My department is busy revising the set of milestones our PhD students need to meet in the course of their studies. The milestones are intended to ensure each student is making steady progress, and to identify (early!) any problems. At the moment they don’t really do this well, in part because the faculty all seem to have different ideas about what we should expect at each milestone. (This is probably a special case of the general rule that if you gather n professors together, they will express at least n+1 mutually incompatible opinions). As a result, the students don’t really know what’s expected of them, and hence spend far longer in the PhD program than they would need to if they received clear guidance.
Anyway, in order to be helpful, I wrote down what I think are the set of skills that a PhD student needs to demonstrate early in the program, as a prerequisite for becoming a successful researcher:
- The ability to select a small number of significant research contributions from a larger set of published papers, and justify that selection.
- The ability to articulate a rationale for selection of these papers, on the basis of significance of the results, novelty of the approach, etc.
- The ability to relate the papers to one another, and to other research in the literature.
- The ability to critique the research methods used in these papers, the strengths and weaknesses of these methods, and likely threats to validity, whether acknowledged in the papers or not.
- The ability to suggest alternative approaches to answering the research questions posed in these papers.
- The ability to identify limitations on the results reported in the papers, along with their implications.
- The ability to identify and prioritize lines of investigation for further research, based on limitations of the research described in the papers and/or important open problems that the papers fail to answer.
My suggestion is that at the end of the first year of the PhD program, each student should demonstrate development of these skills by writing a short report that selects and critiques a handful (4-6) of papers in a particular subfield. If a student can’t do this well, they’re probably not going to succeed in the PhD program.
My proposal has now gone to the relevant committee (“where good ideas go to die™”), so we’ll see what happens…