Steps (3): Ph.D.

A Ph.D. is definitely about research. Sure enough, there will be graduate school to improve your general knowledge. Sure enough, your supervisor will provide you with basic training in your discipline and maybe send you to some summer school. Sure enough, you will not be requested to publish a research paper in the first six months, nor in the first year, maybe not even in the first two years. But ultimately you are expected to become a researcher, not just to “learn more”, and even less to “learn from a renowned master”.

This has obvious implications on the choice of the topic and the supervisor. As a student, you liked some fields, you appreciated well-defined problems and very pedagogical teachers that never forgot hbar in their equations. Now:

  • Field. In some fields, almost all that could be done has been done. Most probably, you (and I) know very little about those fields; ideally, it would be good to know more. But you should not ask yourself “what am I going to learn?”; rather, “What are the typical contributions to research in this field? What is the content of the papers that are published these last years?”.
  • Project. In research, a well-defined problem has already been solved. You have to look for a problem waiting to be defined. In other words, your Ph.D. project should sound like “we are going to explore this and that, not exactly knowing what we are going to find, with the hope that this is the right approach to [particular open question]”.
  • Supervisor. Of course, the “Best Teacher Award” does not tell anything about research. But the equations “good researcher = bad teacher” and “good teacher = bad researcher” are equally wrong. If your candidate supervisor is not able to explain you what his/her research is about in simple terms, this is not deep thought, but foggy thought: go and look for someone else!

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About valerio

Principal investigator at Centre for Quantum Technologies and professor at National University of Singapore

Posted on September 5, 2011, in Career. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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