Why are research skills so seldom taught? (V2.0)
Undergraduate education in physics is usually concentrated on learning certain basic facts about physics, and technical skills that enable one to solve problems in physics. While both these are essential facets of doing research, many other equally essential skills are neglected, or ignored completely.
Why is this the case? In part it may be because not all people taking physics degrees necessarily hope to do research one day. However, to an extent far greater than in almost any other subject, an undergraduate degree in physics is, at least nominally, focused on the task of preparing people for research.
At the PhD level, while there is a strong focus on actually doing research, relatively few supervisors engage in much active discussion of how research is done. If a student is lucky they may see a particular research style modeled, through interactions with their supervisor and other more senior scientists.
Such modeling is potentially quite valuable, especially if a student is exposed to a wide range of research styles. However, what works for one person may not work for others. This is especially true when one person is inexperienced and lacks confidence, while another is very experienced and has considerable confidence. Furthermore, each individual needs to develop their own style, suited to their own combination of talents.
Many students fail even to see such modeling. A remarkably common attitude is that students either “have it”, or “don’t”, when it comes to research skills, and that this justifies neglect of students who “don’t have it”.
This sells students lumped into either category short. It is true that some beginning PhD students are exceptionally well equipped to do the tasks required of a PhD student. Such students may complete their PhD much more rapidly than usual, with apparently astounding success. However, such students may also plateau – they may never move beyond this level, stagnating instead of growing into a new set of skills beyond that required of a PhD student.
Similarly, other beginning students may be very well equipped in some ways, but lacking in certain essential skills that result in them being placed into the “don’t” category. Might such students benefit from learning some basic research skills?
I believe that there are many ways in which the learning of research skills can be integrated into both the undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.
At the postgraduate level, such learning can be done in parallel with actual research. For example, a discussion group may be formed, in which students and faculty members discuss the difficulties involved in doing research, and potential solutions to each of those difficulties. These solutions can then be tried out by members of the group, evaluated individually, and improved upon with the assistance of the entire group.
Learning research skills at the undergraduate level poses more difficulties. At present most undergraduates do not actively engage in research. Instead, at most institutions undergraduate education is focused primarily on learning the basic knowledge and problem-solving skills that are seen as necessary (but not sufficient) preconditions to being able to do research.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any good general theory of how to do research. Different things work for different people, and there is no one test you can take to find out how you should operate. Instead, you need to try different things out, see how they go, and improve from there.
So it seems that a theoretical treatment of how to do research, divorced from actual practice, will likely be of limited value in most present undergraduate programs. Thus, to benefit from a “research skills” or “research literacy”-type course at the undergraduate level, the actual process of doing research would need to be incorporated more fully into the curriculum.