A short interview with a PHD student. Insights into what they like, what they need, what they wish existed.

The following is an email from my friend B.D. I asked about his experience as a PHD and if there are any tools/tech that he’d find useful. (abbreviated for privacy). He’s a mathematics and math education PHD student up at Columbia who’s an extremely insightful fellow.

I sent him this email today:

Hey B.D.

2) I wanted to ask you about your experience as a PHD student. In the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a project with a couple people just researching websites that collect and display written works/lectures/artworks/good writing. We’ve come across a wide variety of things. MOOCs are popular these days, but obviously there’s something lacking. Not many people use them, the quality varies widely, and their claim that high quality education can be accessible anywhere falls a bit short for these reasons + more. I also feel like video isn’t the greatest medium for delivering content.
I wanted to ask… when you were a PHD student, was there something that you wish existed? Are there repositories for high-quality PHD writing? What did you use/do to find the works of other PHD students in your field/topic? If you wanted to find papers to keep up with a certain topic… what did you use?
His response, which came in under 20 minutes:
The question of ‘what did I wish existed?’ is very good. To answer for doctoral students more generally seems difficult; so I will truly give just a partial answer for myself: Mathematics Education is a very interdisciplinary area; to illustrate this, here are only a few related areas that start with the letter p: Pedagogy, philosophy, policy, problem posing, psychology, pure mathematics, and Creativity = people, processes, products, press. It’s tough enough figuring out what’s happening in one’s own field; imagine trying to make sense of research in related fields… or even (seemingly) disparate fields! Impossible.
The main ways to root out literature, as far as I know, is by reading others’ references, and by searching for keywords. Two quick remarks: First, I don’t know how well keywords are indexed with regard to synonyms. For example, I recently asked a question on a math site (http://math.stackexchange.com/q/844321/37122) about an object I called a 'balloon’; quickly it became clear that this object has other names: dragon, canoe paddle, kite, tadpole, etc. Combing the literature is perhaps easier when one knows the synonyms! Second, even more than word similarity, one might really be seeking out structural similarity. Drawing again from my own personal experience: How does one assess creativity (of, let’s say, a product)? Perhaps an approach to this can be found in other works on assessing other psychological constructs. (How does one assess beauty of a watercolor painting? ETC.) Maybe searching through others’ works on assessment – or even using some form of 'assessment’ as a keyword – will lead me to such literature. But surely I’m missing something.

As I think on the fly: I would have liked to see theses that were singled out for having especially good individual sections. For example: Who wrote an awesome literature review? Or methods section? Or even an awesome abstract? One reads theses before writing a thesis, but it is truly difficult to judge what is high-quality, and perhaps expecting one document to be through-and-through awesome is too much.

Lastly (gotta go back to watching The Voice of China and playing word games…) I think it would be great to know more about research from other countries. People used to be so worried about duplicating research that there were foreign language requirements; indeed, my program requires Ph.D students to pass two (I used French – which I had to pick up on the fly! – and sneaked in Mandarin as my other one). These tests are typically outdated, as they will allow the use of paper dictionaries and not electronic ones; but I think the concern is still very real: Someone might be doing something very similar in another language, and I might not know about it. (Consider that Finland and Japan are both considered model countries with regard to mathematics education; I won’t speak to how true this is, but I can tell you that I don’t read Finnish or Japanese!) So: To know what’s happening in non-English work would be helpful.

I’ve written out my train-of-thought directly, and I’m not proof-reading; so hopefully it’s cohesive enough to be helpful!
Let me know if anything is unclear – hope all is well. Ben
imageVery interesting. It seems like there are repositories, but not very public ones. It does seem like BD would like some kind of place that had interesting excerpts instead of whole papers. It also seems like he wishes for international research or a research language-converter. All very interesting. I am mostly interested in Google Scholar and whether or not people find it organized, useful, and accessible. I wonder if there’s potential for improvement in this space for academics. Can we better utilize this knowledge/author pool of PHDs?
Written on August 11, 2014