Here are some tips, which I think would be echoed by most of my
colleagues, for graduate students on how to approach research in
A. Ask the right questions.
|The list of tips above constitutes tactics; but what about strategy? What is the best path to scientific discovery or a good scientific career? Discovery first. Broadly, there are two kinds of discovery: recognition of something new or a definitive interpretation of known phenomena. The former is easier for young people. For the latter, you usually need greater exposure to the field. Although many "interpretational" discoveries are theoretical, others are observational (e.g. Hubble's discovery of Cepheid variables in M31, which instantly resolved the "island universe" controversy; or the identification of gamma-ray bursts with distant galaxies). Scientific discoveries emerge from some combination of "the prepared mind," resources, opportunity, and, inevitably, luck. There is probably about equal weight to those four components, and there's no way to successfully engineer them. But follow the chain in order. The better prepared you are---the more you know and have produced---the more likely it is that the good resources you seek will be available to you. Opportunity may follow. You have to wait for luck. Whatever form that takes, it's essential that you be able to recognize a favorable coincidence of opportunity and luck, which means that you must actively cultivate an alertness for them. You obviously can't discover something if you aren't looking, so discovery depends also on effort and persistence. Careers? You need a plan, and you need to think actively about it. Training in most graduate programs is "T-shaped". You are expected to become acquainted with the basics of many subfields of astronomy (the crossbar) while acquiring deep knowledge in at least one (the upright). The whole "T" is important. The narrow/deep component is necessary if you are to understand how scientific research actually progresses; but from a career standpoint you must also develop a broad understanding of the field and versatile skills that are transferable to other research areas. Your immediate aim by PhD time should be to become one of the leading authorities on some area of significant current interest. It is expected that this area will usually be of modest scope, but when conference organizers are picking the most knowledgeable younger speakers for review talks, you want your name to be on the short list. This means that you must not only have important expertise but that others must know you have it. [Hint: publish and talk to as many outsiders as you can.] Research topics? Paradoxically, it is not necessarily best to get into the currently "hot" subject areas. Those may be where the money is and where your mentors are; but these areas tend to overproduce PhDs, and there will be tough competition from experienced scientists. Ideally, you want to be at the leading edge of a new wave of research that peaks about ten years from now. But, obviously, it's not easy to figure out what that might be. No matter how promising the field you choose to work in, keep developing those transferable skills and interests; keep looking around the corner.|
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Last modified June 2010 by rwo