A Post by Michael B. Spring

(A list of all posts by M.B. Spring)

Advising PhD Students (September 14, 2010)

Advising PhD students can be difficult.  At this level, they need to discover ways of working, learning, conducting research that come from within themselves. I find, most often, that the advice centers around one of two themes.  I believe the advice may be useful to working professionals as well. 

The first theme has to do with blending action and planning, and it consists of two pieces of advice and a caveat.  The first piece of advice is this: “don’t just stand there, do something.”  The second piece of advice is “don’t just do something, stand there.” The caveat is that you need to learn when to follow which piece of advice.  For the student who can’t write the first page of their dissertation proposal, and who is thinking about all the possibilities and all the issues, the advice is “don’t just stand there, do something.”  I remind them that they don’t have to start writing with the first sentence.  Indeed, it is perhaps easiest to write the first sentence last.  As a student begins to write their proposal they should begin with something that is specific, provable, and important.  Don’t worry about where it will fit.  Writing a research article or a proposal for funding often involves ten or more drafts, and I have found that I often throw out half of what I write.  It is a good feeling to reduce an entire paragraph to a clear concise and well defined sentence.  Particularly when we are not yet clear in our own mind what we want to say, or how we want to focus the research, a path to productivity can be to write down what we are sure of and worry later about how we will fit the pieces together.  Same is true for other kinds of projects.  The key here is to understand when the enormity of some project is preventing any progress.  Start anywhere, get the pieces out on paper.  Later you can organize them into a coherent whole, throw away the junk, refine the good pieces, and add the pieces that are missing.

[A minor digression related to writers block:  I remind PhD students that generally speaking, I can cut out the beginning of most dissertations with no loss of content.  Many students will begin papers or proposals with meaningless lines like – “Over the last few years the world wide web had become an important part of the way we exchange information” or some such drivel.  Actual first lines, of recent dissertations (not from my students, and not credited to protect the authors) have included such as: “Today’s information environment is getting much more complex day after day. The new medium such as the World Wide Web is unprecedented to any other information resources that have existed in human history in term of its size and its speed of growth.” or “The vision of the Semantic Web provides many new perspectives and technologies to overcome the limitation of the WWW. Ontologies are a key component to solve the problem of semantic heterogeneity, and thus enable semantic interoperability between different web applications and services.”  These lines can be removed from a dissertation without loss of content!]

In contrast to the first piece of advice, it is sometimes important to stop and think about what you are doing.  “Don’t just do something, stand there.”  For example, in dissertation research, good research is often distinguished by the lack of surprises in the results of the work.  This occurs when the researcher walks through the research imagining what will happen.  They can see the subject arrive.  They can anticipate both what they hope will happen and what they hope will not happen.  Sometimes this occurs as a result of carefully planned pilot studies, but a good mental walk through can often accomplish a lot.  What kinds of numbers will be produced?  How will the equations into which I will plug the numbers operate?  What will the statistics look like?  How will I deal with anomalies.  Similar advice can be given to students who are working on software development.  When I am done, what is it I hope to achieve?  What kinds of functionality to I want to provide?  Where can I save time by modularizing the code?  Too many times, novice programmers today focus on copying and modifying code found on the web.  They don’t fully understand how it works, or why it was structured the way it was.  They simply know it does something close to what they need.  They butcher it and rewire it until it is an unrecognizable bowl of spaghetti code.  If we are going to spend 100 or 1000 hours on a project, a little thinking up front about where it is headed and what we want to accomplish can go a long way to preventing missteps, or at least to alerting us when they are looming.

[Digression 2:  There are many stories about legendary programmers.  The one I am familiar with had to do with a coding genius who haunted our labs in the early seventies.  He and is colleagues were given tasks on a research project.  The others coded extensively over the three months of the project, testing and revising the code numerous times.  Chris, the legend, did no coding.  As the deadline approached, the worried PI asked again and again how things were going.  About a week before the project was to be completed, Chris began typing and continued for three days.  When he was done, he added his modules to the others for final testing.  His code was perfect, clean, clear, and parsimonious.  It ran without failure.  He had spent three months visualizing the program and what it would accomplish and only three days typing the actual code.]

The second theme has to do with scientific passion.  It comes to the surface most often related to PhD students preparing for and carrying out their dissertation research.  The advice is as follows:  “Find something that you are passionate about and learn to work on it dispassionately!”  The path to a dissertation has many landmines.  It is essential that you have a passion to learn about some matter that is sufficiently strong to see you through the dark days, failed experiments, and collegial criticism.  It is not sufficient to find a topic that you might be passionate about or that you could be passionate about.  It must be something that you are passionate about.  Once you have found such a topic, it is easy to put in the long hours and to see feed back and criticism as useful and productive.  However, passion introduces a new potential problem.  You have a belief, or a hope, or a desire to demonstrate something.  Your research most likely seeks to prove that something is true.  Just as love is blind, so to can passion cause us to ignore reality. A recent example involved a young researcher studying an application of visualization to information processing.  They were convinced that visualization would improve information processing, and when the results were less than conclusive, they came close to invalidating the research by biasing the subjects, with their enthusiasm, during a training session.  When the data failed to show what they wanted to see, they struggled to find some data of significance that would allow them to say what they wanted to say.  Having had a student who suffered a similar experience many years ago, I asked if they could imagine why they were not getting the results they had hoped for.  I asked how long they had been using the system.  “Two years.”  I asked how long the training and experiment took.  “Two hours.”  I asked if they thought that maybe the improvement in information processing making use of the visualization was dependent on training and use.  The long and short of the story is that I believe they were passionate about what they were doing, and I think the passion was well founded.  Unfortunately, they had missed a piece of the puzzle –if they had just stood there for a while, they might have realized that there would need to be a longer training period before they began to see the results they were looking for.  In the last analysis they endangered the integrity of their research findings by lacking the discipline to be dispassionate about the results of their work.