Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Expanding (or Contracting) Grad Universe

If you advise PhD students, do you have an advising philosophy in terms of the scope of projects for students just starting their PhD research? I know there are big labs in which grad students are cogs and do a particular part of a large project involving many people, and I know there are fields in which the PhD research is entirely student-driven, from idea to dissertation. In my field, there is a lot of variability, and this gives some flexibility in advising style. To some extent, the scope of the project can be modified to suit the student's interests and abilities, but, at least for the early phases of the PhD research, the advisor's philosophy about types and scopes of projects is the starting framework.

I ask my question about advising philosophy in that context. I think the question is applicable in cases in which the advisor determines the project (or, at least, most of it) and in cases in which there is more room for the student to take the research in new directions.

Here are two examples of different approaches:

The Contraction Approach: The advisor starts grad students on projects that involve several to many different components, sees how the students do or what particularly grabs their interest, and then the dissertation research proceeds accordingly. In some cases, no contraction of the scope is necessary, but in others, some components of the project are jettisoned. I think this is a reasonable approach as long as what is left still comprises dissertation-level research. Of course, another possible outcome is that the student does not succeed with any component of the research, even when the scope has been reduced, and then everyone has to make a new plan.

Pros: Students are exposed to an array of possibilities and, ideally, one or more will catch their interest and therefore what ends up being the dissertation research is what most interests the student.

Cons: Students can be overwhelmed. Particularly if a student doesn't know how to organize their time to make progress on their research (perhaps while also taking classes and/or working as a teaching assistant) or is easily discouraged by the obstacles that always arise in the course of research, having too many choices can result in no progress on any of the possible research avenues. 

The Expansion Approach: The advisor starts students on one or a few research activities, sees how they do, then the research expands from there depending on student ability and interest. In some cases, the expansion can be rapid and large; in others, not so much, but still represents a widening of the project's scope from the beginning stages. I think this is a reasonable approach as long as the student knows that the research scope must widen from the first small steps, and there is good communication about how much expansion is expected/desirable.

Pros: Students can master some fundamental techniques or concepts before moving on to new or more complex aspects of the research, building a strong foundation for later research.

Cons: Students may be bored by the first research activities, particularly if these mostly involve technical things, and may therefore never become engaged in the overall research. Also, students may feel that the early research activities are "enough", and anything else is "too much". It may not be clear how fast or how much the scope needs to change, so it can be difficult to move the research much beyond the early stages.

I suppose we could also add The Plateau Approach, in which the research activities are pre-determined, and the students just has to start on them, do them, and finish. That isn't necessarily as cog-like as it sounds, but I focused on the other two approaches because those are closer to descriptions of advising methods I have tried.

In theory, the Expansion Approach makes a lot of sense to me, but in practice, I now tend towards the Contraction Approach, even though it has pitfalls as well. I have had too many situations, mostly early in my advising career, in which the Expansion Approach resulted in a student who could never see the "big picture" of the research and who couldn't (or wouldn't) move beyond the early stages of the research. In my field, that's fine for undergrad research or an MS, but not for a PhD.

Of course every student and every project is different, so even if an advisor has an advising philosophy such as one of these (or something else), it's good to have some flexibility. Even so, this brings me back to my original question about whether you, advisors of PhD students, tend to have a particular approach that you favor (because it works? because you think this is how things should work?) when advising PhD students.


Anonymous said...

I don't know what my approach would be called, but I try to make sure every student has one major project and one minor project. If the major one works, great. If not, the minor one has the scope to grow into a phd and gives them experience of a different method / approach. It seems to have worked so far, but I've only had a couple of students.

Anonymous said...

I know this question is for PhD advisors, but I may give my two cents from a PhD student's perspective. I was "raised" by the Expansion Approach and it worked out great for me. It's impossible to have the big picture when you start out and it was crucial for me that my own female science prof carved out my project idea and first roadmap together with me. At first, it was rather small, concisely defined, and manageable so I could get right to it. Then it quickly flourished into a universe of exciting research ideas in my first year. The trick was that I felt it's my own idea and customized PhD project and that kept me motivated throughout the rough patches of early PhD time. Now I'm about to finish up and I'll definitely stay in my research area because I own it now and I'm writing up a post-doc proposal entirely on my own. It needs time to develop scientific independence and I was really fortunate to enjoy such a superb mentoring from my prof.

Anonymous said...

As a student I really liked the Contraction Approach. I felt like I was given a fabulous smorgasbord of possibilities and I could select what looked interesting from a wide array of possibilities. It was very exciting, and eventually my research developed focus and I was passionate about the problems that were the core of my research.

Anonymous said...

If you think about the progression of an academic career, itwould be an expansion approach. You work on a narrow problem during your PhD, writing a dissertation on a very specific topic. Then, as you become an independent PI, you have many projects that you oversee. It's the same in non-academic careers - people might start out as an entry-level engineer focusing on just their problem, and then if they get promoted to project manager, they will oversee more problems. So I would definitely say career progressions are expansion approaches and this makes sense - you can't really get the big picture and manage projects until you've done the entry-level stuff where you're responsible for pretty specific tasks.

School (coursework) is the contraction approach though. You start out taking core requirements when you begin, and then you figure out your interests and take more specific electives. This definitely works - it makes no sense to take Quantum and Numerical Theory of ElectroMagnetic Photonic Spin of Microparticles and then move on to General Chemistry and Physics.

Which situation is being a grad student more like? On one hand, grad students are in school, but they're mostly doing research and not coursework so it's sort of like career progression...hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

This may show my limitations as an advisor, but I have had more success with contraction than with expansion. Some students would do well with either, some can't do either, but I have had more advising disasters with starting slow than with starting broad and then focusing.

GMP said...

For a beginning student, I generally assign a small portion off of a large mature project to cut their teeth; something that I know is doable and will result in a publication. The idea is that in the first 1.5-2 yrs they will spend a lot of time on coursework, so they can ramp up with this well-defined smaller project and get a solid journal publication and maybe a conference or two and be able to write up a Master's thesis after 1.5-2 yrs with me (I always encourage them to get an MS en route to a PhD). It's important to give them something that is doable but that they can own.

Around the end of year 1, we start talking about what the PhD project will be. This part depends where I am in the funding cycle, ideally I just got a new grant and the student is set for the next 3 years. In that case I take the contraction approach -- I will have them read the proposal(s) and think about what they'd like to do among the things I have funding for.

Also, I encourage students to have a major and a satellite project (or two) for their PhD, but it really doesn't work with everyone. There are some students who are smart and able, and can handle the variety and enjoy it. There are others who can only do one thing at a time to be able to make progress. But during the "cutting teeth" period before the MS it becomes clear what works best for the student.

BugDoc said...

I tend to do the contraction approach, but to avoid the cons, my students tend to start with 2 different projects, rather than have a hand in many. One project is usually more of a "sure thing", i.e., the next logical step from a well developed project we already have in the lab, and a second project can be more developmental and they can choose to go in any direction they want with that (within reason). After a year in the lab, we assess progress and depending on how the data looks, the student can continue with both projects, or focus more on what looks promising and (hopefully) has captured their interest.

Anonymous said...

My PhD advisor put me on the Contraction Plan, and I am ever grateful. He was a newbie himself, and may not have put a lot of thought into it. On the other hand, there were three of us in the lab while I was there. Two of us were on the Contraction Plan and one was on the Expansion Plan, by which I mean the If-the-project-is-easy-enough-she-may-get-something-done-maybe-pretty-please Plan.
I took a similar approach as a new PI. I was not at palace that was as competitive as where I trained, and the average grad student would probably have been considered inadmissible if they were not viewed simply as a source of cheap labor. But about a third of them were good to excellent. So I had two very good students, and I gave them a few things to try out and let them find their way. They both did beautiful work, and really owned it. I had another student, hard worker, organized, wonderful lab citizen, all around lovely young woman, but never developed any intellectual independence. I put her on a very well defined project, and found that as long as I kept it well defined for her, she could get things done. If I were still running a lab, I would hire her as a super-tech and pay her a very, very good salary. I would not hire her as an actual postdoc or a faculty member.
My somewhat rambling point is, as the wand chooses the wizard, so the plan chooses the student.

Elizabeth said...

I don't have experience from the advisor's point of view (I'm a postdoc), but as a scientist my preferred process is to start off with "service work" and then expand into bigger/more important projects. I like this because while I am working on a simple, well-defined project I can learn my way around the experiment, the software, and the people involved without also grappling with difficult concepts. Then, when it's time to take on more difficult projects, all the tools (like software etc) are second-nature and I am more free to focus on the ideas.

Anonymous said...

Agree that a good student can handle either approach and do fine, it's the students who struggle at first who are most at risk of failing at one but perhaps not the other approach (and it can be difficult to tell which will be the case in advance). Also, this is controversial I am sure, but I have found in my limited advising experience that students who were undergrads at liberal arts colleges have the most trouble with a wide array of research possibilities, even those students who did research as undergrads (which these days is most students applying to grad schools).

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize most advisers did all this planning for their grad students. I guess you could say my adviser followed the contraction approach, but I still came up with five of the six projects I put in my PhD proposal at the end of my second year and taught myself the methodology for two. I was in a theory (model-based) lab. I first chose between my adviser's two subfields and then read deeply about one system within a subfield in which another grad student was also interested but in which my adviser had no experience. My adviser helped me formulate a model after one year. I was always a bit jealous of students who were handed projects or datasets and able to start producing papers quickly. Maybe I'm more independent as a consequence--it was good to work on the most important and tractable problems I could identify, though I probably encountered more failure earlier on than most students do. I had a hard time coping for a while and might have slowed down excessively as a consequence.

Anonymous said...

My advisor's approach is "let flounder for a bit; I'm sure something will come out of it." First couple years I was encouraged to read a lot, talk to people, think about big ideas and then tackle something -- anything -- that interested me. Those first years were really hard and I had a few failed ideas that I started on. And I have no publications coming out of them. But I feel that now I'm very able to figure out what's interesting/important to the field and what's doable all by myself.

Anonymous said...

What GMP said.