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During the discussion How/when to become independent in research as a graduate student?, there were one or two professors who not only agreed with the idea of independent research, but also said that they encourage their PhD students to conduct independent research as long as this helps the students to be more mature and successful researchers in their future academic career. I decided to bring this question to the main topic that if you are a professor and allow your students to do independent research:

  • What do you mean by independent research?
  • Should your students conduct independent research and publication in the field of their PhD/MSc research topic or it can be in any other field of their major and interest?
  • If their independent research is not in the field near to their PhD research, should they inform you about their other research projects or not?
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This question is basically a "polling" question and calls for a list of answers, one from each professor anywhere in the world. As a result, this question is not suitable for the StackExchange network. As a guide: ask yourself if the question is such that someone other than you could look at all the possible answers and select one as the correct answer. If not, this question isn't appropriate here. If yes, then the question needs to be edited to reflect the evaluation criteria that should be used for selecting the correct answer. –  D.W. Jul 25 at 23:46

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'll answer, not from the perspective of a professor (I'm not one) but as a student who had advisors who were very generous in that regard:

  • What do you mean by independent research?

When people say this, they usually mean research that is outside a clear plan of action. For example, in the biomedical sciences, it's somewhat common to turn a particular specific aim of an R01 grant into a PhD student's dissertation. That's a plan. But along the way, the student may be interested in a methodological musing, a side project, a short data analysis task on something interesting that's come up, etc. So basically, I'd take it to mean anything that's outside what you've been tasked to do, or come up with tasking yourself to do, as part of your degree program.

  • Should your students conduct independent research and publication in the field of their PhD/MSc research topic or it can be in any other field of their major and interest?

It probably shouldn't detract from their research topic, but I've never seen any reason why more general topics are a problem. Indeed, if the student is restricting it to their research topic, than why isn't this part of their thesis/dissertation in the first place?

  • If their independent research is not in the field near to their PhD research, should they inform you about their other research projects or not?

It's good for them to inform you of what they're working on regardless. They may be able to provide support, put in a kind word to an editor, etc. And these people will be writing your letters of recommendation - they should be able to talk about the exciting stuff you do even if it's not directly their project. And they should be informed so they can tell if you're potentially overburdening yourself.

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That last point extends to non-research activities too, e.g. if you spend an afternoon each week as a volunteer tutoring economically disadvantaged young girls in math and science, it's helpful to let your advisor know (for the same reasons). –  ff524 Jul 2 at 7:03
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But sometimes advisors or heads of the projects use your outside activity against you in the events that problems occur to the research projects and that is why some students prefer not to talk about their volunteer work or side researches. It has happened that a problem has happened to the project, the researcher is not in charge with that problem, but the professor use his side-academic activity against him just to unethically proof that the problem was that student's fault not the professor's. Even if the student has done all his best and did everything that was his duty in the project. –  Enthusiastic Student Jul 2 at 8:53
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@Parsa If the problem is legitimately that outside activity was causing a problem for the main project, then I think it's entirely fair to criticize the student. If, as in your suggested example, this is being used to as a "weapon" in an otherwise unhealthy student-advisor relationship, then I'd suggest it's a deeper underlying problem, and hiding the side work will do nothing other than shift the problem to a different aspect of the student. Or blow up spectacularly if the professor finds its being "hidden" (by say, reading your CV...). –  Fomite Jul 2 at 19:20
    
@Fomite Thanks, I think making this comment to an answer with adding extra points to other parts of the question will shape a good answer. –  Enthusiastic Student Jul 3 at 6:20
  • At the end of a PhD a student should be able to conduct their own research. To reach this goal it is helpful to reduce the amount of direction given during the course of a PhD. When the student starts, some defined goals and guidance can allow the student to make rapid progress.
  • Students should make unique contributions and understand a broad range of concepts. For example, producing a PhD thesis just on one tiny component of an analysis is a bad idea. Students should be allowed to make mistakes, but be prevented from loosing a large amount of time on bad choices.
  • Within highly competitive research environments one might have to defend a students work with additional members of staff, since students are typically slower than experienced post-docs.
  • All students are different. Therefore, the level of guidance needed should be balanced accordingly.
  • The final mark for the PhD should reflect the ability of the student.

What do you mean by independent research?

Completely independent research implies that one has to define the project and direction, using knowledge of the field of study. One needs to read journals and join workshops/conferences to determine what has not been studied and can be studied within a reasonable time frame. Given this, one then writes software/develops an experiment to measure the chosen parameter(s). (There are many holes that a student can fall into along the way). It is a lot easier to carry out independent research as a post-doc or professor, since one builds up knowledge.

Should your students conduct independent research and publication in the field of their PhD/MSc research topic or it can be in any other field of their major and interest?

Their PhD is typically on one topic e.g. particle physics. The independent research should happen within the discipline that is being assessed.

If their independent research is not in the field near to their PhD research, should they inform you about their other research projects or not?

PhD theses contain a fraction of a student's work. They do not contain all of the work of a student. For example, one might build a silicon detector for two years and then spend 1.5 years performing a data analysis. The silicon detector work (even if performed independently) may not end up in the thesis. It is very hard for examiners to assess work that is not in the thesis.

(From ~13 yrs of supervising particle physics PhD students.)

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"Completely independent research implies that one has a blank sheet of paper." I am not sure what that means, but if it means what I think it does, I disagree. Even independent researchers get all sorts of inspiration from external sources. –  xLeitix Jul 2 at 20:33
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Parsa, I know of no examples where material outside the thesis or presented orally during the defence of the thesis was considered when a PhD student was assessed. For the material to be in the thesis or presented in the defence, it should be on the same topic as the rest of the thesis. –  W. H. Bell Jul 2 at 22:46
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@Parsa: Graduate students in my department are assessed on their complete research profile; the PhD thesis itself is mostly an administrative hurdle. –  JeffE Jul 3 at 4:25
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@Parsa Essentially it's synonymous with their CV and the level of independence/maturity the student displays. Especially for PhD students aiming for academic jobs (almost all students in my area), we try to judge how the student will eventually look on the job market. Nobody on hiring committees reads your thesis. –  JeffE Jul 21 at 12:53
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Let me emphasize that the system described in @JeffE's remarks seems unusual to me. When I received my PhD from a top tier math program we were assessed solely on completing coursework, passing exams, and writing and defending a thesis. The degree requirements were not in any way holistic in the way that JeffE describes. In fact, I know of no math PhD program in which they are. Certainly, top students often have other publications beyond their thesis but these are irrelevant to receiving the degree, and the majority of students in math have no publications before PhD. –  Oswald Veblen Jul 23 at 23:07

What do you mean by independent research?

Research that leads to a publication without the advisor's name on it, following the standard rules of co-authorship in the student's field. In other words, precisely the same kind of research they should be doing five years after their PhD.

Should your students conduct independent research and publication in the field of their PhD/MSc research topic or it can be in any other field of their major and interest?

As a general rule, every researcher should limit their research to fields where they have sufficient background, experience, intuition, resources, and maturity to make a real contribution. Students are no exception.

Research by PhD students is usually closely related to their thesis topic, if not directly part of their thesis, but I know of several successful exceptions.

If their independent research is not in the field near to their PhD research, should they inform you about their other research projects or not?

Yes, please. My job as an advisor is to help students become mature, successful, independent researchers. That's what a PhD is. It is significantly easier to do my job when I have all the data.

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What do you mean by independent research?

In the context of a PhD student, independent research involves formulating, researching, and suggesting preliminary solutions to a problem independently of the advisor.

I expect the crowning component of any PhD thesis to be this type of "independent research".

Should your students conduct independent research and publication in the field of their PhD/MSc research topic or it can be in any other field of their major and interest?

The expectation is only within the broadly-interpreted PhD research topic, although I think it's great if students do research outside of their area (in their free time).

If their independent research is not in the field near to their PhD research, should they inform you about their other research projects or not?

If this work is happening while getting paid as a research assistant and during time that should be rightfully devoted to that assistantship, then I expect to know about the project. Otherwise, I would like to know about the project or at least that there is another project (and this is the proper etiquette), insomuch as it can affect or stall the student's progress.

Ultimately, however, it all comes down to progress. A student who is progressing normally towards a degree has much more latitude than a student who is not.

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I'm not a professor neither, but a previous grad student who had very loose/inexistent supervision. Here are my thoughts on the subject. I know that loose supervision of PhD students is popular on this site (see the frequently upvoted comment here), but I think caution is necessary. PhD students start grad school with various degrees of maturity and supervision should be tailored to every individual.

Dear professors, PhD students are your Padawans. That is, they should certainly not have to live in your shadow, but they probably do not fully know how to invest their efforts appropriately. Kindly telling them that, if they wish to pursue an academic career focusing the efforts on a subject is the way to go, is going to be valuable. Let them be free to follow your advice or not, but they'll know what to expect.

It also depends on the field I guess, but in mine (metrology/biomechanics), the chances of achieving good research worthy of publication in a good journal on your own are practically nonexistent. Even if they do manage to publish, if it's in several different fields, people will wonder what is their primary field of research, see the discussion on this thread.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying students have to be babysat, they should have to show that they can conduct research independently, that is the point (in my opinion) of pursuing a PhD degree. But if they do so with guidance, they will hopefully be independent and attractive for hiring committees.

What do you mean by independent research?

To me it means being able to do the following without the supervisor having to give instructions:

  • see a gap or a boundary in the current knowledge
  • come up with a plan to try to answer/expand it
  • ask for/marshal the necessary resources
  • do the experiments appropriately
  • know where and how to publish the results.
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This is a good point. I would encourage independent research when I'm relatively sure the student is ready for it/ can take care of the immediate business of graduating. –  PA6OTA Jul 2 at 18:00

I am not a professor but I would like to offer my views since my PhD was purely research (ie no teaching) and I only attended a 2-day research methodology class during my study.

What do you mean by independent research?

From my view, it refers to whether the individual has the capacity to make independent contribution to knowledge through original research. The quality of the independent research depends on depth and width of reading and querying relevant publications and experts on a critical level. Although there are times when knowledge is clear, there are also moments of confusion. Both moments should be given equal priority towards developing original research because they teach, unteach and re-teach us.

Should your students conduct independent research and publication in the field of their PhD/MSc research topic or it can be in any other field of their major and interest?

From my view, the choice of field does not matter. Amabile and Kramer (2011) suggest that if individuals have interest in their work, they are likely to develop the capacity to persevere. Both choice of field requires the implementation of learning and questioning effort until it makes sense. Though, I find that diving into an outside field will require more time and effort.

If their independent research is not in the field near to their PhD research, should they inform you about their other research projects or not?

Yes. There should be open communication on student's research load between the student and supervisor so that they can succeed in their jobs. For example, an experienced mentor is able to advise the student on how to better manage the student's research load, if he or she is informed. Louis and Sutton (1991) suggest that attention and cognitive thinking could suffer when individuals engage in switching activities such as in multitasking.

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I added links to the references (hopefully I got them right). If not please edit them. It looks like one is behind a paywall, but that is not a big deal: meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/752/…. –  StrongBad Jul 24 at 12:42

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