Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Happy Academic New Year!

The new academic year has arrived at my institution, and it's an odd one for me. I'm not involved in courses at all, I personally have no conferences coming up in the next semester, and The Project That Wouldn't Die has pretty much been killed, unless I can get an Igor to help me resurrect it (which might be worth it for the papers...) For the first time in my graduate career, I get what I've always wanted: time to work on my thesis project without other things to do. Now, I just have to figure out what to do with all that time.

Summer has been tumultuous. We finally submitted the manuscript, and got mostly positive reviews, but the reviews sent us experimental data from a small German society journal which disagreed with our results. That manuscript is accepted, but it's killed 2 papers I'd already written. I thought my abstract had been accepted to the MRS fall meeting as an invited talk, but it turned out my advisor forgot to mention it had been turned into his talk.

I'm just starting my 4th year, in a group that averages 6 years to completion. I've already outlined my thesis chapters, and started writing methodology and introductions as much as I can. My biggest worry is that in a year, my PI is going to completely change his vision for my thesis from what was in my proposal, and most of that will be wasted. He ideally wants the thesis to be fleshed out papers, but I want it to be a coherent and connected story. What makes a good paper isn't necessarily the same thing that will allow me to piece together all of the different aspects of my research.

Happily, my advisor is letting me do my own DFT for this project, instead of getting one of the DFT experts in the group to run it and give me results. I'm actually getting to do most of the major forms of atomistic simulation for this project, which is cool, though occasionally overwhelming.

But, in the spirit of new years, I'm setting myself some goals:

1) Complain less about my advisor. It doesn't change him and it rarely makes me feel better.
2) Get the next two papers onto his desk
3) Go over my thesis outline with my PI
4) Complete drafts of the first three thesis chapters I have planned by this time next year (subject to change according to the results of 3)
5) Write a really excellent letter of recommendation for Minion, who is staying with the research group ze was in this summer which is run by FamousRockstarProf and might actually get authorship on a paper before ze graduates.
6)Find somewhere else to submit my MRS abstract, so I can actually give the talk I wanted to give


  1. I am curious: why are you so attached to a document—your thesis—that hardly anyone will ever read?

    "My biggest worry is that in a year, my PI is going to completely change his vision for my thesis from what was in my proposal, and most of that will be wasted."

    And that is how it should be. If your research follows the outline that you laid out six years ago, it suggests that your research is only incremental in nature and better not be done. It is natural and beneficial to let the vision wander around so that it allows you the flexibility to discover (by accident and not by design) something cool and novel along the way.

    And as much as we want to head back to the old times where papers were written from the individual chapters of the thesis, the reality is that we are way past that time and culture. Now the papers are paramount —–—and not just for your advisor, but to you as well, irrespective of the path you chose post graduation. Earlier the challenge used to be deciding how to flesh out papers from thesis, and now it is how do you write a coherent thesis story from the papers that you already have. That is the only difference.

    I guess this holds true for all scientific fields these days, but it absolutely does for the fast moving field of materials science. Just thought it is a good idea to think about this early, in least to avoid world of pain later on. :)

    1. I'm not attached to the thesis itself, I'm attached to the idea of graduating. Furthermore, because of how my advisor reads, if it's not going to be in the thesis, the odds are not good that the paper will ever make it off his desk. If 5 of the last 6 students to graduate from the group are writing papers from the thesis, rather than the reverse, it seems reasonable to assume that my advisor isn't going to change his ways, no matter how everyone else does it.

      If he were changing his vision for my thesis based on the results I had gotten, that would be reasonable, and understandable. However, in observing older students in the group, he completely changes his expectations based on what funding he's chasing instead of what data we have. So a student who was working on "underwater basketweaving" for 5 years will be expected to write up on "subterranean sock knitting" work they've done for 6 months with the justification that "They're both processing techniques, right?"