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Warning, may contain a PhD

Recently saw a comment by a student about not being advised before hand that doing a PhD had many difficulties and challenges. However, my first reaction reading that text was to start laughing. Of course, all that was said was true. But the first thing that came to my mind was the famous warning when you ask for a sundae with nuts at a McDonald : you received (at least in North America) the nuts in a small, sealed separate bag (think allergies); this bag has a warning that reads (seriously): may contain nuts!

Doh!

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PhD thesis examination: you are the expert, behave like one!

An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.

– Niels Bohr

Quite interestingly graduate studies usually take about 5 years total in order to obtain a PhD. It can sometimes be one year less or one or a few years over (too long is usually not seen as a good sign however). Assuming that this is basically your full time occupation, have you notice that at the end of this time frame, you will have reached about 10000 hours of dedicate training in your field.

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Talk with your thesis advisor on a regular basis

Each research group has its own dynamics. In some, entering grad students get a very detailed “charge” list saying for example, there is a group meeting every week, so on and so forth.

What ever those dynamics are, as a graduate student you should learn quickly how busy is your thesis advisor and start planning regular meeting with him/her. Do not hesitate to initiate a request to meet. These, in my opinion after being involved in supervising or co-supervising over 45 graduate students, should happen:

  • At least once a year to discuss the general direction of your research project and, starting at the end of year 2 (PhD), to plan the necessary steps toward your thesis completion 😉
  • Every time you think you are ready to publish a manuscript (but before spending too much time writing it!).
  • Every time you have significant new results (if not presented at the group meeting or if your group does not have group meetings).
  • At least once a month to avoid getting “stuck” for too long (again regular group meetings really help in this regards).

Of course, thesis advisors are also busy peoples, won’t be available for you 24/7 and one of their goal is to get you on the road to become an independant researcher yourself. However as a grad student, you should know that most thesis advisors loved the interaction with students and are available on a regular basis to discuss with them.

The minority of advisors that are consistantly  “unavailable” are usually well-known within their University / Department. It is your task as a prospective grad student to gather this information, to ask your future advisor the tough questions before signing for this significant portion of your life.

PhD project or PhD projects?

Two of my PhD students have successfully defended their thesis in the past three weeks. For both of them, they have accomplished what constituted the biggest project (in term of scope and time) of their life yet.

However, is it really one project or a collection of multiple projects forming a whole, called a PhD thesis?

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