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Thinking of a PhD based on undergrad research experience

Hi everyone, I am a final-year undergraduate in Physics. I actually created this account purely to ask for some advice.

I have been considering pursuing a physics PhD ever since my first year, but my current experience in my final-year project (FYP) has been difficult and I'm wondering if this is in any way "normal". If my experience is deemed "abnormal", I'll probably think twice about a PhD.

Some details:

I'm a quarter-way through a 2 semester (theoretical) FYP and I've pretty much got the topic, literature, and formalism sorted out, so I'm in the process of trying to get novel (and not too trivial) results. However I have found the process of finding new ideas, and new ideas that are not nonsense, extremely challenging. I have been toiling for 4 weeks, and nothing has come up.

My supervisor isn't knowledgeable about this topic (which he proposed), and has not given me any concrete guidance. For instance, I asked him (after going about in circles for weeks) for some direction the other day and his reply was "keep trying, you'll get somewhere" and "here's where you get creative and do research". Another time I presented to him some work about an idea I had and asked if he felt it made sense; his reply was along the lines of "you should check, lad".

tl;dr I knew it was going to be hard, I just didn't expect an almost-complete absence of guidance. But perhaps I was expecting wrong.

So my questions are:
1. Is it normal for me to be coming up with ideas that turn out to be wrong/not useful?
2. Am I supposed to be struggling to come up with ideas?
3. Is this supervisor-student relationship normal? And is such a relationship common for PhD students?

Thanks in advance to anyone who replies!
 
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I'm a quarter-way through a 2 semester (theoretical) FYP and I've pretty much got the topic, literature, and formalism sorted out, so I'm in the process of trying to get novel (and not too trivial) results.
I don't know what this means. Usually research begins with a question. What is your question?
 

Dr. Courtney

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Approaches to advising cover a considerable range. It seems that your adviser tends toward the "hands off" approach. This, combined with your limited ability to develop new ideas that are both novel and interesting with your skill set, seem to be the source of your frustration. You'd probably do better with advisers who provide more guidance.

There are plenty of advisers who are a better match to your approach and abilities. You may also benefit from a larger research group where there are plenty of grad students and maybe a post-doc or two to guide you through the rough patches. The bigger the group, the better the odds of finding someone willing to help you past your current hurdle.

I benefited greatly in grad school with a very helpful adviser, and also a bunch of grad students who were all willing to help out less experienced students.
 
I don't know what this means. Usually research begins with a question. What is your question?
I do have a research question, which was the point of all the work. In trying to answer this "over-arching" question however, I find that I need to ask (and answer) several smaller ones. It's in this part where I am struggling.
 
Thanks for replying. Do you have any suggestions as to how I could develop these skills by myself? I'm not hopeful that my supervisor will have a sudden change of heart and give me pointers.

This, combined with your limited ability to develop new ideas that are both novel and interesting with your skill set, seem to be the source of your frustration.
as for this piece of advice

There are plenty of advisers who are a better match to your approach and abilities. You may also benefit from a larger research group where there are plenty of grad students and maybe a post-doc or two to guide you through the rough patches.
I did think of approaching another professor for guidance. But this professor has his own FYP students and I can't help but think of the drawbacks of approaching another professor for help under the nose of my current supervisor.
 
A separate question; are students generally expected to be able to produce novel work/ideas by the start of their PhD studies? Or is there time for students to pick these skills up?

Thanks a lot!
 

Dr. Courtney

Education Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
2018 Award
2,953
1,880
Thanks for replying. Do you have any suggestions as to how I could develop these skills by myself? I'm not hopeful that my supervisor will have a sudden change of heart and give me pointers.

I did think of approaching another professor for guidance. But this professor has his own FYP students and I can't help but think of the drawbacks of approaching another professor for help under the nose of my current supervisor.
Most professionals are able to be discrete about these things, especially if the student keeps the discussion on how they need help with the scientific challenge and takes pains not to complain about the lack of support from another faculty member. I think you'd get better advice from someone better acquainted with the requirements of your course and available resources than from strangers on the internet. If I understand your position, you're essentially in the brainstorming phase of a required research project. Much of the good advice students need at this stage is help recognizing which ideas are accessible given the student abilities and available resources, which ideas might be modified into something accessible, and which ideas are simply nonsensical or too difficult given the constraints.

A couple of my PF Insights may be useful to some degree in the process:




A separate question; are students generally expected to be able to produce novel work/ideas by the start of their PhD studies? Or is there time for students to pick these skills up?
Every group is different, but in my experience the "ability to produce novel work/ideas"is something that is usually developed along the way in graduate school, it is not a strong requirement for a 1st year grad student. It is better to have it, and the more you develop this skill as an undergraduate, the more appealing you will be as a candidate hoping to work on different projects.

It's a skill I work to develop in students I mentor, most of whom are in very high demand and can take their pick from multiple research opportunities. But students I mentor also develop a number of other skills - critical thinking, computer programming, planning, hard work, experimental care, data analysis, data presentation, scientific writing, etc. I'm not sure I can say the ability to produce novel work/ideas is the reason they enjoy strong demand.
 
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Do you have an academic advisor (distinct from your research guy)? You might solicit their input.....I'm certain they would be discreet.

The issue of asking the right questions is very interesting and @Dr. Courtney is certainly sage. I think you pick up the ability to answer the questions mostly from your coursework but the ability to ask the questions more from personal interactions with colleagues and mentors.
Most beginning grad students don't know enough to formulate big questions but the ability to understand the lesser questions required is very useful. That skill is hopefully what you are developing as you tear your hair out over this project.
I think going to faculty to ask for specific help with answers to questions is never a bad idea......the worst that can happen is that they are too busy. But don't complain about your research guy!!! And always remember you are paying their salary!!
 
Cheers everyone, thanks for the advice :)
 

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