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Programs Unique PhD/Thesis Opportunity - Not Sure How to Approach

  1. Sep 13, 2012 #1
    This is my first semester in graduate school and I have been looking diligently for a professor to work with. Recently, I came across a very unique opportunity and I would like to seek help from other PhD Students and/or Professors:

    This evening, I was talking to a professor about research prospects. The topic he is researching is very new (<20 years old) and virtually the exact topic/subject I have wanted to explore for years as a undergraduate. The professor I spoke to also mentioned that he just opened up a new slot for 1 PhD student pertaining to this topic. So far, everything sounded great, but here comes the catch(es):

    1) The professor just acquired an administrator position. Consequentially he only takes on 3 PhD students and his priority is not teaching/publishing.

    2) He mentioned that all his students are self-funded. He has had them write their own proposals to ensure that their topic is funded. I did not have a chance to ask him what the "success" rate of proposal acceptances were because I had to leave to TA a class. He mentioned that all three of his current students received funding from their grants.

    I feel like this is a situation with great risk/reward. If funding does not come through, I am totally screwed. If, on the other hand, things do work out funding wise, since this research is very new I am worried about the prospects of obtaining a job since the field is virtually unestablished (An employer may ask: "what the hell is this???"). The professor actually mentioned the reason why he did not have a student work on this subject earlier is because the theory/field was too new to yield a good PhD experience. He believes it has evolved enough so this notion is no longer true.

    On the reward side, this is an opportunity to do something I have loved and thought about for the past 3 years of my life. I remember sitting through my boring classes running through thought-experiments in my notebook that pertain to this subject. It is also an amazing opportunity to initiate an entirely new subject in engineering. I can't help but daydream about being one of the founding scientists of a new field! That has been my dream since I was a child! It makes me very excited, perhaps too excited, so I need someone with more experience to "bring me back down to earth".

    My biggest fear is that this is some kind of scam and I may be a guinea pig or a sucker if I don't tread this path carefully. The child inside me is saying "do it, take a chance", the experienced adult is telling me "be suspicious". Thoughts?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 13, 2012 #2
    Students writing their own proposals?!
  4. Sep 13, 2012 #3
    I don't have enough experience to know if you are being sarcastic, enlighten me.
  5. Sep 14, 2012 #4
    This has to include the caveat that this is physics in the US. Other countries and other fields have very different funding systems, but.....

    He isn't being sarcastic. Having graduate students write their own grant proposals is rather unheard of in physics in the US. You are a student, and it's likely that you don't have enough experience to write a decent grant proposal. You don't have a publication record, you don't have any experience with grants administration so that the likelihood of getting funding from a regular grant is very, very low. For physics, the NSF has a special set of grants for "young investigators" and that so that people that are just entering physics don't have to compete with a senior researcher with 500 citations over the last 30 years. But even that is for junior faculty.

    The only time I've heard this suggested was as part of a not too thinly disguised plot to reduce the number of physics graduate students. The idea would be that physics graduate students would get their funding direct from NSF. By adjusting the level of funding, the NSF would be able to do "birth control" (and that was the term used) for total Ph.D. production. It was "just an idea" and most of the people (especially graduate students) that knew about it figured that it was a terrible, terrible idea.

    I'd find out what the "standard operating procedure" is for graduate students in your department. If this is some new thing, then I wouldn't take it.
  6. Sep 14, 2012 #5
    Since you are a TA, I would gather that your Department guaranteed your support when they admitted you. You are not obliged to secure funding for any Professor's research project. Furthermore, any grant that your P.I. gets, still gets processed through the University, meaning even if you get RA, you are still on your Department's payroll.

    If your potential P.I. makes you file a funding application for his research, I could deduce at least these three possibilities, listed in an order of decreasing severity:
    • He wants to syphon money from the grant for private purposes (illegal and highly unlikely);
    • He does not have a clue about the grant application process;
    • He knows his research proposal is not likely to get funding, so, when it gets rejected, he won't take the blame. Any students willing to do research under him will be funded through TAs by the Department, increasing their workload to 100% appointment time, for 50% salary
  7. Sep 14, 2012 #6


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    Let's assome "<20 years" means say ">15 years" (because from your enthusiasm, if it was <5 years old you would probably have said so). So that's seems a slightly odd interpretation of "entirely new".

    So check out some facts, like
    1. How many papers on this has he (or his team) published?
    2. How many of those have been cited by other people?
    3. How many papers have other research groups published?
    4. How much interest is there in industry?

    If the answers to #2 #3 and #4 are approximately zero, that could be telling you an inconveinient truth: just because something is a new area of research doesn't necessarily mean it has any practical use.

    It can certainly take a while for new ideas to catch on, but if nobody else out there cares much about this after nearly 20 years, that's should be telling you something.
  8. Sep 14, 2012 #7
    By less than 20, I meant to say he has been looking at this stuff on his own time between 15 and 20 years. I will ask him to forward me some papers which he published on this new model which he is working on. I agree that this will be a good indicator of its legitimacy. I am very very skeptical that I will be writing my own proposal. Perhaps he meant that I will help him, not do the writing per-se. The subject, by the way, is field theory applied to engineering problems.
  9. Sep 14, 2012 #8


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    If it is new and visionary, how is it supposed to get funded by you?

    Usually new and visionary things that are doable on a small scale do not get traditional funding.

    Also, visionaries don't come and ask on PF. They have to know for themselves that it is visionary, and worth the risk of failure.

    Why is field theory in engineering new? Maxwell's equations and fluid dynamics are field theories, and they have both been used in engineering for a long time. Stochastic processes are mathematically close to path integral formalism of quantum field theory, and they too have been used in engineering a long time.
  10. Sep 14, 2012 #9


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    At Canadian universities graduate students can and are encouraged to apply for funding from external sources such as NSERC. Generally departments will have and guarantee a certain level of funding for each student allowed entry into the program, but this is usually in the from of a teaching assistanceship. The advantage of an external award is that the student doesn't have to spend time teaching or marking. Also, departments will often "top up" those who get the external awards so as a student you end up with more money than those just being supported by the department. I can't help, but wonder if your supervisor meant "external scholarship" as opposed to "grant" when explaining this. (In these applications you are required to submit a research proposal.)

    With respect to available time, I would talk to the professor and work with him to define what the mentoring relationship would look like. Just because he's an administrator does not keep him from dedicating time to his students. Can you for example, count on regular weekly meetings where you can talk with him one-on-one? Defining this early can save a lot of heartache early on. Also, you could talk with his current students to see what their relationships are like.

    With respect to a new topic - in a PhD everything is a new topic - although some things are more "new" than others. What that means is that there is always an element of risk involved in that the idea may or may not be fruitbul. Sometimes the risk is low and the project is more-or-less a matter of doing the work. Sometimes, no one will really know whether the idea is fruitful until they spend some time on it (that's why it's really helpful to have a mentor who's spent some time in the field). As Alpha Zero pointed out, check out the literature in the field.
  11. Sep 14, 2012 #10
    I don't understand what this is supposed to mean. I am a new grad student with no friends (that I can contact easily anyway) or family that can provide me good guidance with regards to grad school. PF is my primary resource for career and professional life guidance. If somehow this correlates to being "not a visionary" (or any personal attribute pertaining to a poster) then I think you're plainly wrong. Also, as a new graduate student, I do not believe I have the resources to fully asses whether or not any risk is worth taking because I do not have enough experience.

    From what this professor told me (and if my understand of what he told me is correct) this project leans heavily towards the radical side. This doesnt bother me from a personal standpoint, but as I stated earlier I am concerned whether or not such a move should be made from a first timer in the field. I want to, I like diving into the unknown, but diving into shallow water head first can get you killed!

    I emailed the professor asking if he could send me some recent publications pertaining to the topic we discussed. Hopefully this will yield positive results!
  12. Sep 14, 2012 #11


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    I am not talking about a generalized personal attribute. I am talking about whether you are a visionary with respect to this particular project, which you have only vaguely described. If it is "radical", a person who knows it is radical does not say "I believe it is radical", he says "It is radical". So far all the evidence you have given us is consistent with a project that is not radical, but just misguided idea that can already be ruled out by experts in the field.

    In the case that a project is truly radical - ie. that people with good taste agree should be tried - then whether the risk of failure is worth taking is a personal one. In that case, the only advice I would give is make sure you have a hard deadline for getting it to work, and a backup safe project that will work and give you your degree with the remaining time and money.
  13. Sep 16, 2012 #12
    Truthfully I feel like I am in a fog. I have a few professors I could work with but I am having doubts in general. Basically, I am not sure what choices to make that will get me where I want to go. As Ive said in a few of my million threads I post in the advice forums, I want to go into aircraft design (aerodynamics side). I feel that choosing CFD as a grad project would expose me most to fluids and problems associated with them. As I think about this more I am not sure if this will get me what I want or if I will enjoy it. I love math and physics, but I wonder if this path will lead me too far astray from engineering.

    Perhaps these doubts arise because I have yet to find a project and I am just starting. I really don't know. It is driving me nuts.
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