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Level of Independent Thought for a Ph.D. Student

  1. Apr 24, 2009 #1


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    I had an interesting conversation today with one of the senior professors in my department. It was in the context of students who have some difficulty in defining a project. What came in to question was the level of independence of Ph.D. students should display with respect to their research.

    Certainly, by the end of the degree, the Ph.D. student should be fully capable of defining a research direction and carrying out a research program effectively. But what about at the beginning? Should the student be issued a specific problem that the supervisor feels will lead to publishable research? Or should the student be required to define the direction all on her or his own with minimal guidance from the supervisor - a sink or swim approach?

    I'm curious where other people stand on this.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 24, 2009 #2
    If all students were already capable of defining a research program with minimal guidance from a supervisor, what exactly would be the point of getting a Ph.D.?

    I think it's unreasonable to assume that students won't need more guidance initially. Some won't, but some will...
  4. Apr 24, 2009 #3
    I think it depends on the professor and research subject. Even for masters students. I've had an advisor who would never help me. He would always tell me to figure it out. My current advisor and I always discuss problems I have. I can always corroborate information with him, and we talk about questions I have.

    I would say I'm still doing all the work. It's just that he helps me sometimes with suggestions.

    It helps that the project is something that nobody's published before, so he and I are learning as we go.
  5. Apr 27, 2009 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    In my experience (as a voyeur- I have no students), I see a full spectrum of independence upon graduation. Some students want to continue to do the same thing their dissertation was on, some want to move into a new direction. Some students, generally embedded in large labs, are not able to function without a large support group while others are able to 'start their own business' so to speak.

    My conclusion is that it's more a function of the advisor than the student- the advisor sets the expectations. Some advisors 'set the student free', while others see the student as a tool to be used to carry out the advisor's own research program.
  6. Apr 28, 2009 #5
    Well i finished my Ph.D around 4yrs ago. The Ph.D took me 6yrs and my research was on Quark-gluon plasma.
    I found that really the level of independence is high right from the start.
    Don't get me wrong for around the first few months you should really get some help but the whole point in doing the PhD is to prove that you can produce good research leading to a paper with the bare minimum of supervision. You can produce research on basically anything.. You tutor/teacher tend not to tell you what to research.. but all teaching methods tend to be different.

    But well i don't want to ramble..

    Overall Answer:
    The level of Independent Thought is High. (A HUGE amounth higher than Masters)
    Supervision Minimum.

    Any other questions feel free to ask.

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