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Why are research skills so seldom taught? (V2.0)

by Michael Nielsen on September 22, 2003

Revised version of an earlier entry, in response to comments by Dave Bacon.

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.

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  1. Ben Toner permalink

    In business it would be seen as a waste of money to put someone in a position without providing sufficient training in the skill set required to do the job.

    I think the emphasis for PhD students should be on professional development (such as effective communication and interpersonal skills, effective use of resources, how to set priorities and goals, personality typing, self-promotion, time management (see “Running on Empty” below) etc. etc.) rather than research skills per se. We all have different research styles: it seems a good bet is help people discover what works for them, as you say. But how to do accelerate this process? At the risk of sounding like an self-help guru, by providing the tools to enable people to decide where they’re heading, where they’re at, and how to get there faster.

  2. “Different things work for different people.”

    Do you think one could categorize the different manners in which people “do” research? There is a great section of “Good Benito” by Alan Lightman where he describes some fellow graduate students who are competing to be students of a bigshot professor. Here, I haven’t used my speed typing skills in ages:

    “Several other new physics graduate students were also being sized up by Professor Jacoby, each obsessed with his own apprentice problem. They all had tiny offices in the same area of Jefferson basement, had all finished their first year of courses. There was an Indian, Dalip Chandra, who was miraculously supporting a family back in India on his small studen stipend. To save money, he lived in his office. Let us think about this more carefully, he would say in his quiet voice. After a year, his wife got ill and he had to go back to India. There was a young man from New York with thinning hair and black-framed eyeglasses, which he looked over when he spoke. Early in his second year, he announced that his courses had been trivial. When he heard Bennett’s problem about the particles and sphere, he said that it also was trivial. There was a fellow from California, thin as a broom, with a blond ponytail. Jenkins. He didn’t spend any time in his office. He was always sitting on a bench outdoors under the Jefferson arch, sitting and staring off and apparently doing nothing. But he was thinking. He went on to a remarkable scientific career. A young man named Hamilton from the Midwest was constantly writing pages and pages of equations. He could scribble while walking. He wrote on lined paper, unlike everyone else, and his equations were very close together, very dense and hard to read, like microfilm of military secrets. Hamilton never boasted or bragged, but he had such an inner confidence that he did his calculations in pen.”

  3. Following up on Ben’s comment, as it stands, the essay is too imprecise about what I mean by “research skills”.

    What I had in mind while writing was a fairly comprehensive set of skills, including not just things like problem selection, keeping up with the research literature, etc, but also other skills like those you identify – time management, presentation skills, and so on – which I think are a critical part of doing research.

    An interesting observation in the context of the essay is that research skills, so defined, can be divided naturally into two classes.

    The first class is skills that can be learnt, at least to some degree, independent of the process of doing research. This includes skills like time management, learning to write well, learning to read well, presentation skills, and so on. It is true that there are idiosyncracies in how these skills are applied in research, but someone skilled in the basic principles should have little trouble adapting later.

    Learning this class of skills at the undergraduate level would be terrific preparation for doing research later on.

    (As an aside, at the end of my undergraduate, I was mortified to discover that I had forgotten much of what I knew about writing. I’d written almost nothing for three years, and boy, did it show when I started writing again at the beginning of my honours year.)

    The second class of skills is those that really need to be learnt on the job, while actually doing research. How to come up with new research problems? Which problems to work on? What constitutes a result? What constitutes a publishable result? How should one deal with referees?

    While classes for undergraduates could certainly be taught on these subjects, as Dave says, I’m not sure such classes would be useful without the context provided by real live research.

  4. Dave: “Do you think one could categorize the different manners in which people “do” research?”

    Sounds difficult, but rewarding. (Maybe a good PhD topic for some aspiring sociology student, if it hasn’t already been done.)

    Something that fascinates me in this vein is the nonlinear relationship between how hard one works and research success. For example, I know people for whom work apparently means staring at a wall for just a few hours a day, and then going home.

  5. Michael, could you comment more on the “nonlinear relationship between how hard one works and research success”? You mean that you get a greater relative payoff for working harder, right? I don’t understand your example.

  6. Regarding the “nonlinear relationship”, it seems to me that there is a very strange relationship between how hard one works, and the results of that work.

    Personally, the periods I’ve worked hardest (over a long time) have _not_ coincided with the periods when I’ve been most creative. Observation of others and anecdotal evidence also seems to bear this out, at least to some extent.

    My hypothesis is that good creative work requires occasional intense bouts of work, and that such high intensity requires sustained lulls inbetween time.

    Freeman Dyson, in “From Eros to Gaia” (I think) says that in his opinion Oppenheimer worked too hard, and that prevented him from ever doing really great work. He contrasted that with the example of Shakespeare, who inbetween working with huge intensity on his plays would goof off for extended periods, spending most of his time out with friends in pubs, and whatnot.

    Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what the practical implications should be, however!

  7. Re. the nonlinear relationship, that’s very interesting, because I would have thought the opposite was true, based on my limited experience.

    Then again, I do work at high intensity for brief periods of time (say two weeks) but I blame the lulls between these periods on laziness etc. and get frustated by them, rather than seeing them as necessary to make up for the intense periods. Actually, I remain to be convinced on this. I’ll ask around…

  8. Re to Ben: I don’t want to give a false impression of what I think here. Certainly, all the successful scientists I know work hard.

    However, particularly for theorists, there seems to be a point beyond which working harder, if sustained over a long period, actually has a negative effect. For me, personally, I’m guessing that’s somewhere in the range of 50 hours per week. I know people who work _much_ longer hours than that; I really don’t know how they can sustain it.

  9. Anonymous permalink

    Ignoring the comments above–sorry, guys–back to Michael’s comments:

    the fact is some phd students desperately need to be taught research skills, but the mechanisms for bringing students into graduate schools often weened out those who “didn’t have them already”. So you’ve self-selected for a system where the students who would have thrived with just-a-bit-more-attention aren’t present. This feedbacks further into the starvation-as-a-mode-of-teaching paradigm.

    But the real problem is that most professors who do research have no idea how they do it. Many of them don’t know how else it’s done. Many more don’t care to teach their own students even the way they do it,let alone another way.

    A theoretical treatment of how to do research at the grad level is still of limited value. Best to actually concentrate on hiring professors who wish to interact with their students, and help them discover what research methods work best for them.

    Why do i claim this? Because research isn’t philosophy. The theory of doing theory work doesn’t actually explain the phenomenon at all. And the phenomenon is this odd beast of multiple failures, numerous dead ends, conversations, books, doodling, coffee, and intuition. People who solve problems have a feel for the answer. They know –or at least believe they know–before they prove it. How are you going to explain how to leverage off of this in a theoretical treatment? How do you impart your intuition to someone else?

    The biggest way to help a student is to encourage them by asking them questions of how to proceed, directions to investigate, slowly building up their own intuition, and encourage them that their multiple failures are necessary for their future success.

    Re: undergraduates: experience in research environments is possible, and is a good start. Again, the biggest piece here is active involvement of the undergrad with people doing research–profs, post docs, grads. Most helpful is that they not be left alone to figure it out for themselves–they can do that on their own time, anyway. Providing research environments is not that difficult. It is done as the tech schools like MIT and Caltech. The standard Mellisinos-type experimental physics curriculum can be made to support this, or not, depending on how it is implemented. It can also be done at other places, and students at liberal arts colleges can be encouraged to attend summer programs at places like research labs.

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