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The Middleman In Research

The Middleman In Research

3 mins 1.7K 3 mins 1.7K

In this article, I will try to illustrate how a common man in today’s life is nothing but a “middleman” in his trade even if he is not a so-called “middleman”. The primary example I will portray is that of graduate students who are at the porch of their research careers how short or long lived they might ultimately turn out to be.

Consider a first year Ph. D student. His primary responsibility is to conduct research. Thus the yardstick of his success in almost any university in today’s world is publication in either peer-reviewed journals or conferences depending on the field. So the “order” in this trade is very clear from the beginning to the student, i.e., produce top-quality research papers suitable for top-tier venues. Now the “supply” is the difficult part. There may be many reasons for this. The primary reason is that any field of study is mammoth in both length and breadth. So it is easy to get overwhelmed to select a topic which contains so-called low-hanging fruits. But there are obvious constraints like the sub-field has to be of interest to both the parties, the adviser of the student and the student himself. Often what happens is that the sub-fields are limited to the expertise of the adviser. So one good thing is that the entire space is quite narrowed down at this point. Then comes the difficult part. Zeroing on a particular research problem to work on which might have potential interesting research questions. Here by “interesting” I mean publishable. Now these are all vague terms which are very contextual to the field, conference/journal, and so on. So this entire process is at the crux of the “supply” procedure.

Now some students are lucky when their advisers can give them an interesting sub-area or better even a particular problem. So the job on the part of the students is greatly reduced. However in most cases, the students keep on pitching their ideas of the problems and the possible ways to tackle them to their respective advisers. This process goes on until a sizable problem is ultimately solved or there has been a significant investment of time and no fruitful result comes and the project dies a silent death. Now there are factors like reputation or prowess of the adviser and his collaborations with other members of the community which greatly help in this regard. One difference with traditional order-supply business is that since the advisers are fixed during the entire grad-school life of a student, there is very little flexibility of him for choosing diverse research topics or working on different sub-areas. Of course there are caveats to this when the adviser is interested in almost the entire field which is a rarity I must say. Another leeway is that students can work with multiple advisers but then there are other issues which might complicate stuff because the probability of both of these advisers having the exact skill and expertise and interests is very low. In some cases, the students work on disjoint topics with two people which are perfectly fine for the student. But again it demands more time on behalf of the student for investing his time equally on both the projects.

So the overall imagery fits quite nicely within the paradigm of an order-supply business where the graduate student is kind of the middleman between the publication and the adviser.

P.S. – I was inspired to write this essay after watching the film “Jana Aranya” directed by the famous Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.


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