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I started grad school last September, and so far have been primarily busy with courses, but have been trying to do a little research on the side whenever I can. I recently finished all my courses though, and now I'm expected to dive into research.

My advisor hasn't assigned me a project and expects me to come up with one on my own. I don't mind this really, I like the freedom to work on whatever I want. However, this was only really feasible when I was in my lab and surrounded by senior PhD students with whom I could bounce ideas off and get a lot of guidance from.

However, now I'm stuck at home because of the COVID19 lockdown and don't really know how to productively spend my time doing research. My advisor is busy taking care of his family at home because of the lockdown, so he isn't very responsive right now understandably. I'm all alone at home so I don't have the guidance of senior PhD students either. I've tried messaging senior PhD students but it's not fair for me to constantly be harassing them for help...

Apart from heavily guided stuff in undergrad, I have next to no real research experience... Since I assume I'll be stuck at home for the next several months, how can I be productive research wise with basically no guidance or help from anyone? I don't want to just waste the next few months...

FYI, I'm doing research in engineering but everything is done using simulations, so while I have all the tools and equipment I need to do research at home, I just don't have the experience or guidance to efficiently do so.

I've been trying to just read papers in the meantime, but I can only read so many before I get sick of it. I don't want to just be reading papers for 40 hours a week for the next 3 months...

  • I voted to close because this question is essentially "How do I work from home?" which is not specific to academia. There are many articles online which will answer that question. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 28 at 2:31
  • If you have questions specific to your research, I suggest asking your supervisor. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 28 at 2:31
  • @AnonymousPhysicist This about how to do research from home, something very specific to academia. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 28 at 6:29
  • @MassimoOrtolano No it is not. The "specificity" is just boat programming. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 28 at 15:04
  • @AnonymousPhysicist The mindset required for research work and the relationship with a supervisor in academia are quite different from that of most of industry jobs, and you can see an answer that addresses exactly this point. – Massimo Ortolano Mar 28 at 15:11
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In my experience scientific PhD life roughly looks like this

while funding > 0:
    gap = gapAnalysis(literature)
    rq = formulateResearchQuestion(gap, phd_topic=None)
    experiment, performance_metric = design_experiment(rq)

    data = experiment.perform()
    results = performance_metric(data)

    paper = Paper(intro=contributions(rq, gap), 
                  relatedWork=gap, 
                  methods=experiment.description(),
                  results=(data, results),
                  discussion=defend(contributions(rq, gap))
                 )
    paper.addSupervisorFeedback()
    paper.peerReview()
    paper.publish()

Guidance on what to do comes from your experimental design, which is heavily informed by your research question. If you are unsure about your experimental design, i.e., what experiment you want to perform, than you should think more about how to test the consequences/implications of your research question. If you are unsure about your research question, you need to reflect on the knowledge gaps in the literature and on how to approach them. If you are not even sure what the gaps in your area are, you will have to go back to the drawing board and spend more time reading papers with a focus on open questions.

Personally, I have noticed that people in 'pure' engineering (by that I mean non-interdisciplinary) often do things backwards. They start with an experiment, i.e., build some system / create some model, then try to come up with useful research questions that fit with the experiment post-hoc, and, finally, try to find related work that supplements this idea. This hinges a lot on strong guidance from your supervisor, because you start doing stuff without knowing if it will be relevant to the community; whereas your supervisor, knowing the literature, does.

So, the answer to your question is: Likely, you will have to read more literature. You can also consider creating more documentation around what you are doing: spreadsheets / notes for papers, drafts of experimental designs, documentation of code or results, ... This will help with long distance supervision, because your supervisor can look at those documents in his own time and then provide async feedback via comments / email.

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  • Lol, +1 for the Python code. – 6005 Mar 28 at 21:20
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You can try to fill the gaps in your knowledge and skills. For example, learn some techniques that are commonly used in your field. Even if you will not need them for your immediate project, there is a chance that they will be useful for the next one. For example, if you do engineering, you are likely to need to write some code, so you can improve your software engineering skills. Your colleagues may give you some more ideas on what is useful to learn.

If you feel sick of reading papers alone, you might try to reach to other junior students and form a virtual study group where you discuss and critically analyze recently published papers. You may actually come up with some ideas for research project based on the discussions. Good luck!

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1

First, although your anxiety about not knowing how to research productively without the normal support structures is completely understandable, here’s a suggestion: try it. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. You may end up being successful beyond your expectations, and all the anxiety and worry would have turned out to be premature.

Second, and this is equally important: you need to make your advisor, and more generally your department’s leadership (graduate program chair, and possibly department chair and others coordinating the response to the COVID-19 crisis) aware of your concerns. I can tell you they have all been really busy lately coming up with appropriate responses to the situation and solving all kinds of problems that come up all day, pretty much every day for the last few weeks. It’s completely possible that the particular difficulty you are concerned about is something that’s escaped their attention amidst all the noise and other urgent (probably more urgent than this one, let’s be honest) problems. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care, or wouldn’t want to help or wouldn’t be able to help if they were aware of the issue. So reach out to them and discuss it. In a well-managed department they would add it to their list of things to figure out, and hopefully come up soon with some workable solutions.

At the very least, if you talk to the department administrators they might reassure you that although you can indeed expect to have somewhat reduced productivity in your research endeavors while working from home, the same is true for everyone else and they will be adjusting their expectations accordingly and not penalize you. This could help relieve some of the stress and anxiety if nothing else.

Good luck!

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