The Research/PhD Process

This document contains answers to questions posed by students concerning the research/PhD process in our department. They are in a casual brainstorming format.

Note: All answers are the opinions of graduate students and may not reflect the current state of the graduate program. When necessary, always try to obtain the official answers to aspects of the graduate program from department representatives.


Questions and answers below are from the panel discussion held on April 11, 1996.

Questions

  1. Any advice for taking the Ph.D. exams?
  2. What if you don't pass one of the Ph.D. exams after 2 tries?
  3. Any general advice for finding a thesis topic?
  4. When should you do your Ph.D. Proposal: early in the process or later?
  5. Advice while in the thick of your thesis?
  6. How to find out what is going on in a field you have chosen?
  7. Any advice about things to keep in mind when doing a thesis to make oneself attractive to future employers?
  8. Most of us rely on some kind of support or work while doing our research, what kinds of support work best?

Q1:
Any advice for taking the Ph.D. exams?
A1:
Students suggest writing down as much as you know for your answers (although on some exams, incorrect information may count against you).

Take the exams seriously and set aside enough time to prepare. Looking at old exams can be a good way to study. Also, find out who is preparing the exam; if a different faculty member is preparing it, this can mean changes in the exam content or style from previous years.


Q2:
What if you don't pass one of the Ph.D. exams after 2 tries?
A2:
If you don't pass one of the Ph.D. exams twice, you are not necessarily out of the Ph.D. program. What you can do is petition to stay in the program. There has been precedence for a student staying and completing a Ph.D. under these circumstances. Nonetheless, the older system of Ph.D. exams that veteran students here took had 4 exams, and you had to take all of them. With the newer system: 3 exams and you may test out of one of them, the faculty may be less lenient with someone who does not pass an exam.

If you don't pass one of the exams twice and you want to petition to stay, it is important to have demonstrated that you are a valuable student, i.e., you will appear more attractive if you are already successfully involved in research.


Q3:
Any general advice for finding a thesis topic?
A3:
Find an advisor that you feel you can work with and that has a good perspective of a field you are interested in. A faculty member knowledgeable in their field should be able to provide you with a few topics that are appropriate for a Ph.D. Also, start doing research early since it may take you a while to find the niche in which to do your research.

It can be easier to make a thesis out of a bunch of papers you've had published.

Start reading the literature in an area you are interested in. A good way to start is through literature searches. Survey articles can give a good glimpse of a field with less investment in time. You should read many articles.

Look at the assumptions made in these papers--where can you fill in the gaps, i.e., address issues other people have not dealt with?

Sometimes ideas from other areas can be applied in a new way to your topic.

Anticipate what will be hot in the future. New solutions to hot problems are good. Delving in open areas of research can be good.

Cautions:
You may want to think about a topic you are interested in before diving into the literature. Why? You may come up with ideas that you would not after you have read the literature and seen how problems have been solved.

Don't ignore what other people have done.


Q4:
When should you do your PhD proposal: early in the process or later?
A4:
In our department, this is something that is very flexible. Some people give their proposals very late in the process and it is almost their defense. Also, your thesis does not necessarily have to satisfy your original proposal.

Basically, when to do your proposal is something to decide with your advisor. You should make sure you have all the signatures you need and an outline of your plan for research.

Students caution not to do your proposal too early, you should have some partial results first.


Q5:
Advice while in the thick of your thesis?
A5:
Don't necessarily run away if you get stuck. However, know when to quit (have you chosen a topic that is just too much?).

Talk to your advisor, your committee, other people...they are there to assist you.


Q6:
How to find out what is going on in a field you have chosen?
A6:
Go to conferences: talk to people there, submit papers, submit work for poster sessions, participate in the organization of a conference. Don't worry if your paper is not accepted, try again at another conference.

Q7:
Any advice about things to keep in mind when doing a thesis to make oneself attractive to future employers?
A7:
Some students felt that your thesis need only be interesting to attract employers. They point out that many people find jobs in fields other than what they did their research in.

Students felt that there was a difference between what kinds of background that is sought for academic jobs and jobs in industry. There also seems to be a difference between the two general areas of theory and systems.

The general feeling was that there are more opportunities for systems people right now. Theory theses must be real, real good as opposed to just real good to look attractive. A systems background seems like the way to go for an industry job.

Factors such as who your advisor is and how many publications you have may also be important. In systems, there tend to be more publications at workshops whereas theory people tend to publish more in journals.


Q8:
Most of us rely on some kind of support or work while doing our research, what kinds of support work best?
A8:
A research assistantship through your advisor can be the most clear-cut form of funding. You get a stipend while researching your thesis. However, your advisor may not have funding for this.

There are many types of fellowships (outside of BU) that can fund you to do your research. You'll have to do some digging to find these and they may be competitive. The graduate school may be able to assist you in finding these.

Teaching or being a teaching fellow can be difficult while doing research. You end up investing a lot of time in something that has nothing to do with your research. If you do, consider having office hours somewhere other than you regular office, that way students won't be popping by when you are trying to do other work.

Having a part-time job while working on your thesis may provide you with more money than other forms of support. Nonetheless, controlling your employers can be difficult--they may not be flexible enough to accommodate you. Consulting can be difficult to do because of bad schedules. If you can find a job that relates to or incorporates your research that can be beneficial.


Brown Bag Lunch / Robert I. Pitts <rip@cs.bu.edu>