A Student’s Questions

One of the PhD students in the School of Systems and Enterprises asked me a few questions after reading my March 15th blog post on “Thoughts on Teaching, Classrooms, and Computers.” She wanted to know what I would do if I was now a PhD student. Before getting to her specific questions, I need to cover two preliminaries.

First, I often get questions from students who are trying to decide on future directions. I have a simple, yet I think powerful, answer.  “Identify a scarce skill that is highly valued and you love doing.”

If the skill you love exercising, is abundant in the population, it will not be highly compensated. If the skill is not highly valued, it will not be highly compensated. Of course, you may be satisfied with modest compensation.

Second, I am rather biased toward recommending STEM fields, particularly engineering. My experiences are that engineering prepares people for an amazing range of futures. People with well-honed problem solving skills can succeed in many arenas.

Now, let’s consider her questions.  How would you choose your dissertation research topic?   Choose what fascinates you, but be realistic. You need to become an expert at something that society cares about. This still leaves a wide range of possibilities.

What courses would you take?  Required courses are, obviously, required. Add courses needed to directly support your research. Throw in a couple for fun, for example, economic history or creative writing.  The payoffs from such courses will surprise you.

What extracurricular activities would best advance your career?  Such activities only count, career wise, if they are related to your research. I chose woodworking, hiking, and travel, but not to advance my career.  Keep in mind that you are creating you, not just your resume.

What internships would best advance your career?  Again, these only count if they are related to your research. On the other hand, paid internships (or just plain jobs) can create a rainy day fund while you are completing your degree program.  I always liked real hands-on work, e.g., plumbing, or real technical work, e.g., engineering analyses.

Overall, I am driven by problems that I want to understand and contribute to solving. I am problem-oriented. In contrast, some people are method-oriented. They look for problems that are good fits for their chosen methods.  They often have to scale down problems to fit their method. In contrast, I often have to scale up methods to fit my problem of interest.

Career success is rather different for these two perspectives. Method-oriented people are judged by their abilities to extend methods in some substantial way, often with associated theorems and proofs.  The domain of application is of less importance.

Problem-oriented people tend to immerse themselves in the domains of the problems of interest. They are judged by their contributions to solving problems in these domains. This often involves providing empirical evidence of the impacts of their contributions.  Advancing methods is secondary.

Keep in mind that the world needs both Newtons and Darwins.  If you are problem person like me, sailing the enterprise seas, you are glad that someone else is forging the next generation methods.  Problem people are often really good at formulating problems, but given a valid formulation, the method people can be invaluable.

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