8

I'll be starting my PhD in the next fall. I already looked over the internet for advice for a beginner, even read two books on the subjects. Still, there is one point I haven't seen discussed as I wanted, it's the time and the way the student should be investing in catching up on his field and his specific topic, I'm speaking about the bibliographic part. For sure a student needs a lot of (continuous) input, but at the end he'll be solely judged on his output. From my previous research project, I'm not really confident in my way of balancing between going through articles/textbook material and trying to solve my own problematics. To be honest, it sometimes feels like a sneaky way of procrastinating: I'd tell myself that I'm still not ready to tackle my problem and that I need to make a little "detour" by existing works; and when it's done I don't feel more at ease to answer my questions. Or is it a normal aspect of research?

In my specific case, I'll be working on a quite new subject (string theory) when I only had advanced lecture of quantum field theory and general relativity; so I'm thinking about going through the canonical textbook on the subject during the summer, do most of the exercises and derivations in there (which already represents hundreds of hours invested), maybe revising some mathematical tools I need to be really familiar with. Once I'll have a general idea of the topic I'll jump to the main articles in relation to my thesis. I also know that I will be using numerical tools (Monte Carlo methods) and will need to get conformable with that. So far I only have a superficial knowledge and use of the tool. Does it seem like a good use of my time? I already know that time and willpower are limited resources in grad school and I really don't want my desire to do well to burn me out from the beginning.

7

To be honest, it sometimes feels like a sneaky way of procrastinating: I'd tell myself that I'm still not ready to tackle my problem and that I need to make a little "detour" by existing works; and when it's done I don't feel more at ease to answer my questions. Or is it a normal aspect of research?

It is probably the most common way that new grad students attempt (consciously or otherwise) to avoid doing research :)

You have to remember that prior knowledge is an ocean you're swimming in, not a cup that you have to finish drinking. There's literally no way to "read all the prior literature": there's always something more.

General reading is perfectly fine, but when you have a problem to work on, it's best to break down bibliographic research into:

  • what does prior work say about your problem and what's the key open question (and this is something your advisor can help you with)
  • Once you start thinking about a specific problem and are trying to apply some specific tools, is there material to help you understand those tools better ?
  • When you're writing up, what related (not prior) work should you be aware of ?

At each stage, read only as much as you absolutely need to, in order to avoid going down rabbit holes. And remember, as a new Ph.D student, it's not a terrible thing if you reinvent something that someone discovered before, and only learn of this after the fact. You just don't that happening at your dissertation defense :)

| improve this answer | |
  • 5
    ..but do go down rabbit holes occassionally. Some of them have tasty carrots at the bottom! Not too often, though. – JeffE May 17 '13 at 1:01
  • I agree with JeffE. I chased a rabbit down its hole all summer last year, only to end up proving to myself why Physical Chemists use the standard water molecule for hydration shell calculations as opposed to Hydroxide or Hydronium or something more exotic. If nothing else, I now know I don't have to waste precious computer time duplicating my experiments with those variations on water. – Jonathan Landrum May 23 '13 at 14:16
3

That you are thinking about these matters is a very good start. You need to remember that exactly what you need to know and to read up on will only be known in a genral sense. your PhD project theme will provide this general direction. What details you need to pick up in terms of numerical methods etc. will to a lrger extent develop as your research develops. So you do not need to worry about what you could possibly have use for. You probably know key areas relavant to the topic.

So, you need to lay a broad foundation and read up on the topic and supporting areas (fields). If there are key methods or equivalent you can start looking at that as well. However,I ould expect your advisor will also provide guidance in setting up direction through course work and suggesting reading. I would personally not expect a student to have a complete background by the time he or she starts.

So, as I state earlier, that you are thinking about this is very good but you should not worry too much because you will not know the details until you have the PhD project clearly defined and started woring with your future advisor. So any knowledge you can gain will be a bonus but you are not expected to finish your PhD until you have completed your PhD studies.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.