want to work on (although it's always all right to change your mind later), having a broad background in your field and in related fields (for example, psychology classes are useful for AI students), getting good grades (especially in upper division classes in your area of interest), and getting a high score on the GRE if required. Also, it's a good idea to start thinking early about sources of funding: apply for an NSF fellowship, for example.

Doing Research

For many new graduate students, graduate school is unlike anything else they've done. Sometimes it's hard to know exactly what it is you're supposed to be learning. Yes, you have to complete a dissertation, but how do you start? What should you spend your time doing?
Graduate school is a very unstructured environment in most cases. Graduate students typically take nine hours or less of coursework per semester, especially after the second year. For many, the third year -- after coursework is largely finished and preliminary exams have been completed -- is a very difficult and stressful period. This is when you're supposed to find a thesis topic, if you're not one of the lucky few who has already found one. Once you do find a topic, you can expect two or more years until completion, with very few landmarks or milestones in sight.
The following sections talk about the day-to-day process of doing research, criticism and feedback, working on the thesis, and financial support for research.

The Daily Grind

Being a good researcher involves more than ``merely'' coming up with brilliant ideas and implementing them. Most researchers spend the majority of their time reading papers, discussing ideas with colleagues, writing and revising papers, staring blankly into space -- and, of course, having brilliant ideas and implementing them.
Part II of this article discusses the process and importance of becoming part of a larger research community, which is a critical aspect of being a successful researcher. This section contains ideas on keeping track of where you're going, and where you've been, with your research, staying motivated, and how to spend your time wisely.
Keeping a journal of your research activities and ideas is very useful. Write down speculations, interesting problems, possible solutions, random ideas, references to look up, notes on papers you've read, outlines of papers to write, and interesting quotes. Read back through it periodically. You'll notice that the bits of random thoughts start to come together and form a pattern, often turning into a research project or even a thesis topic. I was surprised, looking back through my journal as I was finishing up my thesis, how early and often similar ideas had cropped up in my thinking, and how they gradually evolved into a dissertation.
You'll have to read a lot of technical papers to become familiar with any field, and to stay current once you've caught up. You may find yourself spending over half of your time reading, especially at the beginning. This is normal. It's also normal to be overwhelmed by the amount of reading you think you ``should'' do. Try to remember that it's impossible to read everything that might be relevant: instead, read selectively. When you first start reading up on a new field, ask your advisor or a fellow student what the most useful journals and conference proceedings are in your field, and ask for a list of seminal or ``classic'' papers that you should definitely read. For AI researchers, a useful (if slightly outdated) starting point is Agre's [1] summary of basic AI references. Similar documents may exist for other research areas -- ask around, and cruise the information superhighway. Start with these papers and the last few years of journals and proceedings.
Before bothering to read any paper, make sure it's worth it. Scan the title, then the abstract, then -- if you haven't completely lost interest already -- glance at the introduction and conclusions. (Of course, if your advisor tells you that this is an important paper, skip this preliminary step and jump right in!) Before you try to get all of the nitty-gritty details of the paper, skim the whole thing, and try to get a feel for the most important points. If it still seems worthwhile and relevant, go back and read the whole thing. Many people find it useful to take notes while they read. Even if you don't go back later and reread them, it helps to focus your attention and forces you to summarize as you read. And if you do need to refresh your memory later, rereading your notes is much easier and faster than reading the whole paper.
A few other points to keep in mind as you read and evaluate papers:
  • Make sure the ideas described really worked (as opposed to just being theoretically valid, or tested on a few toy examples).
  • Try to get past buzzwords: they may sound good, but not mean much. Is there substance and an interesting idea underneath the jargon?
  • To really understand a paper, you have to understand the motivations for the problem posed, the choices made in finding a solution, the assumptions behind the solution, whether the assumptions are realistic and whether they can be removed without invalidating the approach, future directions for research, what was actually accomplished or implemented, the validity (or lack thereof) of the theoretical justifications or empirical demonstrations, and the potential for extending and scaling the algorithm up.
Keep the papers you read filed away so you can find them again later, and set up an online bibliography (BibTeX is a popular format, but anything consistent will do). I find it useful to add extra fields for keywords, the location of the paper (if you borrowed the reference from the library or a friend), and a short summary of particularly interesting papers. This bibliography will be useful for later reference, for writing your dissertation, and for sharing with other graduate students (and eventually, perhaps, advisees).

Staying Motivated

At times, particularly in the ``middle years,'' it can be very hard to maintain a positive attitude and stay motivated. Many graduate students suffer from insecurity, anxiety, and even boredom. First of all, realize that these are normal feelings. Try to find a sympathetic ear -- another graduate student, your advisor, or a friend outside of school. Next, try to identify why you're having trouble and identify concrete steps that you can take to improve the situation. To stay focused and motivated, it often helps to have organized activities to force you to manage your time and to do something every day. Setting up regular meetings with your advisor, attending seminars, or even extracurricular activities such as sports or music can help you to maintain a regular schedule.
Chapman [2] enumerates a number of ``immobilizing shoulds'' that can make you feel so guilty and unworthy that you stop making progress. Telling yourself that you should have a great topic, that you should finish in n years, that you should work 4, or 8, or 12 hours a day isn't helpful for most people. Be realistic about what you can accomplish, and try to concentrate on giving yourself positive feedback for tasks you do complete, instead of negative feedback for those you don't.
Setting daily, weekly, and monthly goals is a good idea, and works even better if you use a ``buddy system'' where you and another student meet at regular intervals to review your progress. Try to find people to work with: doing research is much easier if you have someone to bounce ideas off of and to give you feedback.
Breaking down any project into smaller pieces is always a good tactic when things seem unmanageable. At the highest level, doing a master's project before diving into a Ph.D. dissertation is generally a good idea (and is mandatory at some schools). A master's gives you a chance to learn more about an area, do a smaller research project, and establish working relationships with your advisor and fellow students.
The divide-and-conquer strategy works on a day-to-day level as well. Instead of writing an entire thesis, focus on the goal of writing a chapter, section, or outline. Instead of implementing a large system, break off pieces and implement one module at a time. Identify tasks that you can do in an hour or less; then you can come up with a realistic daily schedule. If you have doubts, don't let them stop you from accomplishing something -- take it one day at a time. Remember, every task you complete gets you closer to finishing. Even if you don't make any obvious progress, you'll have learned something, although it may be ``don't waste your time on this task again!''

Getting to the Thesis

The hardest part of getting a Ph.D. is, of course, writing the dissertation. The process of finding a thesis topic, doing the research, and writing the thesis is different from anything most students have done before. If you have a good advisor and support network, you'll be able to get advice and help in setting directions and goals. If not, you may need to be more independent. If this is the case, don't just isolate yourself from the world: try to go out and find the resources and support you need from professors, other graduate students, mailing lists, friends, family, and publications like this one.

Finding an Advisor

Finding the right advisor can help you immeasurably in successfully completing a thesis. You should ideally have selected the schools you applied to by identifying faculty members you'd like to work with. If not, start looking around as early as possible. Of course, the ideal advisor will be in the area you're interested in working in, will actively be doing high-quality reseach and be involved in and respected by the research community, and (not least) will be someone you can get along with.
Read research summaries by faculty members (which are usually published by the department), go to talks they give, and attend or audit courses given by professors you might be interested in working with. Talk to other graduate students and recent graduates. Ask them how their relationships with their advisors are/were, how quickly the advisor's students graduate, and how successful (well recognized, high-quality) their research is. What kinds of relationships do they have -- frequent interactions, collaborative work, encouraging independence? handing out topics or helping students to create individual research areas, or a more hands-off style?
Other things to find out about potential advisors:
  • What is the average time their Ph.D. students take to finish their degrees? What is the dropout rate for their students?
  • How long have they been on the faculty? There are advantages and disadvantages to being one of the first members of a new research group. On the positive side, you often have more freedom to choose your research topic and to influence the direction of the group's research. On the negative side, you may be more isolated (since there won't be older graduate students in the group), your advisor won't have as much experience, and if they don't get tenure you may be scrambling for a new advisor several years into your thesis.
A good advisor will serve as a mentor as well as a source of technical assistance. A mentor should provide, or help you to find, the resources you need (financial, equipment, and psychological support); introduce you and promote your work to important people in your field; encourage your own interests, rather than promoting their own; be available to give you advice on the direction of your thesis and your career; and help you to find a job when you finish. They should help you to set and achieve long-term and short-term goals.
Once you identify one or more potential advisors, get to know them. Introduce yourself and describe the area you're interested in. Attend their research group meetings if they hold them regularly. Give them a copy of a research proposal if you have a good idea of what you want to work on, and ask for comments. Ask whether they have any TA or RA (research assistant) positions available, or if there are any ongoing research projects that you could get involved with. Read their published papers, and the work of their students. Drop by during office hours and ask questions or make comments. Offer to read drafts of papers -- and do more than just proofread.
The type of relationship that each student needs with an advisor will be different. Some students prefer to be given more direction, to have frequent contact, and to be ``checked up on.'' Others are more independent. Some may need contact but be self-conscious about asking for it. Other things that vary include what kinds of feedback is preferred (lots of ``random'' ideas vs. very directed feedback (pointers)), working individually vs. in groups, working on an established research project vs. a new, independent effort; working in the same area as your advisor or doing an ``outside'' thesis.
You may find that your thesis advisor doesn't always give you all of the mentoring that you need. Multiple mentors are common and useful; they may include other faculty members in your department or elsewhere, senior graduate students, or other colleagues. You may want to seriously consider changing thesis advisors if your advisor is inaccessible or disinterested, gives you only negative feedback, doesn't have the technical background to advise you on your thesis, or harasses you.
The most important thing is to ask for (i.e., demand politely) what you need.

Finding a Thesis Topic

Doing a master's project is often a good idea (and is required by some schools). Although choosing an appropriately scaled-down topic may be difficult, having the ideal topic is also less important, since you will have the chance to move on after only a year or so. If you have a good idea of what you want to do your Ph.D. dissertation on, choosing a master's project that will lead into the dissertation is wise: you will get a head start on the Ph.D., or may decide that you're not interested in pursuing the topic after all (saving yourself a lot of work and grief farther down the road).
A good source of ideas for master's projects (and sometimes for dissertation topics) is the future work section of papers you're interested in. Try developing and implementing an extension to an existing system or technique.
Generally speaking, a good Ph.D. thesis topic is interesting to you, to your advisor, and to the research community. As with many aspects of graduate school, the balance you find will depend at least in part on the relationship you have with your advisor. Some professors have well defined long-term research programs and expect their students to contribute directly to this program. Others have much looser, but still related ongoing projects. Still others will take on anyone with an interesting idea, and may have a broad range of interesting ideas to offer their students. Be wary of the advisor who seems willing to let you pursue any research direction at all. You probably won't get the technical support you need, and they may lose interest in you when the next graduate student with a neat idea comes along.
If you pick a topic that you're not truly interested in simply because it's your advisor's pet area, it will be difficult to stay focused and motivated -- and you may be left hanging if your advisor moves on to a different research area before you finish. The same is true for choosing a topic because of its marketability: if you're not personally excited about the topic, you'll have a harder time finishing and a harder time convincing other people that your research is interesting. Besides, markets change more quickly than most people finish dissertations.
In order to do original research, you must be aware of ongoing research in your field. Most students spend up to a year reading and studying current research to identify important open problems. However, you'll never be able to read everything that might be relevant -- and new work is always being published.
Try to become aware and stay aware of directly related research -- but if you see new work that seems to be doing exactly what you're working on, don't panic. It's common for graduate students to see a related piece of work and think that their topic is ruined. If this happens to you, reread the paper several times to get a good understanding of what they've really been accomplished. Show the paper to your advisor or someone else who's familiar with your topic and whose opinions you respect. Introduce yourself to the author at a conference or by email, and tell them about your work. By starting a dialogue, you will usually find that their work isn't quite the same, and that there are still directions open to you. You may even end up collaborating with them. Good researchers welcome the opportunity to interact and collaborate with someone who's interested in the same problems they are.
To finish quickly, it's usually best to pick a narrow, well defined topic. The downside of this approach is that it may not be as exciting to you or to the research community. If you're more of a risk-taker, choose a topic that branches out in a new direction. The danger here is that it can be difficult to carefully define the problem, and to evaluate the solution you develop. If you have a topic like this, it helps a lot to have an advisor or mentor who is good at helping you to focus and who can help you maintain a reasonably rigorous approach to the problem.
In the extreme case, if your topic is so out of the ordinary that it's unrelated to anything else, you may have difficulty convincing people it's worthwhile. Truly innovative research is, of course, exciting and often pays back in recognition from the research community -- or you could just be out in left field. If you have a far-out topic, be sure that people are actually interested in it, or you'll never be able to ``sell'' it later, and will probably have trouble getting your work published and finding a job. In addition, it will be hard to find colleagues who are interested in the same problems and who can give you advice and feedback.
In any case, a good topic will address important issues. You should be trying to solve a real problem, not a toy problem (or worse yet, no problem at all); you should have solid theoretical work, good empirical results or, preferably, both; and the topic will be connected to -- but not be a simple variation on or extension of -- existing research. It will also be significant yet manageable. Finding the right size problem can be difficult. One good way of identifying the right size is to read other dissertations. It's also useful to have what Chapman [2] calls a ``telescoping organization'' -- a central problem that's solvable and acceptable, with extensions and additions that are ``successively riskier and that will make the thesis more exciting.'' If the gee-whiz additions don't pan out, you'll still have a solid result.
A good way to focus on a topic is to write one-sentence and one-paragraph descriptions of the problem you want to address, and do the same for your proposed solution; then write an outline of what a thesis that solved this problem would look like (i.e., what chapters would be included, or if you're ambitious, what sections in the chapter).
Sometimes finding a small problem to work on and building on it in a ``bottom up'' fashion can work equally well, as long as you don't fall into the trap of solving lots of small unrelated problems that don't lead to a coherent, solid, substantial piece of research (i.e., a thesis).
Remember that a thesis is only a few years of your work, and that -- if all goes well -- your research career will continue for another 30 or 40. Don't be afraid to leave part of the problem for future work, and don't compare yourself to senior researchers who have years of work and publications to show for it. (On the other hand, if you identify too much future work, your thesis won't look very exciting by comparison.) Graduate students often pick overly ambitious topics (in theory, your advisor will help you to identify a realistic size problem). Don't overestimate what other people have done. Learn to read between the lines of grandiose claims (something else a good advisor will help you to do).
Some schools may require that you write a thesis proposal. Even if they don't, this is a good first step to take. It forces you to define the problem, outline possible solutions, and identify evaluation criteria; and it will help you to get useful feedback from your advisor and other colleagues. Writing a good thesis proposal will take up to several months, depending on how much background work and thinking you've already done in the process of choosing the topic.
The proposal should provide a foundation for the dissertation. First, you must circumscribe the problem and argue convincingly that it needs to be solved, and that you have a methodology for solving it. You must identify and discuss related work: has this problem been addressed before? What are the shortcomings of existing work in the area, and how will your approach differ from and be an improvement over these methods?
Present your ideas for solving the problem in as much detail as possible, and give a detailed plan of the remaining research to be done. The proposal should include, or be structured as, a rough outline of the thesis itself. In fact, unless your final topic differs significantly from your proposed topic (which many do), you may be able to reuse parts of the proposal in the thesis.
You will probably have to take an oral exam in which you present and/or answer questions about your proposal. Be sure that your committee members are as familiar as possible with your work beforehand. Give them copies of the proposal, and talk to them about it. During the exam, don't panic if you don't know the answer to a question. Simply say, ``I'm not sure'' and then do your best to analyze the question and present possible answers. Your examining committee wants to see your analytical skills, not just hear canned answers to questions you were expecting. Give a practice talk to other students and faculty members. Remember: you know more about your thesis topic than your committee; you're teaching them something for a change.

Writing the Thesis

Graduate students often think that the thesis happens in two distinct phases: doing the research, and writing the dissertation. This may be the case for some students, but more often, these phases overlap and interact with one another. Sometimes it's difficult to formalize an idea well enough to test and prove it until you've written it up; the results of your tests often require you to make changes that mean that you have to go back and rewrite parts of the thesis; and the process of developing and testing your ideas is almost never complete (there's always more that you could do) so that many graduate students end up ``doing research'' right up until the day or two before the thesis is turned in.
The divide-and-conquer approach works as well for writing as it does for research. A problem that many graduate students face is that their only goal seems to be ``finish the thesis.'' It is essential that you break this down into manageable stages, both in terms of doing the research and when writing the thesis. Tasks that you can finish in a week, a day, or even as little as half an hour are much more realistic goals. Try to come up with a range of tasks, both in terms of duration and difficulty. That way, on days when you feel energetic and enthusiastic, you can sink your teeth into a solid problem, but on days when you're run-down and unmotivated, you can at least descending order of abstraction: high-level content-oriented comments, mid-level stylistic and presentation comments, and low-level nitpicky comments on syntax and grammar. Try to keep your comments constructive (``this would read better if you defined X before introducing Y'') rather than destructive (``this is nonsense'').
You'll want to read a paper at least twice -- once to get the basic ideas, then a second time to mark down comments. High-level comments describing your overall impression of the paper, making suggestions for organization, presentation and alternative approaches to try, potential extensions, and relevant references are generally the most useful and the hardest to give. Low-level comments are more appropriate for a paper that is being submitted for publication than for an unpublished paper such as a proposal or description of preliminary research.
See [4] for more suggestions on reviewing papers.

Getting Financial Support

Most graduate students (at least in the natural sciences) have a source of financial support that pays their tuition and a small living stipend. Although nobody ever got rich being a graduate student, you probably won't starve either. Sources of funding include fellowships (from NSF, universisites, foundations, government agencies, and industry), employer support, research assistantships (i.e., money from a faculty member's research grant) and teaching assistantships. Kantrowitz [3] provides an extensive list of funding sources for math, science, and engineering graduate students.
Start looking for money early. Many schools arrange support in the form of an RA or TA position in the first year, but after that, you're on your own. Deadlines for applications vary, and if you miss one, you'll probably have to wait another year. After you apply, it can take six months or so to review the applications and several more months to actually start receiving money.
Ask faculty members (especially your advisor, who should be helping you to find support or providing support out of his or her grant money), department administrators, and fellow graduate students about available funding. Go to your university's fellowship office or its equivalent, and look through the listings in The Annual Register of Grant Support, The Grant Register, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Foundation Grants to Individuals. Look into NSF grants (there are several different programs). Take advantage of your status as a woman or minority if you are one (this may be the only time when it actually is an advantage). Most universities have fellowship programs that may be administered through individual departments or may be campus-wide.
If you haven't yet begun actively doing research, getting an RA position from a faculty member may be a good way to become involved in a research project. Working on an existing research project by maintaining or developing hardware or software, writing reports, and running experiments will give you a feel for what it's like to do research -- and you may even find a thesis topic. Ask around to see what's available, and go talk to professors whose work you find interesting.
For a research grant or fellowship, you will probably have to write a proposal, so the more you've thought about potential thesis topics, the better off you'll be. You may need to tailor your proposal to the interests and needs of the particular funding agency or program you're applying to, but stick to something you know about and are sincerely interested in.
Write for a general audience, since the people reviewing your application may not be in the same field. Emphasize your goals and why the project you propose to work on is important. Talk as much as you can about how you're going to solve the problem, and be sure that your proposed solution will satisfy the goals you've set forth. Follow the rules for format, page layout and length, or your application may not even be reviewed.


Agre, P. E. What to read: A biased guide to AI literacy for the beginner. Tech. Rep. Working Paper 239, MIT AI Lab, November 1982.
Chapman, D. How to do research at the MIT AI lab. Tech. Rep. AI Working Paper 316, MIT, October 1988.
Kantrowitz, M., and Digennaro, J. P. The Prentice Hall Guide to Scholarships and Fellowships for Math and Science Students. Simon &Schuster, 1994.
Parberry, I. A guide for new referees in theoretical computer science. SIGACT News 20, 4 (1989), 92-109. Available by anonymous ftp from
Sloman, A. Notes on presenting theses. Available by anonymous ftp from, in directory pub/dist/poplog/teach.


Marie desJardins received her Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from the University of California at Berkeley in 1992. She currently works with the Applied Artificial Intelligence Technology Program at SRI International, doing research in the areas of machine learning, planning, and intelligent tutoring systems. Dr. desJardins has taught numerous undergraduate courses, founded a student AI seminar series, and started the Big Sister program at Berkeley as president of Women in Computer Science and Engineering.