NSF workshop: an example

Here’s an example of what I meant by my earlier position. Suppose I were a professor and someone wanted to do a PhD under me. He or she is sort of interested in databases, sort of interested in software engineering, sort of interested in whatever I can come up with. I would say something like this:

“There was a NoSQL workshop recently. People who developed non-relational databases (mostly because of scaling issues) got together to talk. Over the next few years, I expect you to become the academic expert on the, uh, ‘totality’ of that sort of database. That means things like these:

“You’re going to need to describe the databases with the same care and precision that Charles Darwin used to describe barnacles. That would include the obvious, like some sort of taxonomy for them—preferably one that you discover in the wild rather than bring to it. Here’s a wild idea: there’s a style of research they use in the social sciences for that, grounded theory. (Take a look at Angela Martin’s dissertation and what Robert Biddle’s students do.) You’ll have to figure out how to apply it to non-humans.

“But more than that, I want you to write some superb user documentation for at least one of the databases (pick the one that needs it most). I think writing about how to use something gives you great insight into that thing. You’re also contributing back to the world that’s giving you something to study, and the taxpayers who are paying part of both of our salaries.

“Now, before you can write superb user documentation, you have to use the thing being documented. You should become a better-than-just-competent user of at least several of these.

“I also want you to learn the internals, both from a design point of view and also from a nitty-gritty point of view. So you should become a committer on at least one of the open source projects.

“I also want you to travel and work at places that use the databases. Part of your research will be on how such databases have disrupted (or just changed) both normal development processes and also the systems being built. I can imagine you going to four kinds of places:

  • “Places that are switching an existing app to the new-style database.

  • “Places that are starting out with a new-style database.

  • “Places that have been using the new technology for a while.

  • “The places that first wrote one of the new databases.

“At the end of all that, I want you to be able to say something wise or at least suggestive about the introduction of disruptive technology.

“Since you’re going to be an expert on at least one of the databases, we can get companies to pay to have you visit (in at least the first two cases and—I bet—in the third). We’ll see if we can scrounge up grant money for the fourth kind, but you may have to do a Corey-Haines-style tour.

“That’s a start. I expect we’ll think of more things that push you toward learning everything there is to know about a particular part of the world, from every sensible angle.”

5 Responses to “NSF workshop: an example”

  1. Keith Braithwaite Says:

    If I were in the same faculty as you I’d ask at what point you expected your graduate students to advance the start of the art in their field, rather than filling in the blanks in the documentation of the art (however valuable that might be).

    I’d note that even in what Rutherford would call the “stamp collecting” disciplines, a PhD is expected to find out something that no-one else knows, not merely learn lots of stuff that someone else already knows (even if no-one else already knows that particular sub-set)

  2. Brian Marick Says:

    My answer would be that I expect someone spending a year looking at such a sub-area from unusual perspectives will, in the natural course of things, come up with something new. If nothing’s come up after a year, I guess we’d have to try something else.

  3. elharo Says:

    Sounds like you’re describing a career rather than a thesis. Not that it’s a bad focus area for a career, but it’s certainly not a reasonable thesis project. Overly broad, underspecified goals like this are one reason many otherwise well qualified students fail to complete Ph.Ds.

  4. Brian Marick Says:

    As an otherwise well-qualified student who failed to complete his PhD, I guess I should admit you’re probably right.

  5. tomm Says:

    This system would serve as an interesting test for a PhD candidate. I would say that if you can’t extend human knowledge after such an endeavor, then you don’t deserve one regardless of what your *institution* of higher learning may decide. Also, if you do fail to complete your PhD, you are still a thoroughly employable master of a domain, so you get something out of the deal. End result: society gains (more sqlite’s, ACE’s, ANTLR, etc.), university can raise their standards for a PhD (because there is value even if you don’t finish… how agile), and students don’t have as much stress while learning (because they are becoming more marketable.)

    The big losers in this system seem to the be elite in hyper-specialized fields, and such are the arbiters of most research. How do you address this problem? (for more insight on the difficulty of working around entrenched academics, I’d recommend reading Kuhn vs. Popper.

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