Friday, April 12, 2019

Should graduate students pick their own research field?

Paul Romer won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2018. There is an interesting podcast where he is in conversation with Tyler Cowan. In it, there is the following quote that readers may love!
We subsidize graduate education through money that goes to professors, but we let the professors make the decisions about the problems they work on, and then, therefore, the things the students are trained in. I’d rather let the students be the ones who decide, “Yeah, I don’t really want to work in high-energy physics. It’s kind of dead end. I think there’s something much more exciting in condensed-matter physics.”
I mostly post this for amusement.
[I thank my economist son, for bringing it to my attention].

However, Romer does raise an interesting issue. There is a distinct contrast between the systems in the USA and Australia. In the USA faculty get grants and use them to hire graduate students. In Australia, most Ph.D. students get their own scholarship (fellowship) which pays their tuition and a living allowance (salary). They are then free to pick an advisor (supervisor) and topic, which is then approved (usually routinely) by various committees.
I am not sure this is a better system. Too often, students still tend to flock to advisors who are "famous" (but give them little time or exploit them) or those working on the latest fashionable (hyped up) topic ... On the other hand, if a student wants to work on a particular topic that is currently not "hot" there is more opportunity for that, for better or worse.

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. In US universities, there is course work for a PhD and quite a demanding qualifying in good schools. In Austrlia, course work is audit and not credit. UK , One does not know about Cambridge and Oxford. Is there any course work in UK unis. Some unis in US base their credit evaluation on students by working out problems from good publications. Do you feel , PhD should have course work in Aus universities ?