Thursday, October 18, 2012

A rant against a letter to graduate students

Hey, Physics&Astronomy Professors?THIS IS NOT OKAY! via the post How Not to Mentor Your Students in Cosmic Variance. From the concluding remarks of the post:
"Are you a faculty member in either physics or astronomy? Make sure you get the message out about what’s truly important. Yes, we all have this love, this passion, the unquenchable thirst to know more. It takes immense amounts of hard work to get there, and you need to be motivated internally to make it. But that’s not the only important thing, and we need to change the culture that allows insane letters like this to go out to students."
The relations between graduate students and their guides are tricky and I was always reluctant to take graduate students. Apart from the tricky interaction problems, I felt that I was doing what interested me and was not sure of the importance of the topics or the job prospects for students later on. But around 1970, I had to 'guide' a student for a Ph.D. since I recommended his continuance after the first year graduate courses. He was already interested in some areas where he did some problems which were not home work assignments. I suggested some more reading material in that area and suggested that if he wanted then I could suggest some problems. But the better option would be to slowly start look at journals in the library, read abstracts and what he could understand and slowly find the sort of topics and problems that interested him. I did suggest a problem (which was later solved by a Fields medalist and later somebody found a simpler proof with in the reach of a graduate student) but slowly he found his own problem which did not seem that interesting. But as he went on, it turned out quite difficult and I had to to dig for references. Finally after a couple of years of hard work he solved the problem and the solution turned out be more difficult than any thing that I ever did. I still think that the problem did not deserve such a wonderful solution but with the techniques and confidence that he acquired, the student went on to did several good things and turned out to be a solid mathematician.
I also remember the student of well known US mathematician who found his mojo. Around 1996, when I visited the department, the student seemed to be jumping from one big problem to another and the guide was frustrated since he would not work on the simple routine experiments he recommended which would lead to good thesis problems. After a few years of mutual discontent, the student changed guides and finished his thesis, apparently solving some of the good problems that interested his second guide. Recently he went on to solve a big problem that has been around for over sixty years on which advisers and many others worked.
These may be exceptional cases but I do not think letters such a those mentioned above help, They seem to be knee jerk bureaucratic responses.

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