This blog was partially inspired by my (former) adviser. He’s working his way toward retirement and therefore won’t be my dissertation chair, but has been involved in my program so far. And while that has occasionally been annoying, in the long run I think it will have been a good thing.
He was the first one to point out that I was approaching my PhD like an IT project. I had a “checklist” of things to do:
- publish papers so I can get a job
- comprehensive exams
I even tried to convince them that my comprehensive and dissertation should be just publishable papers instead of anything more complicated/less immediately useful.
His concern was that I would graduate without ever having learned how to be a scholar, which to him meant someone who slowed down, thought about the bigger problems, and wrote about them. To him, while it is important for an academic to do research and publish, the stuff you research and publish about needs to be meaningful and important. You can’t do that unless you’ve taken the time to think about what really IS meaningful and important.
For example, much of my research with my current adviser is on charter schools and student achievement. It’s very quantitative research; detailed differences in test scores depending on how you break the data down. And I can do that. It’s very technical, involves my database skills and easily publishable.
To my former adviser though, it wasn’t sufficient to just execute this stuff. It was important to him for me to think about the WHY behind these questions; why were there differences between charter schools and traditional public schools. What would they be doing different that might cause the differences, and how could I find out if I was right about the why’s.
I see his point. It is the philosophy and history and sociology that will help me answer the WHY questions that my numbers find.
That doesn’t make the process easy, though. The idea that it’s OK to set aside the technical analysis and focus on reading stuff that won’t go directly into a published article at some point is strange. Taking time to do this stuff instead of charging ahead to graduate as soon as possible is a bizarre idea. I’m still adjusting to the thought that efficiency may no longer need to be the focus of everything I do.