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PhD research on theoretical physics without supervisor's help?

  1. May 16, 2013 #1
    Recently I joined a PhD program in a small unknown university in Asia. In the department, most of the faculties work on material and nano science except a professor who works on Astrophysics. The astrophysics professor agreed to be my supervisor and he asked me to work in the field of X-ray astronomy. However, he is not active in research these days and his other PhD students are given free hand to work on their own chosen field in astrophysics without much support from him. He is just being the supervisor for namesake and only helpful for official purpose like signing official papers, writing recommendation letters for the students to attend workshop and astronomy schools at other institutes. He is not actually helping the students in terms of research.

    As the professor holds an associateship with a research institute, he told me that he can send me to the institute so that I can hook up with a professor known to him, who can help me in my research in X-ray field. So, I have to run behind that professor in that institute if I have to work in that field of astrophysics and that institute is very far from my current location. Moreover, as I am new to astrophysics, I have not so much interest in astrophysics and I have no motivation to work on X-ray astrophysics.

    My main area of interest is in the field of theoretical aspects of Cosmology and General Relativity. However, I have not much prior exposure to the field; I only attended a school on Cosmology and General Relativity while I did my MSc in 2008. In this situation, I spoke to my supervisor and asked him if I can work on Cosmology or General Relativity instead of X-ray astrophysics. He told me that I can work if I want, but I have to work all alone as he cannot help me as he has no knowledge of either GTR or Cosmology. He further told that nobody is going to actually help in PhD research. I have to work alone without help from anybody and publish at least a research paper in an International Journal to fulfill the requirement for PhD thesis in my university. So, my question is, will it be possible for me to work on theoretical Cosmology or General Relativity all by myself without seeking any assistance from anybody by teaching the necessary foundations of physics and programming tools all myself? In the meanwhile, I can attend schools, workshops and conference on Cosmology and related field to enhance my knowledge of the field. It is my belief that I need a strong motivation to drive me to these long 4/5 years of PhD research. In this situation, will I be able to publish paper in international journal of repute and successfully able to finish my Phd and get a post doctoral position? What do you think I should do in this position of mine?

    Even if I have to work on X-ray astrophysics, I have to work alone and teach the subject and software skills myself. I am also not in position in this stage to look out for new program in another university as I am already 35 years old. Some Professors told me that I cannot research all alone in Cosmology and GTR as these days the field is in very advance stage and if I do it is risky business. What shall I do? I hope in most universities, almost all the theoreticians work and teach all alone to get their research papers published and get their PhD. In advance, I want to thank you all for your valuable and timely response in this situation of mine.

    Thanking you!
  2. jcsd
  3. May 16, 2013 #2
    A large part of PhD is to do it by yourself, so you actually need to be able to do this. Of course you should still talk to people, including other professors and postdocs, they may not be an expert on the subjects but you can learn a thing or two by talking to anyone in the department for feedback. You can also collaborate with people from another institute to get things going, this is the age of Internet after all. No one can tell if you will be able to publish, you have to try and find out.
  4. May 16, 2013 #3
    I recommend against the "doing it all alone route". If you are serious about wanting to do the stuff that everyone wants to do but no one needs, then switch to a university with a proper group for the topic. That seems less drastic than trying to do a PhD with no one to talk to.
  5. May 16, 2013 #4
    My problem is that I am already 35 years old. So, if I apply to get into other research institutes, I will end up losing more time hopping around these places and moreover, its not easy to get financial supports to do research. In this situation, I don't want to consider the option of applying somewhere else. Instead, I want to stick around this institute and try to concentrate on my research interest. So, I want to know if it will be possible to do research on Cosmology or GTR even if I don't get help from anybody. Will it be very difficult to publish paper if I work alone? What shall I do in this situation? Kindly elaborate a little while giving your views as it will help me in taking a decision. Your response and suggestions are much appreciated.
  6. May 16, 2013 #5
    Are you already getting financial support at your institute? If you've got at least 3.5-4 years of funding, you are in the same position as any European phd student except that you don't have a concrete project to do (or an adviser in the strict sense), so you are at a disadvantage. Figuring out what to do and how to do it can be very time consuming, and without being able to talk with active researchers or going to conferences and seeing what is actually being done as of today, you might waste a lot of time.

    I think it is very very hard to get something done on your own unless you're already an expert in a field (or the field isn't advanced enough so that it wouldn't take a long time to catch up), it really helps to have someone kickstart you in the right direction and show you what is known and what is not known. I think there is an Japanese proverb that goes something like "A minute with a good prof is worth more than a whole day of study".

    You say you're working in x-ray astrophysics. In my senior project, my adviser gave me a few pointers on phenomenology subjects I could work on, and this was one of the more interesting ones (I ended up doing something else but also involving Comptonization):
    You might have to go through a dozen related modern papers to find something you might want to try investigating (or you might get an idea just from studying the fundamentals from older articles). Just an idea.

    If you can get support to go somewhere else to another environment where you have contact with people who are active in your same field, definitely do so, because what you're doing now could potentially end badly. I don't understand how you ended up getting support for a phd in a subject that the university has no active researchers in, it just doesn't sound like a good idea for the student or the university.
    Last edited: May 16, 2013
  7. May 16, 2013 #6
    There's a bunch of different issues raised in this thread; I can help answer a few of them.

    First and foremost: can you do a PhD in GR and Cosmology without an adviser? Short answer: no. Long answer: yenchin is wrong - the point of a PhD isn't to do it by yourself, it's to learn enough and gain enough experience that you can do it by yourself in the future. Once you reach the point that you're competent to do independent research, you're done; that's what obtaining a PhD is all about. GR and Cosmology are hard subjects to begin with - it took me about four years worth of work to get up to snuff even with an adviser; I can't imagine trying to do it without. Even if you're really self-motivated and a good independent learner, you'll need someone to point out interesting topics for your thesis and to show you the relevant literature. (You might be able to get that much through the grapevine, though - if you are determined to go this route, ask your adviser to help you get in touch with people he knows who do research more related to what you're interested in, and ask them for advice. This won't be as good as having an actual adviser, but it's better than nothing.)

    Second: even if there were an active cosmology group at your school, I'd still advise against it. The job market in cosmology is terrible, even in comparison with the rest of academia. It'll be worse still for you. The only way I managed to get a postdoc was through personal connections; if your adviser doesn't work in the field you won't have that, which means even if you manage to finish the PhD your job prospects will be slim to none.

    Third: it's possible to change research areas as a postdoc, once you get established. Don't think you'll be locked into doing nothing but your PhD topic forever. In fact, coming into cosmology once you're somewhat established might be preferable - you'll have a more employable fallback to let you gain experience. Astrophysics isn't too far off, so it's not impossible to make the leap. In that regards, I'd recommend that you pick a topic that your adviser can help you with, and also one that he can help you get a job with, even if it's not your first choice of project.

    Fourth: actually, from the sound of your description, your adviser may be a bad choice all the way around. Are there any other groups at the school you're at doing research you're interested in and where you might get more guidance? I'd strongly consider switching; getting a good adviser is probably the most important consideration during your PhD studies. (Are you allowed to switch? In the US you are but I don't know how the system works where you are.)
  8. May 16, 2013 #7
    There are other groups which are active in research and other departments as well in the university doing research. So, each and every students enrolled here for PhD program get some sort of financial support from the university. It just happens that I am not simply interested in the areas where other faculty members work. Those are in material and nano science. Therefore, I have no choice, but to stay with this astrophysics professor. Though the professor is not active in research, he will be in position to send me to attend schools, workshops and conferences in my area of interest. Thus, I may get at least some opportunity to interact with people working in this field. Is it not good enough in the situation that I am in? Should I start looking out for other possibilities in other institutes either in the country or outside the country. I still have my valid GRE scores, but my TOEFL score got expired which was a good one. Financial support is one thing I badly need if I have to shift my present environment. What do you think I should do? My understanding is that UK doesn't give financial assistance to non- Europeans for PhD research. And I don't want to go to US as I already spent a semester there. I don't want to waste my time attending the two years long coursework, struggle to clear qualifying exams rather than starting research right ahead considering my age.
  9. May 16, 2013 #8
    I don't disagree with you, note that I say "a large part", not "entirely". Whether it is possible or not, and how long does it take, really depends on the person. I do strongly agree that it is important to have someone with experience to point out interesting topics that are worth doing. So as I said, one could at least try to talk to other people in other institutions.

    To samkh: Have you checked out the math department in your school? Do they have people working on general relativity or Riemannian geometry?
  10. May 16, 2013 #9
    @Yenchin, yes there are few profs working in the field of general relativity at math department. But, it is not possible to switch department in this university. They conduct their own selection exam for PhD entry based on some math syllabus. So, it is impossible for me to get into their PhD program. They have wannabe students of their own department. Though, this sounds crazy, I can't help.
  11. May 16, 2013 #10
    You need not change department. Check if it is possible to have two advisors: one from math and one being your original advisor. Many schools allow co-supervisors. At the very worst, you could at least do research with them unofficially [with your advisor's agreement of course!], or at least have someone to talk to. Not the best way to do it, but may be workable.
  12. May 16, 2013 #11
    You are absolutely right, but you are eligible for phd studentships everywhere else in the EU, since you have a masters degree. Look through AAS' job postings for phd's currently on offer at EU universities (most deadlines have now passed but there still are some, and you could always try next year at places like Max Planck or other places in Germany, NL, etc., many leading cosmology and GR groups there. At all of these you typically start with research straight away).

    Aimless and yenchin offer good advice. It is a good thing that you're able to attend conferences, workshops and such, which is better than nothing, but you still don't have much support "at home" from an adviser who is an expert in your field. I think the take home advice is that you need to get a hold of an adviser that will steer you especially in the beginning.
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