Cruel thing about life is that we cannot learn how to do things in right way but we only pile up cases which should not be. In other words, we learn and grow by errors. This is fairly sad thing to encounter every occasion, but also reveal why experience is so critical in human wisdom. So, for the grand question of how to do PhD - an everlasting question in self-perpetuating world of academia repeating every year - may be answered not from falsely righteous advices, but from bad examples in lamentable memories. Here, I hope to share few common cases that I have seen in grad school (indeed anonymously - nobody wants to hear sad story with name tag). Wish debris from the past be stepping-stones for new comers.
Case 1 - Graduate "student"
This is a fairly common case. Although the word graduate student ends with "student", the position is kind of fairly mixed version of student and researcher in reality. So, the graduate study is continuous cycles of learning something new as a student and then apply it into his/her own problem as a researcher. But, occasionally, there are people who just go half of the cycle, and repeat it - just study as a student. It is fine to do this for Master's degree, but this is most of time quite a big trouble for doctorate.
Case 2 - Tenured graduate student
This is also common but more tragic than the first case. PhD study is supposed to end around 5 ~ 6 years (although depends on disciplines) - starting from basic training from courseworks, qualifying exams, thesis topic proposal, few rounds of committee meeting on progress, and defense - a virtuous metamorphosis from a 1st year grad student just finish their commencement to an young scholar who can study their favored topic more or less independently. For many reasons, this natural cycle goes wile sometimes, generating an unholy creature so-called tenured graduate student (actually not tenured indeed, but just exist too long in the department as like tenured faculty).
Case 3 - Dunno volume conservation
This is kind of recent as multidisciplinary study has been popular in many disciplines. Even for smart graduate student (except truly exceptional ones - yes there are such rare species), one person's intellectual capacity is more or less limited especially during 5 ~ 6 years of graduate study. Assuming a person's intellectual capacity is volume, then depth of it would lower if it spreads too much - which I find analogy with volume conservation. PhD should have certain level of depth in their thesis topic, which is basic requirement in most of disciplines. However, sometimes people spread themselves too much rendering their depth of knowledge way too shallow. It is important to know his/her own intellectual capacity (his/her own - this part is important as intellectual capacity is a quality varies astonishingly a lot between people), and confine their range of coverage during PhD study.
Case 4 - Amateur professional
This is the worst case I say. PhD is not just a degree but a course of training & a process of maturation into an independent professional of his/her own field. There are rarely people who don't have virtue of acknowledging their own level of maturation - most of time confusing other people's contribution to their own contribution. Academia is kind of river in which knowledge and skills flow from senior to junior researchers over generations to keep their own versions of cherished light of intelligence survive. However, due to unfortunate personality disorders, there are people who simply confuse what they can do and what they actually cannot do. I call such kinds as amateur professional - in a sense that amateur but believe themselves as professional. For this bad case, the basic mechanism of PhD doesn't work out at all as they refuse to be part of it. For Case 1-3, good advisors or help from the department may save the situation to finalize PhD. But for this case, there is no remedy. If you find somebody in this case, the best consulting would be finding a better position in somewhere else (although I wonder whether this would be welcome in other non-academic positions or not).
In aiming to become a good researcher, we should pursue the following qualities:
Conference - annual or biannual meetings for academic discussions of a certain branch of professional field - is an essential part of professional research life in most fields. However, more casually speaking, conference is one of the first official academic event most graduate students join as part of their own professional discipline. Reflecting the wide spectrum of academia, each conference boasts truly iridescent facets of academia - from 1st year graduate student to big names of the field in their 70s or 80s.
For every graduate students (or undergraduates if they start research early on), the first conference is full of excitement and nervousness. I also remember my first international conference in hot summer of 2011 at Taipei, Taiwan for IROS. I presented my first research work on bioinspired robot in front of numerous robotics experts around the world (and I went there alone for some reason). I can still recall vivid feeling of the excitement and heart trembling nervousness in hot and humid summer days of Taipei, which in turn have guided me toward a professional research life since after.
As days in graduate study pile up, conference attendance becomes more like mundane events. Excitement on their own presentation or poster session starts to be shared with networking, other people's works, trend of the field, and so on. For me, this evolutionary process has been a great enjoyment. It was like, more dramatically speaking, walking from audience to the stage in play or concert. In first couple of conferences, I felt like being audience of big play or concert even though I presented something in oral or poster session. I couldn't understand all languages and information of vast range of talks and sessions, and nobody really knows me in the field yet (or more or less newbie). Watching famous people's flamboyant talks and active networkings accompanied by numerous handshakes and name-card tossing gave strong another-world-feeling. However, as my years in the field counts 1, 2, 3, and more years, I have gradually walked onto the stage. Famous people's talks are not anymore sound like flamboyant but informative. I can swim through streams of languages and information rather than spinning in turbulence of ignorance. People start to recognize and know me as like I start to know them, and hand-shakig and name-card tossing become my part of act too.
The most remarkable part of our lives is that we all change and grow in many sense. In recent conferences, I saw many early year graduate students with audience's eye - reminiscence of all researchers' early days. It is always grateful to tell them to walk into conference, on the stage.
Collaboration is becoming essential part of research in recent years, particularly around multi-disciplinary fields. It sounds easy to do collaboration as there are many researchers to collaborate in principle. However, in my personal view and experience, successful and good collaboration is rare and kind of luxury even in highly multi-disciplinary fields. After good amount of unsuccessful and rewarding collaboration experience, I made my own version of check-box list for collaboration:
1. Collaborators should have distinctive but complementary expertise in high professional standard
This is probably the most important. Collaboration is NOT trainer-trainee relationship, in which knowledge and technique only flows from one to another side (so strictly speaking, such internal training is not collaboration at all), but bi-directional crosstalk of different expertise. Collaborators should have distinctive but complementary expertise, so that they can make synergistic benefit when they put their head together. The core of collaboration is basically combination of different profession and blow a new wind by mixing things unlikely present in only one person. Also, each collaborator should possess high level of professionalism in each field. This is simple but very effective marker to identify good and rewarding collaboration opportunity.
2. Collaboration should start from idea not skill set of each party
It is very common that collaboration starts by looking for people or groups with certain skill set that lack in one party but in need. This is straightforward way, but very susceptible way of forming collaboration. In this case, early communication and collaborative discussion seem easy and quick, but it is very hard to keep momentum of collaboration in long run - as collaboration easily evolves into technical outsourcing without core shared value. Instead, collaboration should start from idea that would likely require integrative combination of different expertise to attack. Having shared goal in collaboration is essential to keep momentum and motivation in long term collaboration.
3. Make publication from collaboration
It is harsh to say, but it is reality that collaboration is not only about intellectual enjoyment but also about productive academic activity. Collaboration without clear publication perspective is extremely susceptible as it cannot give enough practical motivation to continue for each party. Hence, preparing and planning publication even in very early stage of collaboration is very important in practical regards.
4. Write grant for collaborative projects
Again this is practical consideration rather than idealized world story. Every research project consumes funding both for human resource and non-human resource. Particularly, collaboration projects typically require investment from each party not evenly divided, but rather very irregularly distribute in different stage of collaborative project. In practical viewpoint, these irregularities and unpredictable investment from each party on collaboration can easily strain relationship, and oftentimes serve as trigger to fail collaborations. Securing a dedicated funding source for collaboration projects greatly enhances flexibility and stability of collaborative relationship. Also, grant proposal itself is very nice opportunity to formalize the perspective and goal of collaboration compared to causal verbal discussions. Moreover, having research grant (typically in 3 ~ 5 years due) significantly increase motivation and dedication from each party to move forward on collaboration as the awarded grant basically acts as external enforcer of meaningful outcome from the collaboration.
When we spend more and more time in academia, it is common to find that so many grad students, postdocs, and even young faculties are obsessed with paper publication and chasing it as utmost goal. Surely say, I also thought in such manner when I started my grad study several years go. However, over time, I now see things very differently.
Long story to short, we should chase idea not paper. It didn't take long time to realize that paper is just a written embodiment of ideas, which is the soul and core of our entire business of research and intellectual endeavor. Also, authorships like first, contributing, and corresponding things are basically formalized gibberishes in this sense - what matters at the end of day is who proposed the idea and how that idea survives and contributes to the field. I now believe that researchers, particularly those who hope to remain in academia, should be trained and train themselves to become an idea proposal not a hard worker. It is very common scene that many students with good publications diminish into nowhere after their graduation - or shut off from their creative advisors or colleagues.
This is a grave challenge regarding the healthy academic environment. Funding sources and academic recognitions suppose to award ideas and accomplishments that benefit societies and expand the border of our knowledge - not publications or hard work (if somebody hopes to be awarded by hard work, there are many better-fit places such as construction site et al). Probably in the future, we should try harder to raise the next generation of thinkers and idea proposers rather than mindless hard workers who only chase papers. We should promote creative thinkings and out-of-box ideas, and actively de-promote hard workers without good spark of creativity even though with good publications. We should chase stars not shadow of them.