Most graduate students in engineering are hired to support a specific research contract which is attached to an already-approved proposal and funding commitment. These students are privy to a number of blessings, namely (a) a project and proposal which was already conceived and written prior to their involvement, (b) a strict project timeline which accelerates their graduation, (c) secure funding, and did I mention (a) a project and proposal which was already conceived and written prior to their involvement. At the onset of grad school, you are given a definition of the problem and a rough roadmap.
On the other hand, students like myself entered graduate school with no predefined research project waiting on us. In my case, it was up to me to identify a significant contribution to the field that I could make, bring the idea to maturity through comprehensive literature review, and develop a formal research proposal outlining the process and original contributions to the state-of-the-art. This process is stressful and may require multiple iterations before converging on a project that is both significant and achievable.
I call this the “Choose Your Own Adventure PhD.” Let’s explore this phenomenon.
On the one hand, this approach has several possible disadvantages, including (a) having to conceive and develop the idea, (b) scarcity of funding, (c) lack of support from the department, (d) lack of accountability from a funding agency, and following from these reasons (e) a high probability of longer time spent obtaining your PhD. However, there are significant advantages here which include (a) the freedom to define your own creative research direction, (b) graduating with a proven competency for identifying and meeting a state-of-the-art need, and (c) the opportunity to position yourself professionally in the research community of your choice.
I have occasionally resented the Choose Your Own Adventure PhD because frankly it is a much more difficult road. But I have many friends who basically graduated after following orders for 3 years who have confided in me that they never felt like their work was their own. Instead, they felt like their advisors’ puppet and even sometimes didn’t fully understand why they solved problems the way they did or why the solutions worked. Does this really prepare you for a career as an independent researcher? Then again, many of these folks are now in industry and academic jobs while I am still in the final stages of graduate school.
At the end of the day, is one PhD approach better than the other? Maybe not, as long as you are able to achieve your professional goals as a result of your graduate school experience. As far as I’m concerned, while the Choose Your Own Adventure PhD has been a difficult road, the experience has been immensely valuable and I am very grateful for the opportunities it has already afforded me.