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I am in the last months of my MSc and I have done my thesis. I have published some conference papers but most of them were literature reviews. My MSc thesis is about solving wave equations by means of method of potentials and boundary elements. I am interested in pursuing research in another field (differential equations) but I have no idea how to start any topic that may lead to a journal publication.

By asking this question, I want to understand how a research student, whether a recently graduated MSc student or a PhD student, can start searching for a new research topic and develop some researches based on his own interests. Specially, I would like to know:

  • To what extent should a graduate student be dependent on faculty members? How can he be more independent and start his own research activities?
  • Is it a good idea that the graduate work on another topic with the faculty member or work independently on a more recent research topic?
  • If the person is in a research group or at the university, is it a good idea or is it ethical that he develop his own research interests, besides to the topics which are being developed in that institute?
  • How should a graduate student manage this and make some progress in the research fields of his own interest? (In particular, sometimes the faculty members are not interested in the topics you are interested in and the person has to start his own research activity.)

And also, if this research is part of his independent research, at the time of publishing what affiliation should be used in the publications. Should it be "Independent Scholar" as mentioned in this link or something else? This is important in academic publications, because sometimes, the person is in a research group, but he is publishing a paper as part of his own researches not the things he is doing in that institute; in this case, has he mention that institute's affiliation or use his own one? So please make it clear that how the affiliation would be when the person does research independently in the cases like when he is not working in a research group or he is working with a professor or research group but his publication is output of his own research activities? It is a little unclear.

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Context: I'm an older PhD student (mid-50s) and had a couple of publications before entering the PhD program. I'm in an interdisciplinary field where there are few well-established research programs. It's very common for PhD students to embark on their own research interests that are different from their advisers. Myself, I started submitting papers after my first semester based on class projects and side projects. I even developed a paper that started as my answer to a question on our Candidacy Exam. I was a research assistant for three years with sole responsibility for a very complex Agent-based Modeling simulation.

To what extent should a graduate student be dependent on faculty members? How can he be more independent and start his own research activities?

Start as soon as possible to develop your own intellectual curiosity. This involves thinking hard about the research in your field relative to the fundamental questions in the field. This is more than "picking sides" in intellectual debates. It involves developing mental models of your field, the various research methods, research questions, and research results. What's important? What is not?

You might start with a single important paper. Look at the section of the paper where they describe opportunities for further research, or maybe limitations. Read other papers that critique this important paper. All the time, you should be asking yourself: "What do I think should be done to improve/extend/solidify this research?"

You could also start with a survey paper, which often include extensive discussions of future research directions.

As soon as possible, you should put your intellectual curiosity into action. I'm fond of class projects and papers for that but not all disciplines have courses that support project work. Either way, "directed reading" courses are ideal settings to write conference or journal papers of your choice under the supervision of a professor (not necessarily your adviser).

Is it a good idea [to do] the graduate work on another topic with the faculty member or work independently on a more recent research topic?

If your intellectual curiosity leads you to research questions/methods that can be successfully done in collaboration with a faculty member, then approach them and suggest a collaboration. If, like me, your interests and ideas lead elsewhere, then do your research independently.

If the person is in a research group or at the university, is it a good idea or is it ethical that he develop his own research interests, besides to the topics which are being developed in that institute?

It's a good idea to develop and invest in your own research interests if they diverge from your research group. There is no problem with ethics if you are open and forthcoming about what you are doing and why. This might go against the cultural norms of the university or research group, but you should make decisions you feel good about in terms of your ethics and values. If other people aren't happy with them or push back, then my view is that is their problem. If they have power, you may suffer negative consequences. So be it. Don't bow before people in power just because they are in power.

How should a graduate student manage this and make some progress in the research fields of his own interest? (In particular, sometimes the faculty members are not interested in the topics you are interested in and the person has to start his own research activity.)

Make a work plan. What is your output (results, papers, articles)? Where will you submit it? In what sequence? How much time will it take -- daily, weekly, monthly? If you can't make a plan that answers these questions, recruit a mentor. It could be anyone who you respect and who knows your field, maybe faculty at your university or maybe someone far distant.

In general, the more you can weave your independent research into your other activities and projects, the better off you will be. That's why I like class projects. But same goes for research assistant work, industry work, or other work. Look for as much synergy between all these activities as you can.

[...] if this research is part of his independent research, [...] what affiliation should be used in the publications? Should it be "Independent Scholar" as mentioned in this link or something else?

No, you shouldn't use "Independent Scholar" as affiliation as long as you have an official affiliation as a graduate student, post-doc, or other. You should always use your primary affiliation, even if it is Physics and your paper is in Art History. The exception is if you have multiple official affiliations (e.g. Visiting Researcher) and your research was done at or was supported by these other affiliated institutions.

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    @Parsa, it sounds as if you are approaching this from the wrong perspective. You should not expect to spend "a few days of the week" working on other projects and not on your dissertation. Yes, you are allowed to work on other projects - how could anyone stop you from thinking about whatever you want? But you should expect that the research group will be a full time job. Taking off "a few days" each week is almost certainly a bad idea. – Oswald Veblen Jul 1 '14 at 17:51
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As a graduate student, you are not yet expected to conduct research that is completely independent of an advisor or mentor. The fundamental goal of (doctoral) graduate education is to develop your research ability so that you have the ability work completely independently after you graduate. There is nothing wrong with being "dependent" on your advisor, in a certain sense, when you are still in graduate school. Of course, you will have to do your own work to earn the degree.

You should start thinking about your own research interests, but budget your time and prioritize your projects appropriately. If you have the time, energy, and ability to work on independent research while also working on your dissertation, that's fine.

But be careful: it is easy to underestimate the amount of effort required to finish the dissertation. And, in general, you want to have an excellent dissertation if you are planning to continue in academia. So a certain amount of focus and single-mindedness is needed to complete your degree well. Don't spread your effort too thin.

You should also make sure that your advisor is aware if you are making any serious progress on other research - at the least, so that they know you are also still serious about your dissertation. It would be risky to keep your advisor in the dark, if only because they may feel you are not dedicating sufficient time to your dissertation. And be ready to sell your project to your advisor, as described by Yuichiro Fujiwara.

Finally, if you are a graduate student at a university or research group, then your affiliation is that university or research group. This is no different than for a faculty member at the university.

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    As a graduate student, you are not expected to conduct independent research. — [citation needed]!!!!!! I certainly expect my graduate students to conduct independent research, just as my advisor did. – JeffE Jul 1 '14 at 2:02
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    I mention "my" graduate students because "graduate students for whom I have agreed to be an advisor" takes too long to type. I stand by my comment. I expect "my" students to work independently, without my guidance, before they finish their degree: At least one publication without me is an ironclad PhD requirement. – JeffE Jul 1 '14 at 12:56
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    @JeffE: that's an admirable standard, but it is far from typical to expect every graduate student in my own field (math) to publish an independent paper before getting their PhD. I obtained my own degree from a top-20 school and very few of my fellow graduate students would have graduated if they needed to meet that requirement. Indeed they say that the median number of papers per author in MathSciNet is 1 (one), and that one is typically a write up of the main results of the thesis. – Oswald Veblen Jul 1 '14 at 17:41
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    @Parsa: the question is whether you are supported by the institute, not whether they have a separate budget for each of your projects. As a student at a school, your affiliation is that school. There are some reasons to pick "independent scholar" if you have a non-academic job and need to separate your research from your employment, but as a student those reasons don't apply. Personally, I would view it as slightly misleading for a student to list "independent scholar" as an affiliation. – Oswald Veblen Jul 1 '14 at 17:47
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    @Parsa: in the very hypothetical situation that you end up in a university graduate program where you are not allowed to mention the name of your university as your affiliation on papers that you publish, they will tell you. What you are talking about sounds more like private research labs or R&D divisions of companies (and would not even apply to all of these). Universities, by and large, want to get their name on as many good papers as possible. – Oswald Veblen Jul 1 '14 at 17:55

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