Choosing PhD topic and supervisor

"No matter how tough the chase is, you should always have the dream you saw on the first day. It’ll keep you motivated and rescue you from any weak thoughts."
― Jack Ma

“PhD made me poorer, without money, but richer in thoughts.” 
― Lailah Gifty Akita

Many Physics students join a doctoral program with a dream of doing great science. To start well, it is important to choose your PhD research topic and PhD supervisor with care.  In this blog I will try to provide some tips that may help you in this quandary.

Which research topic should I choose for my PhD?

Statistics show that a majority of academicians continue to work on the same topic as their PhD work for at least 10 years.  Hence, it is prudent to choose your PhD research topic with a proper care.  As I wrote in my blog Should I go for higher eduction in Science & Engineering?,  I believe that you should choose a topic that interests you most.  This way you will enjoy your work and produce the best results.  But, how does one find such a topic?  

 Figuring out one's dream may be quite difficult; some discover it too late.  Here are some tips that may help in this search: 

  1. Read general articles and books (for example, Chaos by James Gleick, Quantum by Manjit Kumar; Feynnman Lectures in Physics) on as many physics topics as possible; read/watch many biographies; read magazines like Scientific American; refer to APS (American Physical Society) news; etc. This exercise may help you discover your dream topic.
  2. Seek advice from parents, teachers, friends, seniors, etc., but decide yourself. It is your life and you should take control of it.
  3. Your choice should not be driven by fashion or glamour.  For example, don't jump to a topic just because it won the Nobel prize last year.  This work was the dream project for the Nobel prize winner(s), but it may not be for you.  Note that big awards typically come after many years of wait, hence that particular topic may not be the most interesting area of reserach at the present moement. 
  4. It is important to choose an active research areas. Such research fields provide funding opportunities, provide employment and collaborations, as well as many challenging problems.
  5. Typically, classical areas of research have much less number of unsolved but tractable problems and employment opportunities. I add that "What is the ultimate reality?" is not an good choice for a PhD topic. This is a very interesting question, but physics questions have to be quantifiable and definitive (e.g., origins of global warming, if it exists; evolution of a star; etc.). 

Where should I go to do my research?

Once you have decided on a topic or on a set of topics, then try to identify universities/institutes where you can learn maximum on those topics.  Generally, top institutions are good in all important areas of physics, but middle-level institutions have strong research groups in certain areas. Ascertain that the particular institution is strong in your area(s) of interest and that it offers PhD positions in those area.

If you like the works of some researcher with whom you may want to work, email him/her your CV and tell about your interests in that group.  Most researchers reply emails.  If you are lucky, some of them may even offer you a position. 

Based on your credentials (grades, scores in entrance exams, recommendations, etc.), you may shortlist places you may apply for a PhD position. Be practical! you could choose a mix of top, middle, and average level institutions so that you get at least one position.  Don't apply to only top 5 universities of the world.

I believe that employment opportunities, social environment, culture, etc. too matter for creative work. In my blog, Study Abroad? I try to argue that doing PhD in India has many benefits.

Who should I choose as a PhD supervisor?

This is a critical choice.  PhD research is an apprenticeship where you learn how to research on a difficult problem, so you should have a good rapport and communication with your PhD guide.  PhD work is a mix of guided work and independent work.  But, you learn how to do independent research during this period.  In addition, you need to learn the art of choosing a research problem, solving reserach problem, communicating your results to the journal and presenting them in seminars and conferences, interactions and collaborations with peers and visitors; writing grant proposals, etc.  This is why you should choose an active research group headed by an eminent researcher.  PhD work is not a regular job where you perform what you are asked to do.

I believe that there is no magic formula for choosing a perfect PhD supervisor (note that no one is perfect!).   However, I think you must definitely get inputs on the following from the researcher's webpage or by googling. 
  1. The publication record including citations of the researcher.  The easiest source for such information is google scholar. Other useful databases are Web of science, Research gate, Orchid.
  2. The academic reputation of the researcher, e.g., invited talks in major conferences; Editor of journals; etc.
  3. Placement of alumnus of the research group.  Employment does matter! 
  4. The average duration for the award of a PhD degree. It is not advisable to spend many years on a PhD degree.

Research and teaching skills are related, but they are not proportional.  Some very good researchers are not the best teachers.  I suggest that you should look for research proficiencies in your potential guide.

Once you are in a research group of your choice, you are all set to follow your dream. Believe in your instinct and work hard.  If you persevere and work honestly, you can do wonders. 


Yogendra said…
I have realized that a Supervisor is the who can make bright future of his PhD students. So PhD student should to choose much more talented and excellent conducting professor as his Supervisor.

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