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Programs Choosing a PhD research problem

  1. Nov 16, 2006 #1
    Dear All,

    For sometime a problem is preplexing me, which I am sure happens with any graduate student in his research career. I have a bent of mind to attack and work on foundational and fundamental problems with new insights, but at the same time I am a on my course for a PhD, now it is difficult for me to decide weather it is wise to go along with your liking of foundational problems or to tackle established problems in the field to earn your PhD.

    Now, it seems to be a gamble to me between what you like doing and your career at its starting phase. So any comments would be highly appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 16, 2006 #2


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    If you looked back on your dissertation 20 years after, which would make you more proud?
  4. Nov 16, 2006 #3
    I thought dissertation research was always supposed to show something "novel"... although there are certainly different degrees of "novel", right?

    I'm a pragmatist -- I looked at the PhD process not so much of an accomplishment of pride, but as the attainment of a tool. I cared less about the thesis itself than as the fact that AFTER the thesis I would be able to do my own projects. Once you get the degree, you are considered qualified to direct your own projects which is much more interesting.

    Also, as a pragmatist, I view the PhD process as an apprenticeship... so picking your adviser is important. Now I'll be honest that I'm concerned here: Is some of your debate between "foundations" and "established problems" really a form of "me against the establishment"? Are you disgruntled with the adviser options available to you? But I could be wrong -- do you have someone(s) interested in the "foundational projects" lined up? And do you think one or more of those persons could give you good guidance to a successful PhD project (publications and dissertation)? Because good luck getting a PhD without an adviser (or with an adviser but without allowing that adviser to really "advise"... you could be in for a very tumuluous relationship) -- yeah -- good luck even if your work kicks butt.

    So -- I tend towards just getting the thing and then getting to do your own stuff... within reason. You still need to do something that could hold your interest for 5+ years. So -- for the PhD project, my thought is that you should do something that interests you but has a darn good chance of getting you the degree in the long haul.
  5. Nov 16, 2006 #4


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    Shouldn't this be something that you and your thesis adviser be discussing? It is to him/her that you should be addressing what you just typed above.

    It is useless to do whatever you please without any endorsement of a faculty member who will act as your supervisor. Unless what you do up there is widely different than what we do here in the US, I strongly believe that having a faculty member to supervise your work is required by your department, no?

  6. Nov 21, 2006 #5
    You are very right that I have to discuss these things with my supervisor, but also I wanted to float this question to learn from the experience of the learned forum members. Moreover, by advisor has the same inclination as mine for foundational problems, in fact I joined Phd based on my advisors inclination of the problem I also wanted to work on, but then there is always an element of not getting enough by addressing foundational problems in terms of publications for example, so I would like to know from your experiences if what the advisor says and guides is enough, even though no majoy breakthroughs occur in the work or work on things which may be relatively easy to work on.
  7. Nov 22, 2006 #6
    I'd go for the most important problem you think you have a chance of actually solving. Your achivements in grad school will largely determine the opportunities that you have after you graduate. Those opportunities will then largely determine your life career.

    It is better to shoot for the stars even if you have a high chance of failure than to lower your sights and fail for sure.
  8. Nov 22, 2006 #7
    Thanks Interested learner for your encouraging comments, I also personally feel that "fortune favors the brave" and you are very right in pointing out that what we do in grad school will for the large part determine my career. I think aiming the stars is good, at the least we will fall on the sky.
  9. Nov 23, 2006 #8


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    These days it's more about what your thesis turned into - what publications did it lead to which have become cited leaders in their field.

    A bit like what physic's girl was saying - but I'd disagree slightly in leaving the PhD for other projects. At then end, you should be the expert on your particular topic - more of an expert than your supervisor.
  10. Nov 23, 2006 #9

    Dr Transport

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    Unless your dissertation topic is some earth-shattering bonanza, i.e. Nobel prize worthy, 10 years after you are done it won't be remembered. I look back at my topic, it was a solid piece of phyiscs but I can't say that I'd go back to doing that type of work full-time now only 6 years after the fact. If I was a faculty member somewhere I'd dredge it back up for additional work by seniorts for their research topic or a series of Masters topics. A PhD is a means to get to work on your own problems down the road and the process is more of an apprentiship.
  11. Nov 23, 2006 #10
    You are right. I gave bad advice -- What I say is different from what I do. I have to hang my head in shame for stupidity. I have never once read a thesis from anyone I hired. I only cared that they had the paper qualifications. Of course, I am in industry. University jobs are harder to get and the quality of the thesis might count there. What do you think?
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2006
  12. Nov 24, 2006 #11


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    Even the examiners don't read the entire thesis :rofl:

    And for quality of thesis - you should read quality of publications - when looking at uni jobs.
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