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I am a 2nd-year interdisciplinary PhD student, and I am pursuing a publication-based PhD.

I have been thinking about a new research idea that was never done before.

For example, say applying a specific computer science theory (say, automata theory) to a specific biological element or process (say, analyzing human bones), which was never done before; or, say, applying a specific cartographical (geographical information system) technique to analyze genes, etc.

There are risks involved with my idea.

I know for sure that this technique can be applied to achieve something new. However, I don't know if this technique can cover all aspects of that specific biological phenomenon. For example, if I go back to that bone example, say, I know for sure that automata theory can be applied to measure, say, bone density; however, I am not sure if this theory can analyze osteoporosis, predict bone marrow regernation, etc.

Since my time is limited as a PhD student, I am planning to talk to my supervisor about the possibility of writing a literature review and publishing it. I want to do a feasibility study so that I can pursue a full research project. That is why I am thinking of a literature review.

So, I wrote him an email:

Hello. I regularly see a lot of literature reviews or the so-called "state of the art" being published. Why don't we publish one?

Kind regards. Me.

He replied:

Hi,

Publishing a review requires a lot of time and knowledge. Basically, you should be an expert in the field. This also requires reading hundreds of papers. Typically, a professor who is well established in a field writes a review of a field he knows best. He already read those hundreds of papers, so he can work efficiently. Even though it takes time, it's a group effort.

Sure, I've published a few such articles, e.g., the one on molecular modelling in Chemical Reviews or about Nature Protocols.

Best, Your PhD supervisor.

Now, I have two questions:

  1. Should I discuss my new idea with my professor? In that case, is there any risk of pilferage?
  2. If he refuses to guide me or share the risk, should I abandon my idea or should I proceed with it myself?
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    I'm missing the connection between your idea of applying method X in field Y and writing a review paper. Could you clarify that? Jan 28 at 16:02
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    @coffee_into_plots, I want to do a feasibility study so that I can pursue a full research project. That is why I am thinking of a literature review.
    – user366312
    Jan 28 at 16:07
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    Ah, thanks. The reason I was confused is that in my field, doing a bit of reading/testing and then pitching an idea to your supervisor is very different (and much less involved) than a full literature review. Jan 28 at 16:08
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    You may be interested in the question At what stage of research career one can write a 'review article'? to better understand where your supervisor is coming from. There is a pretty wide range of types of review articles, with different levels of detail and comprehensiveness.
    – Anyon
    Jan 28 at 16:11
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    @JonCuster, You write a thesis, and nothing else. Even if you publish something, the PhD committee won't count that as part of the PhD.
    – user366312
    Jan 28 at 16:50

4 Answers 4

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I don't know what you expected from your email as it lacked all detail bout your ideas. So you got back an equally uninformed, general, response.

If your supervisor is ethical there should be no danger of pilferage. If he is not ethical then you need a different supervisor.

I don't understand your numbered point 2. If he refuses what, exactly? Or are you suggesting a collaboration.

Yes, you should talk to him about what you propose. He can, perhaps, give more explicit advice once he knows some details. You can then judge whether it is worth pursuing now as part of your degree. You can also always defer it to later if there is something with better potential that will get you done earlier.

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    I don't understand your numbered point ... exactly? Or are you suggesting a collaboration. - first, I need to know, how feasible my idea is as a research project, then I need to know if I need any collaboration.
    – user366312
    Jan 28 at 16:09
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    I don't (still) understand "refuses". Refuses to permit you? Refuses to help you?
    – Buffy
    Jan 28 at 16:11
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    If he refuses to guide me and says my idea is good but I should not pursue it as a PhD student and postpone it until I am an independent researcher, etc. I.e., he doesn't want to share risk.
    – user366312
    Jan 28 at 16:13
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    Once he better understands what you want to do, such advice would be valuable and probably worth following. But you need to give details to him and work over the issues.
    – Buffy
    Jan 28 at 16:15
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    I'd visit in person if possible. Much easier to work it out face to face.
    – Buffy
    Jan 28 at 16:16
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I interpret your question as saying you have some new idea that you think is worth pursuing. To be sure it is worth pursuing, you need to do a literature review, and you're thinking of turning that literature review into a review article.

If this interpretation is correct, you should certainly discuss with your supervisor, because it's got a glaring problem: review articles are very difficult to write. As your supervisor points out, it requires reading "hundreds of papers". If you decide to expand your literature review into a review article, you could easily be working on it for months. But your goal is only a feasibility study, which can usually be done much quicker than writing a review article. There's simply no need to write a review article.

So yes: discuss with your advisor, say you're not sure whether the idea is feasible, and they will probably be able to guide you towards answering the question of whether it's feasible.

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    For grad students, I would say a few months for a review article would be optimistic. There used to be a requirement to write a review article as a 3rd year in my program (US). The issue was that people would take more than a year to write something sufficiently insightful, and it was not very valued on the job market.
    – Dawn
    Jan 29 at 14:30
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The last thing a supervisor wants is for their student to wander around different topics and lose focus.

If it's something that interests you dearly, have a look by yourself first, like suggested above. But make sure it doesn't influence too much your current track. And then you need to decide whether is this something worth switching your PhD towards, then talk to your supervisor. Or whether you can grow connections bit by bit in that field and do a research associate position in that topic after you finish your PhD, or apply for a grant.

That's my recommendation.

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I think of these types of projects in stages. You appear to be on the road to this type of thinking by mentioning reviewing the literature before launching into a full project. However, I would proceed slightly differently.

The overall staged approach is iterative. You have the 2-day stage, the 2-week stage, the 2-month stage. (Or maybe your numbers are different, depending on how much attention you can give to something in an average working day.)

You have an idea and then you think to yourself, "What can I do in 2 days that would tell me if this idea is worth pursuing?" This might be something like looking through Google scholar and also seeing how hard it would be to get the data you need to proceed.

If there are no red flags, you proceed to the next stage. "What can I do in the next 2 weeks to see if this idea is worth pursuing?" This seems to be the stage you are at - the goal of your next meeting with your supervisor is to figure out some initial work that would tell you if there is anything promising to be done. It is probably not writing a review article, but it might involve reviewing literature. Perhaps conversations with other experts, etc.

Then, you launch into more real work on the project, but try to set yourself a cutoff. For me, I am often collaborating, and I figure out if we haven't made progress in 2 months then we are not sufficiently committed and need to have a heart-to-heart. Your cutoff time frame or questions may vary.

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