length of grad. student careers

Jill Schmidt jills at ocean.washington.edu
Wed Aug 7 23:58:59 EST 1996

> is
> it possible to learn original thinking or are some people always "book
> learners"? I don't mean to criticize my advisor - he's a wonderful guy - but
I have lurked for a while, but this post touched a nerve.  I started grad school with 
this fear, because my undergraduate advisor told me that he thought I was smart but 
wasn't sure I could do original research.  Taking three years off before grad school, 
in a non-intellectual setting, didn't help my confidence.

But guess what?  I have been taught a lot about original thinking, and I owe most of 
that to a particular professor.  My hope is that you can search out the person in your 
department, or even outside, who can help you.  Here is what to look for:  

--The person who believes there is no shortage of ideas in science, only a lack of time 
and money to investigate them.     
--The person who thinks about how science is done, not just about the important facts 
in your field.    
--The person who knows about predictive theory, and can point you towards papers in 
your field that have "borrowed" theory from another field (especially math) to tackle a 
problem you understand.  Maybe this is more important in environmental sciences, than 
health sciences (I am an oceanographer/microbiologist)? Thinking about a problem first 
and generating Real Testable Hypotheses, rather performing endless correlations is SO 
fun and satisfying.  Then whichever way your experiment turns out, you learn 
_something_.  Even if you can't develop your own theory, these papers often suggest 
obvious testable offshoots.    
--It really helps to find someone who can funnel you towards the Big Mysteries in your 
field, they are very much fun and inspiring to ponder.  Knowing the big ones will help 
you choose a little, manageable mystery to keep you going for a few years.  My MSc work 
was generated from a study question put forth in class by this professor--it was 
phrased: "Explain the remarkable..." and that word remarkable just jumped out at me.
--IMHO, work to design a project that helps to explain WHY things are, and not just 
WHAT they are.  

Here are some references that were strongly recommended to me:

Box, GEP 1976 Science and statistics. J.Am>Stat. Assoc. 71: 791-799

Popper, KR. 1965 Science--conjectures and refutations, 2nd Ed. Pp 33-65 in K.R. Popper, 
Ed. Conjectures and Refutations--The growth of scientific knowledge.  Harper and Row.

Platt, JR 1964  Strong inference.  Science 146:347-353

Hope that helps--I'm sure you have the native curiosity that you'll need, since you've 
done so well in classes this far.

good luck,
Jill Schmidt

 is--learning about it was a revelation for me, after being frustrated with  

I'm not sure where the line between hand-holding (meaning he sets up all
> the experiments) and advising (where he assists me in my project) is.  He
> blames my heavy course load and extensive teaching assignments (a TA and
> an entensive teaching mentorship required for my fellowship) for my lack
> of progress but I think he realizes what I fear - that I don't have the
> ability to pursue a PhD.  I have a committee meeting
> soon so hopefully things will improve.
> Mary
>                 ----
> Mary S. Songster-Alpin
> Dept. of Micro., Path., and Parasit.
> North Carolina State University
> College of Veterinary Medicine
> Mary_Songster_Alpin at ncsu.edu

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