Friday, November 3

When I was first being introduced to my new colleagues here at SuckyU, one introduced me to her thesis student (undergrad).

He wanted to do his thesis on X in the region. Think, Oranges. No that might actually be interesting, cause you could always do an economic analysis and then talk to the people who are picking the oranges and their different experiences, and the growers of the oranges and the eaters. See, it could be interesting. Ok, X is kind of like, hmm, houses that are painted blue. So student was going to do his thesis on houses that are painted blue.

To show interest and because I am sort of a nice strawberry, the first thing out of my mouth was a supportive “wow, how interesting.”

Colleague says: “But he didn’t do that.”

Strawberries says, “oh why not?” I has just begun to warm up to the idea of blue houses. Maybe there was some significance or something. Plus, people may think my own research is like blue houses, so who am I to judge.

Colleague looks at me like I am a more than a bit weird. “Because he could never have finished the project, I mean that is like a doctoral dissertation.” Please shoot me if I ever advise anyone who wants to concentrate on Blue Houses for his/her PhD. Frankly, it seemed a bit easy to me. I mean count up all the blue houses in the region, which I am sure the data already exists, it's not like poor student has to actually travel to each blue house. And then write some sort of [boring] history on blue houses.

“So instead he did it on Blue Houses in the tri-city that were stolen.” (Now the stolen metaphor really doesn’t fit with Blue Houses, and goes better with say, Oranges, but remember, Oranges are more interesting than Blue houses. So just pretend that the CIA came with all their super-duper equipment and stole some blue houses). And this student is going to write about the ones that were stolen. However, since it was the CIA that stole them, and frankly, when are they going to ever let a student researcher into their archives, student can’t say much more than: There once was a blue house here. It was built in 1783 by Miss Peacock and then bought by Col. Mustard, until it was stolen in 1974 by the CIA. Oh, and look over there, there used to be another blue house that…

Sounds kind of boring to me. But anyway, that is not the point of this post.

What got me was the professor telling the student that he coudn't possibly do all blue houses in the region because it was impossible and that if he wanted, he could get his doctorate in Blue houses. Now, many times students are interested in something, say Gender, but they really can’t do a thesis on that. You have to focus it. But not just because of time restraints, but also because Gender is really broad. Blue Houses present in the region is not broad, just boring. So are stolen blue houses in the city if you’re keeping track. I was just surprised that this professor would say that this was not feasible when it seemed very feasible. I mean this kid had a year to do Blue Houses. Sure, stolen blue houses might be nominally more interesting than all blue houses, but couldn’t it have been a subsection of the thesis?

Which brings me to my final point/question. When do you tell a student that they will be unable to study X? Shouldn’t advisors rather explain that it might be a more in-depth project and it would be doable but hard rather than say outright, nope, you can't do it? There are times when advisors should discourage students from studying Y in favor of Ysub1 because it would be more feasible. Ok, if Y was lets say Education , and Ysub1 was Education of Women and how it has been defined by Z. But this was clearly not the case.

So now what? Student has produced one heck of a doorstop on stolen blue houses. Sure, even blue houses would have been a doorstop, but what is important here is the experience.

If someone told me I could not do it, I would not give up right away, and maybe ever. What sort of service are we doing to students who want to do something and are instead told they cannot?


carolina wolverine said...

When I interviewed at university X for grad school, I had an interview with professor Y, the head of the department. I told him I wanted to study something like Oranges. He said, "Now, I'm not telling you that Oranges are too difficult for you," and then told me how Oranges were too difficult for me. His own group researched Oranges!

Now I am happily studying Oranges at university Z.

strawberries said...

i am SO glad you are not working with prof. Y then. happy orange studying!

Orange Ina said...

This is interesting. You raise a question, and I'll attempt a response, but I wanted to react to another part of this. WHAAA! It drives me crazy when I see tiny tiny projects that are not really projects. I hate it. After all the work I did on my dissertation (or even BA thesis), I'd like to see people doing at least half as much. Not that this is a hazing type of thing, but c'mon, I think we're awarding BAs and PhDs a bit too easily at times.

Okay, but to answer your question. This is a hard one. I do think it is very much an advisor's responsibility to discourage a student from a bad project. But I agree with you that some justification needs to be given. Otherwise, the student almost rightly can continue to be enthusiastic about his/her project assuming the prof just didn't get it.

I'd just try to explain that for xyz reasons where xyz could be a lack of theoretical contribution, triviality, something that's already been covered, something that's too hard, something that's empirically impossible or too hard at that stage, etc. the student shouldn't embark on the topic.

All that said, I would then work with the student to find something suitable. For one thing, I would ask what it is about x topic that attracted them to it and then see whether we can find another approach that still includes their core interest.

As to CW's comment, I considered a program where one of the few people who was suitable for PhD advising said to me: "Who cares about Apples?" where Apples stands for the topic that was absolutely dear to my heart and has constituted my entire career ever since. Needless to say, I didn't pursue my PhD in his program.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I can think of lots of things that make sense. I'm in a really small department at a mapus with really meagre facilities. If a faculty person has insufficient knowledge to help a student with a research topic (not a problem as much when the library has the resources), then the student will have to find a different topic or work with someone who does.

And frankly, I know one student who is desperate to do a thesis on Oranges. Except Oranges is the student's personal hobbyhorse, and the student has Ideas about it. Every conversation with the student says that the student cannot get past preconceived notions about what the thesis will show in order to ask questions or better, to let the documentary evidence lead the way for the thesis research. Telling the student to do a subject that is more in line with what the person teaching the thesis seminar (not me) and that can be supported and that will allow the student to be objective are all good reasons to nix a topic.

William Lally said...

I agree with you that people should not give up right away if someone told them they couldn’t do it. I think it would be a good idea to have a dissertation supervisor that would really help out, not prohibit you from doing what you want. Anyway, plan ahead and see what would be might be the problem you can face, so that it would be easily fixed.