Blogs about research

If you find this blog help­ful (or even if you don’t but you’re inter­ested in blogs on research issues and tools), there are a few other blogs about doing research that you might find use­ful. Here are a few that I read.

I’ve cre­ated a bun­dle so you can sub­scribe to all of these in one go.

Of course, there are lots of sta­tis­tics blogs as well, and blogs about other research dis­ci­plines. The ones above are those that con­cen­trate on generic research issues.

How to fail a PhD

I read an inter­est­ing post today by Matt Might on “10 rea­sons PhD stu­dents fail”, and I thought it might be help­ful to reflect on some of the bar­ri­ers to PhD com­ple­tion that I’ve seen. Matt’s ideas are not all rel­e­vant to Aus­tralian PhDs, so I have come up with my own list below.  Here are the seven steps to failure.

1. Wait for your super­vi­sor to tell you what to do

A good super­vi­sor will not tell you what to do. PhD stu­dents are not meant to be research assis­tants, and a PhD is not an extended under­grad­u­ate assign­ment. So wait­ing to be told what to do next will usu­ally get you nowhere.

By the time you grad­u­ate with a PhD, you are sup­posed to be an inde­pen­dent researcher. That means hav­ing your own ideas, set­ting your own research direc­tions, and choos­ing what to do your­self. In prac­tice, your super­vi­sor will usu­ally need to tell you what to do for the first year, but even­tu­ally you need to set the research agenda your­self. By the third year you should cer­tainly know more about your topic than your super­vi­sor, and so are in a bet­ter posi­tion to know what to do next.

2. Wait for inspiration

Sit­ting around wait­ing for great ideas to pop into your ahead is unlikely to work. Most of my best ideas come after a lot of work try­ing dif­fer­ent things and becom­ing totally immersed in the problem.

A good way to start is often to try to repli­cate some­one else’s research, or apply someone’s method on a dif­fer­ent data set. In the process you might notice some­thing that doesn’t quite work, or you might think of a bet­ter way to do it. At the very least you will have a deeper under­stand­ing of what they have done than you will get by sim­ply read­ing their paper.

Research often involves dead-​​ends, wrong turns, and fail­ures. It’s a lit­tle like explor­ing a pre­vi­ously unmapped part of the world. You have no idea what you’ll find there, but unless you start wan­der­ing around you’ll never dis­cover anything.

3. Aim for perfection

Per­fec­tion takes for­ever, and so stu­dents who are aim­ing for per­fec­tion never fin­ish. Instead they spend years try­ing to make the the­sis that lit­tle bit bet­ter, pol­ish­ing every sen­tence until it gleams. Every researcher needs to accept that research involves mak­ing mis­takes, often pub­licly. That’s the nature of the activity.

Don’t wait until your paper or the­sis is per­fect. Work through a few drafts, and then stop, rec­og­niz­ing that there are prob­a­bly still some errors remaining.

4. Aim too high

Many stu­dents imag­ine they will write a the­sis that will rev­o­lu­tionise the field and lead to wide acclaim and a bril­liant aca­d­e­mic career. Occa­sion­ally that does hap­pen, but extremely rarely. A PhD is an appren­tice­ship in research, and like all appren­tice­ships, you are learn­ing the craft, mak­ing mis­takes, and you are unlikely to pro­duce your best work at such an early stage in your research career.

It really doesn’t mat­ter what your topic is pro­vided you find it inter­est­ing and that you find some­thing to say about it. Your PhD is a demon­stra­tion that you know how to do research, but your most impor­tant and high impact research will prob­a­bly come later.

My own PhD research was on sto­chas­tic non­lin­ear dif­fer­en­tial equa­tions and I haven’t touched them since. It showed I could do high level research, but I’d lost inter­est by the time I fin­ished and I’ve moved onto other things. Few peo­ple ever cite the research that came out of my PhD, but it served its purpose.

5. Aim too low

My rule-​​of-​​thumb for an Aus­tralian PhD is about three to four pieces of pub­lish­able work. They don’t have to actu­ally be pub­lished, but the exam­in­ers like to see enough mate­r­ial to make up three papers that would be accept­able in a rep­utable schol­arly jour­nal. Just writ­ing 200 pages is not enough if the mate­r­ial is not suf­fi­ciently orig­i­nal or inno­v­a­tive to be pub­lish­able in a jour­nal. Point­ing out errors in every­one else’s work is usu­ally not enough either, as most jour­nals will expect you to have some­thing to say your­self in addi­tion to what­ever cri­tiques you make of pre­vi­ous work.

6. Fol­low every side issue

Just because you use a max­i­mum like­li­hood method, doesn’t mean you have to read the entire like­li­hood lit­er­a­ture. Of course you will learn some­thing if you do, but that isn’t the point. The pur­pose of a PhD is not so that you can learn as much as you can about every­thing. A PhD is train­ing in research, and researchers need to be able to pub­lish their find­ings with­out hav­ing to be expert in every area that is some­how related to their cho­sen topic.

Of course, you do need to read as much of the rel­e­vant lit­er­a­ture as pos­si­ble. A key skill in research is learn­ing what is rel­e­vant and what is not. Ask your super­vi­sor if you are not sure.

7. Leave all the writ­ing to the end

In some fields it seems to be stan­dard prac­tice to have a “writ­ing up” phase after doing the research. Per­haps that works in exper­i­men­tal sci­ences, but it doesn’t work in the math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ences. You haven’t a hope of remem­ber­ing all the good ideas you had in first and sec­ond year if you don’t attempt to write them down until near the end of your third year.

I encour­age all my stu­dents to start writ­ing from the first week. In the first year, write a series of notes sum­ma­riz­ing what you’ve learned and what research ideas you’ve had. It can be help­ful to use these notes to show your super­vi­sor what you’ve been up to each time you meet. In the sec­ond year, you should have fig­ured out your spe­cific topic and have a rough idea of the table of con­tents. So start writ­ing the parts you can. You should be able to turn some of your first-​​year notes into sec­tions of the rel­e­vant chap­ters. By the third year you are fill­ing in the gaps, adding sim­u­la­tion results, tidy­ing up proofs, etc.


The 7 secrets of highly successful PhD students

It seems every­one has 7 secrets to suc­cess, and now some­one has hopped on the 7-​​secrets band­wagon with some­thing for PhD stu­dents. Thinkwell is an Aus­tralian com­pany offer­ing a sem­i­nar and asso­ci­ated work book on “The 7 secrets of highly suc­cess­ful PhD stu­dents”. I bought the book out of curios­ity, but “book” is a gross exag­ger­a­tion — only eleven pages of fairly sim­plis­tic advice. I hope the sem­i­nar has more sub­stance. For what it’s worth, here are the so-​​called seven secrets.

  1. Care and main­te­nance of your supervisor.
  2. Write and show as you go.
  3. Be real­is­tic.
  4. Say no to distractions.
  5. It’s a job.
  6. Get help.
  7. You can do it.

If you can work out what is meant from those head­ings, you’re doing bet­ter than me. After read­ing the “book”, I think a bet­ter sum­mary would be as follows.

  1. Meet reg­u­larly with your supervisor.
  2. Write up your research ideas as you go.
  3. Have real­is­tic research goals.
  4. Beware of dis­trac­tions and other commitments.
  5. Set reg­u­lar hours and take holidays.
  6. Make full use of the avail­able help.
  7. Per­se­vere.

Noth­ing too sur­pris­ing there. Per­haps it should have been called “Seven obvi­ous things PhD stu­dents should already know”.

If I haven’t put you all off, one of the authors is pre­sent­ing the sem­i­nar at Monash in a cou­ple of weeks. The details are as follows.

  • Pre­sen­ter:  Maria Gar­diner — iThinkwell
  • Date: Fri­day 16 Octo­ber, 2009
  • Time: 9:30am — 12:30pm
  • Venue: The­atre R2, Build­ing 8 (Rotunda), Clayton

Book­ings are essen­tial (Monash stu­dents only)

The same authors have writ­ten sev­eral other book­lets includ­ing “Time for research: time man­age­ment for PhD stu­dents”, “The PhD expe­ri­ence: what they didn’t tell you at induc­tion” and “Defeat­ing self-​​sabotage: get­ting your PhD fin­ished”. They are dread­fully over-​​priced and light-​​weight, but con­tain some snip­pets of use­ful advice. Stu­dents at Monash can bor­row the books from me.