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:

  1. The ability to select a small number of significant research contributions from a larger set of published papers, and justify that selection.
  2. The ability to articulate a rationale for selection of these papers, on the basis of significance of the results, novelty of the approach, etc.
  3. The ability to relate the papers to one another, and to other research in the literature.
  4. 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.
  5. The ability to suggest alternative approaches to answering the research questions posed in these papers.
  6. The ability to identify limitations on the results reported in the papers, along with their implications.
  7. 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…

Benchmarking to assess validity of data homogenization algorithms

5 Comments

  1. Hah, I’d point out a few initial steps… 1. get some funding. 2. get more funding 3. get even more funding 4. get to steve’s list.

  2. Who is responsible for training the candidates in the skills?

    What is the plan for those that miss the milestones?

    My experience of graduate education is that they expend a lot of energy on setting standards, and little or no energy to answering the preceding questions.

  3. Robert: Most of this is the responsibility of the faculty supervisor, with help from the student’s thesis committee. Which makes the choice of a supervisor the single most important aspect of grad school. Pick a supervisor who is an established researcher with a strong publication record, who also looks after her graduate students’ research careers properly. And make sure your personalities are compatible – you’ll have to work alongside your supervisor (as an apprentice researcher) for a number of years. If you don’t work well together, grad school will be a miserable experience.
    Decent departments also run research methods courses, which provide a basic grounding in these skills (I run one for our department, although I don’t teach it every year).

  4. “Decent departments also run research methods courses, which provide a basic grounding in these skills (I run one for our department, although I don’t teach it every year).”

    Very wise!

    “Most of this is the responsibility of the faculty supervisor, with help from the student’s thesis committee. Which makes the choice of a supervisor the single most important aspect of grad school.”

    I suppose what I’m trying to suggest is that while clear expectations for learners are obviously a key need, many educational enterprises (including mine, training medical doctors) would benefit from clearer expectations for teachers as well. Teachers also have (or lack) skills and personality traits that are critical to their success or failure as mentors.

    Both students and instructors need there to be some sort of plan in place if they are not meeting expectations. Is there remediation? (Have the skills in which the person is deficient even been taught to them in the first place?) Is there a plan for people with terrible interpersonal skills, alcohol and drug problems, or burnout?

    It sounds like your department is taking positive steps to improve candidates’ education. I’m not criticizing. I just want to put a little word in for the importance of shining a light in two places: the skills and attitudes of the teachers themselves, and the plan for what’s going to happen when things aren’t working for whatever reason. These things are a problem in my field, perhaps not in yours!

  5. The ability to work hard at hard problems for long times, identify your mistakes and correct them. (as additions). The watchword for graduate education is that if it was easy, someone would have published it already.

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