Is technology making PhD students lazy?

October 16, 2013

There was a time, not so very long ago, when searching for an article meant a trip to the library, finding a physical copy of the journal and taking it to the photocopier.

There was also a time, not so very long ago, when theses were typed on a typewriter. There were no word processors, there was no referencing software. Everything was done by hand.

Technology has made life much easier for academics; you can find, download and print an article in seconds, plus there are countless pieces of software and online resources now available. But is this same technology making some PhD students lazy?

Please note: I am not saying you should use a typewriter and search for literature by hand. These are examples of technology being a good thing! I've had some comments reacting as if I am arguing against the use of any technology. This would be ridiculous!

Lazy questions

By far, the most common question I get asked is, "I'm studying X, please provide me with a thesis topic". I must have been asked this 100 times in the last few months, and I've seen the same question in a number of online forums.

This is a lazy question, not because a student should think of it themselves, but because they haven't taken the time to think about whether I'll be able to answer. How on earth does anyone expect me to instantly come up with a viable topic on demand? Yet the question keeps coming...

OK, so most students don't ask this kind of question, but there is a sizeable minority expecting instant answers. To those students, sorry, but it doesn't work that way... The availability of online help does not absolve you of the responsibility of thinking.

Lazy use of software

Some analysis would be impossible without the use of software, but there is a risk that you end up not understanding your own analysis.

Take statistical software for example. It can save you a huge amount of time, but it is possible to use it without understanding what it is doing with your data nor the results it presents.

If it spits out a bunch of numbers, what do they mean? What is a p-value? What's the difference between standard deviation and standard error? You have to take the time to understand these terms before you use them in a report.

Don't pass responsibility onto the software!

Lazy searching

While search engines and other online resources give you instant access to information, sometimes what you need isn't at the top of the results list. Sometimes it's hidden away on page 27 of an article published in volume 4 of The International Journal of Obscure Research. Sometimes you need the patience and persistence to dig a little deeper and search a little longer.

Patience and persistence are crucial attributes for successful researchers. While search engines are great as an initial tool, what do you do when they don't give you what you need? Do you have the patience to try searching in other ways?

Problem solving

Research is all about problem solving. It rarely, if ever, goes exactly according to plan, and you will have to adapt and solve problems as they arise.

Often, the first solution you try won't work, so you'll have to try something else... and something else.... and something else, but eventually you get it right.

It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer- Albert Einstein

Success is often determined by the amount of time you are willing to spend with a problem, plus your willingness just to try things out and see whether they work, or in other words your willingness to make mistakes and keep going. Technology, whether search engines, discussion forums or software, is no substitute.

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