Although this may be of limited interest, I wanted to announce a topics class that I intend to give this winter. The title of the course is, simply, “thesis problems.” The structure of the course is to devote each week to a different problem which I think would make a good thesis, or, at least, a good “first project.” The topics are sufficiently diverse that each week will be independent of the next. The problems range in difficulty, but they have several features in common, including the fact that I have ideas on how to start all of them, and I have complete solutions to none of them. I have no shortage of possible problems, but I will try my best to select those with the following properties:
- The background material you will be required to learn in order to attempt any of these problems will be useful even if you do not ultimately end up solving the problem.
- For the harder problems, there will be some low hanging fruit if you are not able to solve the problem.
- The problems will tie into the research of other faculty members in the department, so you will have at least two people (and frequently many more) to speak with. Pro-tip for graduate students: talk to faculty other than your advisor! For example, at least one (and possibly two) of the problems would be suitable for students of Benson, and obviously many will be suitable for students of Matt as well.
Part of the reason I am bringing this up now is to ask: has anyone taught a class like this before? Are there any pitfalls (obvious or otherwise) that I should be aware of? This course is a spiritual cousin of the numerous problem sessions which are held at conferences. However, I think that these sessions usually have limited success, in part due to the fact that the problems that come up (while usually interesting) are just too hard. I will be especially conscious therefore to choose problems for which I think real progress can be made, and for which there is somewhere to start. You can think of this class a little like what might happen if you came to my office and asked what it might be like to be my student, except spread over three hours a week for nine weeks or so.
You might ask if I’m worried that hungry postdocs will hoover up the problems like Lunt Hall cockroaches eating crumbs after a wine and cheese. The answer is: not really! I think this class would be a success if I end up with (say) two or three students working on problems related to what I talk about. This will leave many other problems which I would still love people to work on. (Though, of course, if you are a postdoc who does want to think about one of these problems, you should probably tell me.)