Thursday, February 12, 2009

Selective Viewing

Agree or disagree:

Graduate advisors should show grant proposals to their Ph.D. students so that students can see what is involved in a proposal (particularly a successful one).

I agree with this statement.

Agree or disagree:

When a Ph.D. student's research is funded by a grant, the student should see the grant proposal.

I also agree in general with this statement, but the situation may be complicated. I have known and advised students who, if shown a proposal related to their research, became so influenced by what they read that they lost the ability to think critically and independently about their own research.

This is not a good situation. Although it sometimes seems like one must have a ludicrous amount of preliminary data before getting a proposal funded, a proposal is still a proposal. There should be some element of discovery about the research, and there might be unexpected results. Some research outcomes discussed as likely in the proposal might become more unlikely as the research proceeds.

After a grant is funded, the proposal may be useful to read for its presentation of the context of the research, description of methods, and outline of ideas and hypotheses, but it should not be a rigid template for the research once the project is underway.

I have also seen cases in which students, after seeing the advisor's grant proposal, were unable to write about similar things in their own words when required to do so. I am not talking about plagiarism -- I am talking about being unable to think of any other way to express similar ideas. In fact, some students, after reading the proposal and then having to write about the research in their own words (e.g. in a written document related to an exam) wish they hadn't seen the proposal first.

For these students, the best way to proceed is to discuss the research with them, including ideas outlined in the proposal, but not show them the proposal until they've had some experience writing about the research.

For most students, reading the proposal that funded their research is a positive experience. By reading the proposal, they can understand more completely the motivation of the research, and have the ancillary benefit of seeing how a proposal is constructed. I think that in most cases, students are able to move beyond the confines of the proposal.

Even so, I've encountered enough exceptions that I don't have a one-size-fits-all rule that all students are automatically given the proposal to read. They can see a proposal -- every student should see (and write) a proposal -- but it doesn't have to be the proposal that funded their research.


Anonymous said...

One advantage of showing students proposals that wasn't mentioned in the post is that it models how thinking about the "big picture" and the details have to happen in concert for a research project to have an impact.

Sharing proposals with students also gives examples of how important it is to write clearly and to not take forever to write something.

I agree that the danger is that students may interpret the research plan too literally. This is related to the complicated issue of how accurate a research plan in a proposal is.

A related topic that comes up frequently in my dept. (chemical engineering) is how to manage IP issues. Students also need training in this and this is typically best done by open discussion from the beginning of any project.

Alyssa said...

...after seeing the advisor's grant proposal, were unable to write about similar things in their own words...

I totally agree with this, especially if the student is just starting out.

My supervisor showed me his grant proposal that my project was based on when I first started - and I found it so difficult to write about my research in my own words until more than a year into it.

It was good to see the grant, but it may have been detrimental to my initial progress.

Anonymous said...

first, in my field it is uncommon for any grad student to be supported by an advisor's grant (ie: stipend, tuition). We rely entirely on fellowships and TAships.

how about having students WRITE the proposal themselves? My dissertation research is entirely funded by proposals I have written, as CO PI (obviously with guidance from my advisor). As a result, I have a clue about how to write a proposal and not only what is in the budget, but how to make one.

Another useful advantage: no university overhead is allowed from grants that are intended for dissertation research.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,
Along the lines of your last two posts, I was wondering if at some point you could comment on the following. I am a new faculty member and have secured funding for a graduate student on one of my grants. My feeling is that a PhD student should be able to come up with his/her own research ideas with minimal guidance. But, their salary is paid from my grants which include specific tasks that must be accomplished, meaning, I need them to work on a project that I have formulated. I cannot afford to pay them to do something else. So how do you reconcile these two things? When I was a graduate student, my advisor was very senior with a huge umbrella of money for very broadly defined tasks. So my dissertation projects were essentially my own ideas. But what is a new faculty member to do? If you have a chance, I'd love to see a post on this topic!

John Vidale said...

Two quick thoughts -

for the 11:05 anonymous poster, my rule of thumb is half of effort goes towards proposed work, half toward exploration of new stuff for unfunded work and future proposals. If one is lucky, the same work is a logical extension of the proposal AND grist for more proposals, but sometimes an opportunity is too ripe and easy to put on a funding timeline, and ends up unfunded hit-and-run, subsidized by other funding.

I always give proposals to students. I'm saying the same things to them verbally, but in a less coherent way. Also, they are allegedly reading everyone else's points of view constantly through the literature. Some may have trouble putting the same ideas in their own words, but I wouldn't withhold such useful reference materials from them.

Also, my impression of a good proposal (mine) is that it does not have a dogmatic point of view, rather it reviews a problem, data, and initial interpretations of the data and all the directions it might lead.

Anonymous said...

@anon 11:05

As a grad student I was/am in a very similar situation. I worked on a funded project with about 60% of my time for the first years after joining the lab. However, I maintained a "side" project that I'd been developing with my adviser. I eventually decided that I really was in love with my side project and wanted to do that for my dissertation, and my PI was supportive of that. Meanwhile, my PI and myself have both applied for grants on that project.

The downside is that I've had to TA more than I would have to if I had chosen to work on the funded project.

My recommendation to you is to be as honest with your student as possible about how funding works. Tell them that you expect them to work hard on the funded project, but that you also expect them to develop and then work on an independent project. Then, you can apply for grants with them on that project.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I know a professor who requires students to rewrite his funded proposals to help them take ownership of the projects. He feels that he has to deliver on the funded work, but wants the students to have a part in project development. It's a nice idea, but in practice I think it's a little weird.

If research is a process of discovery, then giving a student a project to start with shouldn't hamper her development too much. The student will probably take the project in a direction that no other person would. A unique perspective combined with knowledge gained as the research progresses should help the student make the work her own.

Ms.PhD said...

As a grad student, I personally was allowed to read the grant I was funded (in part) by only AFTER I had finished my thesis work. That was very eye-opening, because it really drove home the following points:

a) none of the approaches that you proposed will actually work as you expected

b) nobody knows what the results will actually be

c) everyone looks at the same problems differently

d) sometimes the thing you used as a backup plan ends up being wayyyyy more interesting