Good series by David Hone on Advice for Young Researchers. He is a paleontologist, and it shows, but the information is still generally applicable to a wide range of disciplines, and I’d strongly recommend that anyone thinking about starting in any PhD program read the series.
One section, on getting a PhD, is particularly interesting, and has started me thinking:
I have found that every discipline, every school, every program, is different. Some engineering PhDs, for example, simply require the publication of three or five peer reviewed articles in a give subject area. In some, it’s easy to generate your own data, because you are running your own experiments. In others, like business, you often need surveys, or (in paleontology) you need to visit museums and measure bones.
Hone talks about using your Supervisors (what I’d call the Dissertation Committee) as a resource, but not to pester them. I’d think of them as being like the Board of Directors of a new company. When you select them, you want to pick people who are experts in the areas your dissertation will cover — either the topic itself, or the tools you will use. Meet with them often, perhaps once or twice a year — it’s amazing how many people meet with their committee twice, at the start of the effort and four years later, the week before the defense. You are not meeting to ask them questions, you are meeting for them to ask you questions, so you can refine your approach. Then, since they brought it up, you can ask them questions.
One technique that I saw applied successfully in a history PhD, and that I tried, with marginal success, in my systems science PhD, was to make every class a dry run for part of the dissertation. Most classes required a paper. It’s helpful to think of that as a chance to do a literature search and descriptive writeup for one of your dissertation chapters. If it’s an applied class, like simulations, it’s a chance to build the tools you will need to do your work. Your goal should be that something out of each class should find its way into your dissertation. Of course, that assumes that you know your dissertation topic early in your PhD career. I changed my topic probably four times, starting with getting my original proposal shot down in flames. Still, the early concepts stayed on through the whole process.
Hone’s series is good, and useful. Go read the whole thing.