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Why are research skills so seldom taught? (V3.0)

by Michael Nielsen on September 27, 2003

Revised version of earlier entries, in response to comments by Dave Bacon and Ben Toner.

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 classes aimed at improving student’s research skills – what we might call “research literacy” classes – can be effectively integrated into both the undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.

Before describing how this integration might be achieved, one comment on what I mean by research skills.

Research skills may usefully be divided into two classes.

The first class is professional skills, such as public speaking, writing technical prose, and networking, which can be learnt and applied outside the context of research.

The second class is technical skills, such as finding and solving good research problems, and determining what constitutes a research result. These are skills that can only be learnt by someone actively engaged in the practice of doing research. The reason is that as yet there isn’t any good general theory of how to do research. Different things work for different people, and there is no 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.

This distinction between professional and technical skills has important implications for the integration of research literacy classes into the undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.

At the postgraduate level, research is usually the primary activity, and research literacy classes could easily be integrated in parallel with actual research. I am currently trying this out on a small scale by forming a discussion group in which students and faculty members discuss the difficulties involved in doing research, and potential solutions to 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.

At the postgraduate level, no distinction need be made between professional and technical skills. However, at the undergraduate level the situation is more complex. At present most undergraduates do not actively engage in research. Instead, most undergraduate programs focus 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.

Given this constraint, research literacy classes for undergraduates would need to focus on professional skills, not technical skills. To some extent this already occurs in some University systems, most notably the US system, with their focus on obtaining a well-rounded liberal arts education. In such a system students in the sciences are less likely to forget how to write an essay or make a public presentation than in a more narrowly focused system such as Australia’s. However, in all systems it seems that considerably more attention could fruitfully be paid to the development of professional skills in undergraduates.

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