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Question for Professors - Students Reading Your Papers

  1. Jul 5, 2015 #1

    esuna

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    Questions for all the professors on this site:

    Have you ever been approached by an undergrad for a research position who has already read at least a few of your published works and has a very basic understanding of their contents? How does this student look in your eyes? Does it creep you out?

    When I explain to a professor that I've read such and such paper they have published and that it's an area of interest to me, I'm met with a kind of shock-and-awe, followed by a brief moment of respect, then a slight feeling of mistrust. Of course regardless they're always happy to talk about it. But I get the feeling that the other students don't do that. I guess they just float into a professor's group who they like on a social level first and foremost. And most professors here seem to prefer that.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 5, 2015 #2

    jedishrfu

    Staff: Mentor

    While I am not a professor, this kind of due diligence is commendable in a student. As a professor, would you rather have a student who liked the way you taught a class or the one who has also done some research and read your papers beforehand.

    Sure the professor would be a bit surprised and also happy, but they may only be creeped out if they know the student well enough and suspect ulterior motives. However if the student has good academic credentials isn't too overly aggressive then the professor would consider him or her an asset to his research team.
     
  4. Jul 5, 2015 #3
    Maybe I'm naive, but what ulterior motives would possibly exist for reading an academic journal publication?
     
  5. Jul 5, 2015 #4

    jedishrfu

    Staff: Mentor

    There was the well-known case of Watson and Crick keeping their research ideas close to home so that Linus Pauling wouldn't get wind of it even though Pauling's son was a graduate student and an office-mate.

    http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/coll/pauling/dna/narrative/page1.html

    From this you could infer that one such ulterior motive could be scouting out the professor for your Dad or your Uncle or even some friend or teacher.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=lSPBBwAAQBAJ&pg=PT38&lpg=PT38&dq=linus+pauling+son+watson+and+crick&source=bl&ots=9xLGFMcFYe&sig=g1rkukEkNRx98IKXBtmonPGjkxY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=kgSaVfDRO5OTyASVxpC4BA&ved=0CEoQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=linus%20pauling%20son%20watson%20and%20crick&f=false [Broken]

    Another motive might be spying, especially if the professor is doing classified work for which he was allowed to publish on sans classified information.

    A third motive could be to get the professor to write a favorable letter of recommendation and once written bow out of the commitment.

    A fourth might be to secure a position on the team, knowing that you're waiting for an even better internship while hedging your bet.

    I'm sure there are even more bizarre motives than what I've mentioned above but you get the idea.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  6. Jul 5, 2015 #5

    atyy

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    I'm not a professor, but I have asked professors for undergrad research positions, and of course I read their work before talking to them. The only negative reception I got was from one who said I hadn't read and understood enough of his work.
     
  7. Jul 6, 2015 #6

    Andy Resnick

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    This makes sense to me: I'm impressed that the student made an effort, but suspect that the student doesn't fully understand the paper (which is fine). Regardless, students who show initiative are impressive and I am likely to make an effort to bring them into my lab.
     
  8. Jul 6, 2015 #7

    ZapperZ

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    Are you that good into reading someone else's emotion and what he/she is thinking? How accurate do you think is your assessment of what that professor was thinking of at that moment, especially when you don't know much about that person previously? Is it possible that you're making an issues out of nothing?

    I've had several students who wanted to work with me who have read about my previous work. In fact, I had one summer intern from another school who read up about me once he found out who he would be working with. The idea that this would "creep me out" didn't even enter my mind. In fact, I welcome students who have done a bit of background work before jumping in head first.

    Zz.
     
  9. Jul 6, 2015 #8

    Choppy

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    I think a lot can depend on the delivery.

    A good way to approach a professor as an undergraduate seeking work would be to introduce yourself and your interests, and then ask about any opportunities with the professor or within the field. As has been stated, it's a good idea to read up on the work of someone you're interested in working with and as much as you can about any field that interests you.

    A less desirable way to approach a professor is to try to impress him or her with your knowledge of the field, particularly prior to any kind of formal introduction, and particularly if you've only read up on the person because you want to work in his or her lab (as opposed to say, following that person on some of the research networking venues for the last several years). I've seen people recommend approaching professors this way, but to me it comes across as artificial. For me it wouldn't necessarily turn me off of wanting to work with a student, but I would see a flag if an undergraduate I've never talked to before approaches me claiming to have read all my work.
     
  10. Jul 6, 2015 #9
    I mentor a lot of student research. If a student wants to work with me, I try and make it work, though I'll have a look at their academic record to assess their strengths and weaknesses and not give them challenges that are likely too hard.

    For me, student motivation and interest are essential to getting them to work hard, which is the most important component to their success. Having read my papers in an area of interest suggests motivation and interest beyond that of most undergrads. That is a good thing.

    I've mentored almost 50 student research projects that yielded published papers in the past decade, and also a good number that were less successful. Success requires a consistent effort over a period of time. A consistent effort requires discipline and motivation. Too many students think being part of a research team represents some sort of an accomplishment, when it is really only an opportunity. Accomplishment requires making a meaningful contribution, and that requires a consistent effort over time.

    Having actually read my papers suggest a consistent effort over time is likely.

    Having said this, I didn't get any of my undergrad research opportunities by reading profs papers. I wouldn't have understood them anyway, but I would have recognized that the research seemed exciting (or not) to me. Most of my research opportunities in physics labs came from being the best student in the class of a professor who needed a hard working undergrad in his lab. In another case, a grad student friend of mine knew my work ethic and recommended me to his advisor.
     
  11. Jul 7, 2015 #10

    QuantumCurt

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    I thought it was the norm for students to read papers published by people that they are hoping to do research with. How else is a student supposed to know whether or not they are interested in doing research with a given professor?
     
  12. Jul 10, 2015 #11

    mathwonk

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    That has never happened to me, but if a student did say that, I would be delighted, if somewhat skeptical, since only a small percentage of professional mathematicians are capable of understanding my papers, and I would assume zero undergraduates. So I would be feeling both pleasure at the possibility I had met a talented and like minded student, combined with sincere doubt as to whether the student had understood a single word. Then there is the challenge of how to determine that in a diplomatic way, i.e. without hurting the student's feelings. Of course if the student demonstrated some grasp, by even a single perceptive comment, I would be reassured and we could discuss it further. Certainly it would be ridiculous for a student who had actually understood one of my papers to hide that fact. Let me tell you why I am skeptical: in the recent past, even the professional referee for my research papers has had some difficulty understanding the arguments. Mainly I presume because the subject is very specialized and few people are familiar with all the tools used, or I am a lousy writer. But the same holds for me when I try to referee someone else's work. Research math is really hard to keep up with for most of us. Even the best beginning graduate students are usually years behind this level. Just to give you an example, try reading my paper linked below, a fairly elementary paper. Try the abstract, or more likely the introduction: or at best try reading the appendix - it might actually do you some good, as it is an attempt to make available some very beautiful work of other people that is not well known in this, its original form: even there you will need to know about algebraic curves, cohomology of line bundles, canonical models, tangent cones, symmetric powers of curves, abel maps, Picard varieties, cycle classes, and unmixedness theorems in commutative algebra. But learning those things by trying to read a good paper is a very good exercise, and in particular if you are interested in Jacobian varieties, in particular the famous Riemann singularity theorem, I recommend this appendix.

    http://alpha.math.uga.edu/~roy/onparam.pdf


    On second thought, the right aproach is probably just to be happy the student has shown that much interest, try to gauge how much was understood, and go from there, taking advantage of the motivation the student has shown, even if they didn't grasp anything much alone. It is not often a student shows that much initiative.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2015
  13. Jul 11, 2015 #12
    It's funny, I once recommended reading a prof's paper to see if you liked his research groups work on this site and was criticized because it would be seen as trying to "show off".

    Whenever I have told a professor I've read their work the reception is nothing but enthusiasm and them pointing me in the direction of more research on that topic. But, I've never approached a prof if I looked at a paper and didn't understand that. Then again most papers in my focus are easy to read and digest...for a math or physics student the research is probably incredibly advanced (like mathwonk's post, looks like a tough read!) and therefore it's probably risky to approach a prof on their work because as a UG you may not fully understand and could end up embarrassing yourself.
     
  14. Jul 11, 2015 #13

    esuna

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    Am I good at reading someone else's emotion and what he/she is thinking? I'm no mentalist, but I'm better than some. Is it possible I'm making an issue out of nothing? Sure. I wouldn't call it an issue though. It hasn't exactly made me any enemies. I was mainly interested in learning what the common "etiquette" for this type of thing is, and if I was doing it wrong. I've held a research position outside my department all year, but I just responded to an online posting, and they simply needed someone with certain skills to get the task done. Now that I'm looking to do research in areas of actual interest, I just don't want to alienate potential research advisors.

    The first way you stated is generally the way that I do it. I just add that I've read such and such paper(s) they have written and, while obviously I may not understand a lot of it yet, I can tell that the general subject matter aligns with my interests. I don't try to spout off a bunch of things I've read about the field to try to sound like an expert.

    At first glance there isn't much that I recognize. I won't pretend to understand anything in that paper, as I have no familiarity with anything you listed except linear forms and basic manifold terminology. I probably wouldn't be knocking on your door with it in my hands either. I do have somewhat of an interest in algebraic curves in terms of coding theory. Thanks for sharing it with me, perhaps if I study the appendix more closely I'll see some connections with ideas I recognize.
     
  15. Jul 12, 2015 #14

    mathwonk

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    I will mention that the appendix I linked above to is actually based on a watered down version of a watered down version of an unpublished research paper. I.e. the author originally submitted it to a famous journal, and the referee asked it to be made simpler and easier to read, so he did so. Then when asked to give a talk on it understandable by (graduate) students at a university, he gave a much more elementary version, and that third "student friendly" version is the one I have tried to reproduce in that appendix. I might add that I myself did not understand the original abstract version.

    Here is another joint paper of mine that started out as you see at 6 pages but after the referee's comments ended up as 15 published pages.

    http://alpha.math.uga.edu/~roy/sv7cork1defs.pdf

    It reminds me of another one we submitted that was about 10 pages, assuming a lot of stuff we thought was well known. After trying to supply everything the referee wanted, which turned out to be "folklore" and not so easily citable, it wound up at maybe 70 pages. So if you are not in the specific audience a paper is aimed at, reading it may require quite a lot of digging and learning.

    Here is another paper I rather like, go for it!:

    http://archive.numdam.org/ARCHIVE/CM/CM_1990__76_3/CM_1990__76_3_367_0/CM_1990__76_3_367_0.pdf
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2015
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