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In the first months of a typical PhD (or, to a lesser extent, the first weeks of a minor thesis), you need to get into the habit of thinking and working like a research student. Your supervisor may set you some reading and introduce you to what your predecessors have done and to the complexities of your chosen field. In a technical discipline, you might choose one of these papers and identify how you could attempt to produce similar results; in a history project, say, you might start exploring what primary sources are available. To consolidate this reading, and to ensure that you understand it with sufficient depth, you may be asked to write a review showing how the field has been developing and what the current challenges and problems are.
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A research fellow who worked for me, who already had a PhD, had a similar problem. He would start work on a tightly defined problem, working to a particular paper submission deadline, and would quickly achieve his initial goals. However, in the process he would identify new issues, and set out to resolve them to make sure the paper was ‘complete’. Pretty soon the scale of the work would expand to a PhD, or more, and he would have so many doubts in his original, strong result that he couldn’t publish. That is, the moment he achieved something—no matter how innovative or useful or surprising—he would race on to supersede or invalidate it, and as a result never had anything he was comfortable reporting. I have no idea how his PhD supervisor managed to get him to submit a thesis! In 2 years working for me, he produced a massive amount of work but no papers. Working to constraints is a key element in being an effective researcher.
Let me emphasize the word ‘background’—you are kidding yourself if you think you can be at your most productive while listening to music that consumes your attention, or while watching television for that matter.
A student of mine persisted with work on an algorithm that I ‘knew’ was foolish, and ended up with a strong result and a paper in a top journal. But this case was a rare exception.
This was in the 1980s. In my view Robert should not have deliberately wasted a week of his student’s time, although it does seem that the lesson was an effective one. I sometimes use this same anecdote as an example of the kind of treatment of students that was once common but now, happily, seems to be dying out.
- Making a Strong Start
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