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Grad school question?

  1. Aug 14, 2013 #1
    Hey guys and gals,
    I am at a bit of a stand still right now. I am a third year P.h.D. student and I have an advisor, but I am not exactly sure what area I want to research in. I went to talk to him yesterday and I said that I wanted to study General relativity, but he says that is not specific enough. What are some interesting recent developments in the field? are there any current research trends that might be viable thesis options? I am afraid if I don't decide soon then i might be asked to leave the program. Currently, my research (which up to this point was on WIMPs and dark matter) is stagnant because I have no direction.How did you all come up with thesis topics? Can someone give me an example of a P.H.D. thesis proposal? Thanks for the help.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 14, 2013 #2

    I would just search for examples of Phd Theses online. Here's one with some stochastic stuff:

    http://cermics.enpc.fr/~de-marcs/docs/Thesis.pdf [Broken]

    Took me 20 seconds to find. It's a little ad-hoc of a method on finding theses but honestly I think that should be sufficient.

    I realize this is different than a proposal per se but the theses themselves should have some of that stuff in there.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  4. Aug 14, 2013 #3


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    It seems a little odd to be deciding on this by the third year of your PhD, but if I understand correctly, you actually have been working on stuff, but that doesn't appear to be going anywhere and you're attempting to re-orient yourself.

    I think your supervisor is doing the right thing at this point by telling you to come up with a thesis-proposal. The exact format of these things varies considerably from school to school. Some are a simple, informal, one-page blurb, while others are as detailed as a typical grant proposal. Ask your supervisor or some other graduate students who've done one what the expected format is at your school.

    The first thing that really helps in making these kinds of decisions is to read. And read a lot. This is just my opinion, but as a PhD student, once you've finished your course-work and have a general idea of the area you want to do a project in, you need to spend a lot of time reading up on that area. I'm talking a couple of months of reading every day until your eyes bleed. This is the single best way I know of to learn the jargon, learn what questions are currently being asked, and learn what techniques other people are using to solve those questions. This is also the single best way to immunize yourself from spending X years of your life on a project that someone else has already published.

    The second thing to do is to come up with a very specific question or set of questions. "General Relativity" or "WIMPs" or "Dark Matter" are not questions. An example of good question (I have to use my own field) might be something like:

    "How does the relative biological effectiveness change between therapeutic and imaging radiation that are used in combination in current image guided radiation therapy treatments?"

    This is not a "perfect" question of course, but you can see how it's specific. I might have to refine it somewhat by defining the endpoints for "relative biological effectiveness" and getting more specific about therapeutic and imaging radiation. I could argue that it's relevant in the field because I know that more and more treatments are making use of kilovoltage cone beam CT radiation and many people are interested in accounting for the extra dose that's delivered as a result of imaging procedures. But the bottom line is that someone is likely to care what the answer is.

    Then I have to look at what other people have done. I'm probably not the first person to ask this. What do we already know? Do I have to refine things further to get to something that's unique.

    From there I now have to think about how might I arrive at an answer. I have to identify the resources available to me and estimate a timeline for conducting my experiments or setting up my simulations. Your supervisor is in a position to help you assess things like what realistic timelines are and equipment is available. He or she can also help you find resources or papers and help you to refine your interest into something unique.

    You supervisor likely won't just hand you the question and the project though. If that happens, you've missed out on a valuable part of the PhD experience.
  5. Aug 14, 2013 #4


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    Er... wait a second, back up a bit. There's something not completely kosher here.

    You told your advisor that you want to work in GR, and then he said that it is not specific enough. And that was it???!!!! That was the end of the conversation???!!

    Let me guess, you're a theorist, and so is he. Assuming that that was all the conversation you two had, I'd say you two have bigger issues than just not being able to come up with a topic!

    1. Did you ask HIM if he has a suggestion? After all, he MUST be working on something, or aware of an interesting problem out there for you to look into.

    2. What did he publish recently? Is it in an area related to GR? Why not look into that? I'm sure there are followups to that. There's seldom an area of physics that's closed after a publication.

    I'm just puzzled by an advisor that simply give that kind of a response. After all, he is also supposed to give you guidance on what topics that you should look at based on his area of expertise. Otherwise, why would you want to work for him?

  6. Aug 14, 2013 #5


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    I'm going to second ZapperZ. You should go back to your advisor and say "do you have any specific topic suggestions that I can look into?"
  7. Aug 15, 2013 #6
    Hey everybody, thanks for all the advice. I have been reading over all of it and have taken it to heart. Zapper, often my advisor meetings are very brief (~10 minutes per week) he has another student who got a large grant and that keeps him busy most of the time. That specific time, i was lucky to catch him in the hallway after a conference meeting :). He suggested that I ask the other student if they might need some help on their project, so I am hoping this will lead into a good thesis topic.
  8. Aug 15, 2013 #7

    George Jones

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    More than two years in, your advisor hasn't been any help with respect to a topic, and, when pressed, he suggests that you talk to another (almost finished?) student. Very bizarre!

    Sorry, this isn't very helpful, but this is my opinion on the whole situation.
  9. Aug 15, 2013 #8
    Is there any way you could change to a different, more supportive adviser for your thesis?
  10. Aug 16, 2013 #9
    Hey everyone, it looks like I might have to come back to this issue later. I wasn't able to talk to my advisor today as he took an extended lunch which ran into our normal meeting time, maybe it will work next week. In the mean time I am looking at arxiv for some ideas of what is going on in the field. Also, I emailed the other student, so i am just waiting for a response.
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