Wednesday, July 21, 2004

On, Off, Quick, Slow

Perhaps the most exciting and energizing aspect of my job is the opportunity to guide some really talented graduate students. I'm still figuring much of it out, but it has been a great experience so far. The following are some thoughts that have occured to me about being an advisor.

A key issue is deciding whether to be a more hands-on or a more hands-off advisor. To illustrate these roles, consider the activity of problem formulation, which is at the heart of the research enterprise. A hands-on relationship would imply assigning well-formulated problems to the student; a very hands-off relationship would imply waiting for the student to come up with new problems and ideas; somewhere in between would be working with the student to formulate problems together.

On this spectrum, I'm probably closer to being hands-on than hands-off in general (perhaps understandable, given that I am a new faculty member trying to establish a distinct identity in my field through a coherent research program). However, while there are many faculty members who are static in their roles, my own belief is that there's no real one-size-fits-all approach. An advisor has to be flexible enough to adapt to each individual advisee's capabilities and drive, which also vary with time. I would prefer to be as hands on as possible early on when students are likely to need the most guidance, but also believe it's important to give them much more independence and flexibility over time.

Another key issue pertains to when the student should start doing research. I think there are again two schools of thought on this -- 1. as soon as possible; 2. only after sufficient preparation through course-work. There are pros and cons to each approach. Starting the student off with some research problem early on is good because it gives them motivation and feeling for how research is different from coursework (which is all they've ever encountered before, in many cases). On the other hand, sophistication and maturity require a good amount of time taking challenging and useful courses. It is perhaps a sweeping generalization, but I believe that for EE/CS students, the start-quick approach may be better suited for more applied or experimental research, while the go-slow approach is particularly well suited for highly theoretical research. The key reason is that incoming graduate students are already equipped with the ability to do programming and some simple analysis, but generally need some time to pick up sophisticated analytical tools and deep theory.

Because of my own prior experiences and style of research (which I would refer to as applied theory), I've primarily chosen the start-quick approach to date. But I certainly see the advantages of the go-slow approach. I will ask my students to take formative, challenging courses to continually hone their abilities. It's crucial that the quality of their work improve over time, as they become more knowledgable and mature through coursework and also their own growing research experience.

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