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Guiding a graduate student

  1. Jul 8, 2010 #1
    I am doing a post doctoral research in India. A graduate student emailed me and asked for a project. Can you advise me on how to handle it? I never had any such situation before. Like how do you guys think of what project to give to a student. Obviously, one option is to give something I am working on now. But I don't want to: I woud like only MY name to be on my work, not his. Another option is to think of something else. But if there is something else I CAN think of, again, why can't I do it myself and only have my name there? So I should think of something I do NOT want to do myself but I DO want to give to a student. But wouldn't that be an oxymoron from a science point of view: something is either worth working it or it is not; how can it be worthwhile for a student but not for a person who hires him? Anyway, please advise me on what to do. By the way, I am going to see him on July 10, so I need an advise fast.
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 8, 2010 #2
    In my personal opinion being a good academic is not only having research that you have done yourself but being able to mentor and collaborate with others. If what you are currently working on is near completion you may not want to share that project, but there must be many other things at the back of your mind that you thought would be interesting. In our group there is always more ideas than people or hours to do them, I am not sure if it is the same there. If you only have one idea, you may be in a bit more trouble than just having to advise a graduate student.
  4. Jul 8, 2010 #3
    It is true that "there are other things in the back of my mind" as you put it. But the only reason they are "on the back of my mind" is because I didn't have time to get around to them. They are not "worse" than the ones I started working on. Rather they are simply less obvious to me, at least at this time. So I guess it would be a shame to "waste" them on a graduate student if my original plan was to do ALL of them on my own.

    Let me put it more concretely. I am trying to do interpretation of quantum mechanics. I have several approaches, each has its own plusses and minuses. Since I don't know how the world REALLY works, I think the way to be "balanced" is to explore many different answers to the same question in parallel. Thus, even though they are DIFFERENT theories (in fact, contradicting each other), in my mind they are part of the same picture. In fact, there are some of the common features they ALL share. So I find my work incomplete until I done ALL of them. And if some of them will be done by grad student I would never feel like I have done the entire thing.

    Now of course the grad student never said that I should specifically supervise him on this. In fact from what he said he is quite open to anything from quantum gravity to cosmology. But you see, I can't think of any research topics outside of what I am actually doing. I don't know what cosmology project to give him, as i don't know much about that field (and the latter is what limits me to give him some of my own projects).

    I geuss the other option wouuld be to give him a project on my ex-favorite topic, that is, causal set theory. I know the area because I USED to work on it, and I won't feel AS sorry if he does something there since I changed my interest and am not planning to go back there any time soon. But I guess if he does something nice there I would be SOMEWHAT sorry since then I would regret that I changed my interest. But still not AS sorry as if he does interpretation of QM, so in this respect it is better. But on the other hand I would not be as good of an advisor there as I would be in interpretation of QM since, obviously, I changed my research topics for a reason.

    Anyway, what do you guys think?
  5. Jul 8, 2010 #4
    You should realise:

    1. That you don't have time to do everything yourself.
    2. There will always be more ideas for you to pursue later.
    3. You're selfish and short-sighted, and should probably advise this student, for their own good, to seek someone else as a supervisor.
  6. Jul 8, 2010 #5
    Ah, so now I know why the postdocs never want to help me with anything! :)

    (No seriously, the postdocs in my group are actually pretty cool about this.)
  7. Jul 8, 2010 #6


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    I can understand you don't want a graduate student riding on your coat-tails. But to be honest, you're coming across as a little self-centred in your posts.

    The first real question to ask yourself is if you're ready to take on a student. Just because a student emails you to ask some questions doesn't mean that you're ready to take one on.

    With graduate students (at least at the PhD level anyway), you're not supposed to hand the student a project. If you sit down and outline everything from A to Z, you're failing your student because you're taking away a significant portion of the learning experience.

    When you take students on, sit down with them, and find out what ideas and interests they have. Usually, when they first enter a field, they don't have the background to really have serious ideas about a project - which means they have to start seriously reading. As a supervisor, you can help by pointing out the good references, and then making sure that they're getting the right information from them.

    It time the broad, vauge areas of interest should turn into specific questions. During this time as well, you should work with the students to develop some tools for working in their area of interest.

    As the students move through their first committee meeting, they (and you) should have a good idea of where their project is going. You can and should give some steering advice, but if the project turns into a "do this, then do this" kind of thing, the student is going to end up resenting you.

    Let the students pursue their own ideas.
  8. Jul 10, 2010 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    You should reread NeoDevin's message again. And again.

    This whole thread is about what is good for you. If you want to mentor a student, you need to be thinking about what is good for them.

    In addition to the comments above, I think you need to consider all the bridges you have burned and whether it is fair to the student to get them tangled up in that.
  9. Jul 10, 2010 #8
    Well, just send him back a mail pointing out that you are real selfish, short-centered, wouldn't like him to work on any of your ideas,..... that would give him the option of looking for other people to work with rather than coming to you & then realizing that he made a real bad choice.

    Research is not done by one man all alone. It happens in a group, a community, where people work together, share ideas, try to improve upon others' ideas, ....
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