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Why are research skills so seldom taught?

by Michael Nielsen on August 3, 2003

Undergraduate education in physics is mostly 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 some small 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, it is interesting that while there is certainly a focus on doing research and getting research results, relatively few supervisors seem to engage in much active discussion of how research ought to be pursued. 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 may be especially true when one 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 unique 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. 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. It is interesting to wonder how such students might 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. Rather than drafting such a list to be placed here, I’ll leave the construction of such a list as a topic for discussion, and for future posts.

Topics for further thought:

  • Why are research skills so seldom taught, or even discussed, at either the undergraduate or graduate levels?
  • How significant a factor in research success is the process of thinking about how one does research, discussing it with others, and looking for lessons from history?
  • How can the learning of research skills be integrated into the undergraduate and graduate curricula?

From → General

2 Comments
  1. At Caltech we had a class (Physics 11) which was designed to teach you how to do research. Peculiarly, the class didn’t focus as much on skillsets necessary for doing good research, but instead adopted the baptism by fire method of simplying giving you research grade problems to work on and hoping that you could find your way through. Of course, this class was a revelation in the ways in which research differs from coursework (“You mean the problem may not even have a solution!?”) A class simply about research skills would have made absolutely no sense to me without having actually attempted research by myself. The question I find interesting is whether you can parallelize research skills with actual research problems effectively in a classroom setting. I think there is a strong case to be made that without unguided exposure to research, a class on research skills would not be very useful.

  2. Dave: “A class simply about research skills would have made absolutely no sense to me without having actually attempted research by myself.”

    Absolutely. I guess this is a difficulty with the idea of teaching research skills. At the undergrad level the main focus is learning what’s already known. The context of research problem solving necessary for a class on research skills to make sense may not be there.

    Undergrad research schemes like Caltech’s SURF may provide a partial remedy to this problem, however.

    Dave: “The question I find interesting is whether you can parallelize research skills with actual research problems effectively in a classroom setting.”

    On a somewhat related not, I recall reading that at one time Einstein used to meet regularly with a small group of friends to discuss epistemology. He made a comment when asked about this group to the effect that he believed that any effective research scientist had to be interested in the history of ideas, not just the ideas themselves. (I don’t recall the reference, I’m afraid.)

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