What's the point of a thesis?

  • #36
Orodruin said:
There are plenty of LHC students who can easily up that …[...]

Oh, I don't doubt that. Not trying to belittle anyone's profession. That was just an example I personally knew of.
 
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  • #37
Orodruin said:
So what? That will test understanding of things that are known, not the ability to do research to produce new knowledge. The latter may benefit from the former, but is in no way a guarantee.

Right, maybe. But Landau's school produced remarkably successful research. And it appears like the main criterion for admission was whether you could solve these famously difficult problems.

It seems like a different route to, say, admitting faculty based on their graduate research experience and dissertation.

Not saying one method is "better" than the other! Just makes you wonder if the classic PhD & dissertation is too restrictive.
 
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  • #38
ergospherical said:
I will play devil's advocate to some extent. I'm looking from the outside in and won't have the same insight as some of you PhDs...

If a research paper is around 20-30 pages tops, what's the point of spending all that time to write up a 100, 200, 500-page PhD thesis? I get the impression from that the actual new content could be presented on a tenth of the paper, if you cut out all of the exposition.

There's probably a historical element. Do you think the format is out-dated?
A small nitpick: The long paper produced in connection with earning a PhD is usually called a "dissertation", while the term "thesis" is more often used to refer to the long paper produced as a capstone requirement for a Master's Degree (although not all master's degrees require a thesis), at least in academia in the U.S.

Another point worth noting is that there is significant variation in the length of a dissertation by discipline. In mathematics, dissertations are frequently shorter than in almost all other disciplines, for example. Some mathematics dissertations are 40 pages or less.

And, one of the reasons that dissertations are so long is that unlike research papers, which apart from a brief introduction, take all prior work in the field as a given, a dissertation is expected to have a comprehensive review of the existing literature in the field to put the new work into context. This is an important pedagogical feature of this project that is intended to force the author to self-study the field, even though it may be of limited benefit to others. The review of the literature in the field is typically 1/5th to 1/3rd of the entire dissertation.

Another issue related to the length is that maybe the problem is not that dissertations are too long, but that research papers are too short.

The length of research papers is driven by academic promotion incentives that favor publishing as many papers as possible without much regard to the length or quality of each paper, which creates an incentive to publish the "minimum publishable unit" rather than the optimal amount of material in a single presentation.

The length of a research paper also driven by the length expectations of scientific journals which typically have an expected range of number of pages that is quite short. But a significant share of research papers also come with "supplemental materials" and appendixes that are often several times as long as the core research papers, with the total number of pages in the main paper and the supplements approximating the length of a dissertation in a big paper covering a broad topic. So, while the paper itself may be 15-30 pages, there may be 60-100 pages of supplemental materials. It is getting to the point in some sub-disciplines where reading only the paper itself, without the supplements, is almost like reading a long abstract, rather than a full paper.

Finally, it is worth noting that the dissertation is a much smaller barrier to getting a PhD in STEM than it is in non-STEM fields. The average length of time it takes to earn a PhD in STEM is somewhere around 5 years, while it is closer to 8-10 years in many non-STEM fields, and that is mostly due to the longer period of time it takes to produce a dissertation in non-STEM fields. So, the downside of a dissertation reducing the flow of PhD graduates isn't that great in STEM.
 
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  • #39
ergospherical said:
But Landau's school produced remarkably successful research.
Remarkably?

The Soviet Union produced perhaps a half-dozen Nobel prizes then and after. The US alone produced around 100 in that period. The entire USSR was comparable to maybe Canada.

Yes, some good solid work was done in that time and place. But "remarkable"? The contribution of tiny countries like Denmark is remarkable. The fact that a superpower could barely keep up with a single US institution like Berkeley is hardly evidence that their model should be emulated.
 
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  • #40
It’s not a competition…!

The Landau institute was a relatively small outfit and did a lot of influential work. What’s interesting about it is the non-standard admissions procedure. You only had to convince Landau that you could pass the Theoretical Minimum - he didn’t care about your research credentials.
 
  • #41
ergospherical said:
It’s not a competition…!

The Landau institute was a relatively small outfit and did a lot of influential work. What’s interesting about it is the non-standard admissions procedure. You only had to convince Landau that you could pass the Theoretical Minimum - he didn’t care about your research credentials.
Why is that non-standard? It is always the case that to get the gig you need to convince the commitee to choose you.
 
  • #42
ergospherical said:
It’s not a competition…!

The Landau institute was a relatively small outfit and did a lot of influential work. What’s interesting about it is the non-standard admissions procedure. You only had to convince Landau that you could pass the Theoretical Minimum - he didn’t care about your research credentials.
As others have said that's a really unfair comparison. Not every excellent physicists came from this kind of selection. In the Soviet Union it was probably was good way to find students but that means that it was extremely selective for those students that were not good at this kind of examinations. I do not think Landau allowed for taking the exams twice. Also many fields of physics were not invented yet and many people did not carry university students at the time.

Now, undergraduate studies do not suffice, there is a very large number of people going to university, the physics field is almost twice as large as before, not everything is theory, and the increasing number of professors means also that they need more graduate students.

In the end it depends on what route we want to take. Do we want to have only Nobel Prize material and the rest should quit? Let us do that sooner, let us rise the difficulty even more starting in high-school. Let every student know that physics is hyper-competitive from the start and only let the Landau-level students go for it. That way there is funding and permanent positions for everybody.

The other option is to be more kind to those students that love science. Find ways to let a large number of students in physics go through their studies without much suffering, adjust better to the students aptitudes, allow for more adequate training for the current market and for alternative paths, not just academia. Do not let them (a) start a thesis if this is going to be a bad experience (see previous comment) (b) stay indefinitely in a PhD or a postdoc track (c) work in precarious professional conditions and underpaid.
 
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  • #43
pines-demon said:
In the end it depends on what route we want to take. Do we want to have only Nobel Prize material and the rest should quit? Let us do that sooner, let us rise the difficulty even more starting in high-school. Let every student know that physics is hyper-competitive from the start and only let the Landau-level students go for it. That way there is funding and permanent positions for everybody.
That's not how it was at the time of Landau. There were many, the majority, that did not work with him.
 
  • #44
martinbn said:
That's not how it was at the time of Landau. There were many, the majority, that did not work with him.
You mean in Kharkiv on in the rest of the Soviet Union? anyway that is far from the point.
 
  • #45
pines-demon said:
You mean in Kharkiv on in the rest of the Soviet Union? anyway that is far from the point.
May i missed it, what was your point?
 
  • #46
martinbn said:
May i missed it, what was your point?
In that paragraph I was suggesting a hypothetical. That if we only want the best and the field is going to be hard on resources and difficulty, ONE of the options is that we can start the filters sooner in the physics students lives.
 
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  • #47
I can only refer to my own experience in pure mathematics. My thesis skipped no steps in the proofs, some of which were tedious (but IMO, not very routine). That was the only way that my adviser and the professors could really be sure that my proofs were valid and that I knew what I was talking about. All the necessary definitions and references were given (possibly to prove that I had done the necessary research).

When the same proofs were written for publication, much of the detail was omitted. It was assumed that if readers really wanted to verify the results they would put in the time and effort to go through the details on their own. It was also assumed that a reader was already reasonably familiar with all the background material and references. Experts in the field do not want to read my summary of the basics. All that reduced the page count considerably.
 
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  • #48
FactChecker said:
I can only refer to my own experience in pure mathematics. My thesis skipped no steps in the proofs, some of which were tedious (but IMO, not very routine). That was the only way that my adviser and the professors could really be sure that my proofs were valid and that I knew what I was talking about. All the necessary definitions and references were given (possibly to prove that I had done the necessary research).

When the same proofs were written for publication, much of the detail was omitted. It was assumed that if readers really wanted to verify the results they would put in the time and effort to go through the details on their own. It was also assumed that a reader was already reasonably familiar with all the background material and references. Experts in the field do not want to read my summary of the basics. All that reduced the page count considerably.
Good point. Imposing a higher standard of rigor in a thesis really serves two purposes (which make it longer than a research paper on the same topic):

1. A higher standard of rigor is necessary because unlike someone who has earned a PhD (and generally been hired as a professor or research fellow), one can't take for granted that a graduate student "filled in the gaps" between what would usually be presented in a published paper correctly; and

2. It serves an educational purpose of forcing you to learn all of the necessary steps and apply them correctly, looking up and citing to definitions and theories that are often taken for granted without knowing their exact source.
 
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  • #49
ohwilleke said:
unlike someone who has earned a PhD (and generally been hired as a professor or research fellow), one can't take for granted that a graduate student "filled in the gaps"
Unfortunately, one cannot take that for granted with someone who has earned a PhD either ... I know of a number of instances just from the case studies in a research ethics module given to PhD students in the program I direct.
 
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  • #50
Orodruin said:
Unfortunately, one cannot take that for granted with someone who has earned a PhD either ... I know of a number of instances just from the case studies in a research ethics module given to PhD students in the program I direct.
Yes. But I did my thesis in the old days when a person who lied on a published paper was thrown into the T-rex cage to be eaten. ;-)
 
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  • #51
FactChecker said:
when a person who lied on a published paper was thrown into the T-rex cage to be eaten. ;-)
Just make fun of their short arms. That makes them sad, and you can run away while they are temporarily blinded by their tears. :wink:
 
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  • #52
(Originally misdirected, sorry)

We seem not to have a reply by the OP to the question about whether he's read some dissertations, or whether the complaint is based on what he thinks he would find if he did. A dissertation serves a different purpose than a publication.

How many times have you read in a paper "The effect of XXX was considered and found to be negligible." One line - and it could be an entire chapter in a dissertation, or I suppose even the whole thing.
 
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  • #53
jose-mourinho-i-prefer-not-to-speak.gif
 
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  • #54
ergospherical said:
I guess that is the reason. If the field is so specialized that you can't reasonably set a standardized exam in it (for 1 student), then a long exposition is some measure of understanding.

The Dyson video is interesting. From my perspective of not having done / not intending to do a PhD, I think I'd agree with what he's trying to say. 4/5 years is a long time to devote to a particular problem.

It seems like a shame that there's no "modern" alternative for one or more short-term research projects beyond something like a 1-year Masters. There's opportunities for things like this in industry & internships, though - but it's slightly different context.
There actually is a modern alternative. I was interested in getting a PhD at work and the notion of a 60+ year-old taking the GRE and getting competitive scores with younger folks fresh out of undergrad school is nigh impossible. Thats what my university set as the stipulation for using the educational credit benefit. I spoke with others at work and they said they ran into the same roadblock. Finally, I tried the route of taking single courses but again you had to get into the program via the GRE route+recommendations... in order to get the graduate credit.

One retired PhD at work mentioned another route. First, find a dissertation worthy work project. Work on it a bit and then propose it to the relevant department to use this work project as PhD research. If the department agreed, they would assign a PhD thesis advisor and setup a committee to review your work. In addition, the committee may recommend that you take certain courses to remedy any academic deficiencies before running you through the dissertation grilling. Its a very hard road too but at least you're not competing with 20+ something students fresh off the undergrad experience.

Sadly, I was never able to find a dissertation worthy project. My lab director wasn't really interested in furthering older research folks careers. He instead pushed younger folks ahead. In one instance, they used a writeup I had written with some small changes as a research project for an undergrad intern and gave it to a younger colleague to mentor.

I did get to witness a dissertation grilling. It was really something. The student presented his work and then the questions began. Initially, they were straightforward and he answered them well but then one rather persistent PhD kept hammering at one point and first the advisor intervened but got overwhelmed and then a PhD coworker of the student stepped in and shutdown the discussion fast putting the persistant PhD in his place. The student made it through thanks to his coworker and got his well deserved PhD.
 
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  • #55
Vanadium 50 said:
Before we go too far down this path, have you ever actually read a thesis? Or is the criticism based on what you think you would find if you did read one?

A good thesis to read IMHO; relates to mathematical issues of Quantum Mechanics. I sometimes link to it when Rigged Hilbert Spaces are relevant to a discussion; Quantum Mechanics in Rigged Hilbert Space Language by Rafael de la Madrid Modino:

http://galaxy.cs.lamar.edu/~rafaelm/webdis.pdf

The purpose of a PhD program extends beyond producing a dissertation (thesis). It's a transformative journey that equips you with the skills and mindset of a researcher, fostering personal growth and intellectual curiosity.

Some think it is a necessity to become a researcher. It isn't. My Operations Research lecturer famously did not have a PhD, but rather a DSc, which you get by submitting work you already have published. He was grabbed by IBM before doing his PhD. Dyson famously worked with Bethe and Feynman (and was a good friend of Feynman) to produce his groundbreaking work linking the approaches of Schwinger, Feynman, and Tomonaga. That alone was worthy of a DSc (and a Nobel Prize, but they already had the max of three in Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga), but he just couldn't be bothered; in fact, he was not even a fan of the system. It is rumoured Feynman was secretly jealous because he wanted to say - hey buddy even I know that, and I do not have a PhD. When Dyson was lecturing on his work, Feynman knew all about it. He sat at the back of the lecture and kept all those nearby in stitches with jokes. In the end, he said - you're in Doc - meaning, of course, for him, a PhD was irrelevant. A dissertation is important as it is an actual published work that must be formally defended, but the real value of a PhD is the mentoring you get on doing research. This can be got in many ways, as my Operations Research professor and Dyson can attest to.

Thanks
Bill
 
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  • #56
bhobba said:
A good thesis to read IMHO; relates to mathematical issues of Quantum Mechanics. I sometimes link to it when Rigged Hilbert Spaces are relevant to a discussion; Quantum Mechanics in Rigged Hilbert Space Language by Rafael de la Madrid Modino:

http://galaxy.cs.lamar.edu/~rafaelm/webdis.pdf

The purpose of a PhD program extends beyond producing a dissertation (thesis). It's a transformative journey that equips you with the skills and mindset of a researcher, fostering personal growth and intellectual curiosity.

Some think it is a necessity to become a researcher. It isn't. My Operations Research lecturer famously did not have a PhD, but rather a DSc, which you get by submitting work you already have published. He was grabbed by IBM before doing his PhD. Dyson famously worked with Bethe and Feynman (and was a good friend of Feynman) to produce his groundbreaking work linking the approaches of Schwinger, Feynman, and Tomonaga. That alone was worthy of a DSc (and a Nobel Prize, but they already had the max of three in Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga), but he just couldn't be bothered; in fact, he was not even a fan of the system. It is rumoured Feynman was secretly jealous because he wanted to say - hey buddy even I know that, and I do not have a PhD. When Dyson was lecturing on his work, Feynman knew all about it. He sat at the back of the lecture and kept all those nearby in stitches with jokes. In the end, he said - you're in Doc - meaning, of course, for him, a PhD was irrelevant. A dissertation is important as it is an actual published work that must be formally defended, but the real value of a PhD is the mentoring you get on doing research. This can be got in many ways, as my Operations Research professor and Dyson can attest to.

Thanks
Bill
Good to remember. But also unlikely to recur.

At the time, high school graduates were as rare as college graduates today, college graduates were as rare as people with graduate degrees are today, and people with graduate degrees were proportionately more rare.

Academia was hiring like mad to meet GI Bill and then Baby Boom driven rising demand. U.S. states were starting new colleges and universities left and right.

The PhD system itself was still in its early days (one of the few institutional and intellectual products of Germany that wasn't shunned once WWII began).

Computer science saw something similar in the early days when many of the people who went on to become big names in the tech industry were hired (or started businesses) while still in college and dropped out, because the demand was so great that credentials didn't matter at first. These days, there's a little of that spirit left, but it is waning.
 
  • #57
ohwilleke said:
At the time, high school graduates were as rare as college graduates today, college graduates were as rare as people with graduate degrees are today, and people with graduate degrees were proportionately more rare.

High school graduation will mean nothing in the future - it is like that in Australia, without going into the details. Apprentasips will be merged with degrees, e.g. an electrical apprenticeship and an electrical engineering degree (the professional bodies are already looking at how it would work). It is basically like that for nurses. In year ten, you complete a diploma in nursing in over 2-3 years. You are an enrolled nurse and will become a registered nurse after a further 3-4 years of part-time study. Everyone who can get a college degree should (estimated by some to be about 80% of the population). It will be the new HS. People will change careers several times in their working lives, likely getting some postgraduate qualification. Or perhaps be really radical and embrace the FIRE (financially Independent retirement early) movement.

My old alma mater had a professional doctorate in computing but has now scrapped it. They now mostly do PhDs, many with an applied emphasis eg:
https://research.qut.edu.au/adm/

Excellent preparation for working life.

Thanks
Bill
 
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  • #58
Vanadium 50 said:
Remarkably?

The Soviet Union produced perhaps a half-dozen Nobel prizes then and after. The US alone produced around 100 in that period. The entire USSR was comparable to maybe Canada.
Who gets Nobel has always been a highly political decision. Many people only got the prize after the fall of the iron wall, like Ginzburg and Abrikovov. For scientists in the SU, it was usually not possible to publish in western journals.
 
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