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I'm a brand-new (read: started 3 weeks ago) Ph.D. student in Computer Engineering at an R1 institution in the U.S. I was offered a position in a particular lab due to some prior experience I had on a topic of interest; my funding isn't tied to this particular lab though. The faculty member heading the lab offered me the chance to start early and get a head start on research this summer, which I gladly accepted.

As I said, I'm about 3 weeks in now, and I'm starting to get worried about the feasibility of the task they've assigned to me. Part of me wants to just chalk it up to my own inexperience and tell myself that it's nothing, but I had an unsettling experience with one of the other graduate students recently. Specifically, he told me that he had been originally assigned to work on the same task, and after some research he had concluded that it was infeasible at best (due to the sheer complexity of it) and a waste of time at worst (since even if it was completed, its performance would be terrible compared to existing applications). This grad student is getting ready to graduate with his M.S., so he's not brand-new like I am.

So my questions are: (1) do my concerns about the feasibility of the task have any substance (given my inexperience with large research projects) and (2) if they do, how do I approach my adviser/faculty member with them?

  • This is obviously not always the case, but I'd take with a grain of salt the opinion of the PhD student who has opted to leave early with a masters. Perhaps there's a great reason why they're stopping with an MS, but it could also be that research wasn't for them, which could influence their assessment of feasibility. Then again, you never specified if they were PhD or MS track...so this could be an irrelevant comment. – marcman Jun 24 '15 at 16:52
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Ultimately you are the judge but by the looks of it, I would consider 3 weeks as too early to decide if a task is feasible or not. I am assuming that you know the colleague who graduated just for 3 weeks. That is a short time to know someone and calibrate their opinions with your own understanding and capabilities.

If the supervisor has given you the task despite the other colleague did not doing much on it there might be some weight in the task. I would suggest you do your own thorough investigation and give at least 3-4 more weeks trying to understand all aspects of the task at hand. Prepare a document and clearly mention what are the risks and opportunities in front of you, what are the related works surrounding the task.

At the same time, try to best gauge the intentions of involved folks, may be ask questions to other people around the lab, find experts online and write mails.

With this strategy, I think, at best you will lead to some groundbreaking ideas or findings and at worst you will learn a lesson in how to systemically conduct research, gauge opinions of others and strengthen the collaboration channels.

Hope this helps.

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Moreover I agree with Ketan, I just want to add a few things though 1. Talk to the grad student and try to understand why he feels that the task would not work or even if it did then it won't be better than the existing one. Try to get his logic behind this conclusion. Also ask if he could let you check his calculations and documentation of the task when he did it.

After doing so, if you also come to the same conclusion that the task will not work out then I would suggest that you make a step by step report with proper references and present it to your supervisor one on one and show your concern. Do remember that you will have to defend you point so be ready for it.

And the most important thing of all, be very very polite in doing so and try to give him a feeling that you encountered a confusion and you seek his help!!!

Good luck

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    Also consider if there are ways that you could simplify the project to make it more feasible; you might suggest these to your supervisor. – mhwombat Jun 24 '15 at 18:44

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