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What is research and how to be an excellent researcher?

Why some students with high GPAs are terrible researchers?

 

Research is climbing a mountain, not a ride in an amusement park.
 

We do not need your “help”. When you “help” a project, you are an outsider.

You need to take charge and take responsibilities.

If you do not want to take responsibilities, you are a tourist. Tourists are not welcome.

 

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Take Ownership and Take Initiatives

Student Thinking vs. Tresearcher Thinking

Please read this story and think deeply. It reveals the differences between a person that “does the assignment as required” and another person that “thinks beyond the requirements and solves problems”. Which type of person would you want to be?

A manager M told an assistant (let’s call this person S, representing students’ thinking) that some people from another company would visit. “Please find out when they arrive.”

A few days later, M asked S, “Have you done what I asked you to do about the visitors?”

S said, “Yes. They would arrive at 4PM next Wednesday.”

M said, “What else?”

S said, “Nothing else. That is the assignment you gave me and I have done it perfectly.”

M asked another person (let’s call this person R, representing researchers’ thinking).

M said to R, “Have you done what I asked you to do about the visitors?”

R said, “Yes. They would arrive at 4PM next Wednesday.”

R continued, “Four people from the company will visit and they will arrive by flight. I have already arranged a taxi to pick them up from the airport.”

M nodded.

R continued, “They will visit for Thursday and Friday. I have already reserved hotel rooms for them. The hotel is only two minutes of walking to our office. There are several restaurants near the hotel.”

R continued, “Among the four people, one is a sales manager and three are engineers. I have already inform our sales manager and engineering manager to arrange meetings with them.”

R kept talking, “The visitors will take a 6PM flight on Friday. I have already arranged a minivan to the airport. The sales manager and the engineering manager will go to the airport with them, just in case they want to talk about some more things before the visitors leave. The minivan will take the two managers home. The two managers have already agreed this arrangement.”

M thanked R and asked R to leave.

M said to S, “Do you see the differences between you and R?”

S said, “R does a lot of things that you did not ask.”

M said, “R spends time thinking. You only do what is assigned to you. A 10-year old can call the company and ask them about the arrival time. What distinguish you from the 10-year old should the ability to think beyond the assignment. If you can do what a 10-year old can do, you will be treated like a 10-year old.”

If you are the manager, is S better or R better?

Do you want to be S or R? Which one is more likely to have a successful career?

 


 

You may say, “Wait. What happens if the manager does not want me to do the additional things? What if the manager wants me to do exactly what is assigned and nothing more?” Then, you have a decision to make. Is this manager good for your career and professional development? Who are in the same group? Are the people around you creative because the manager encourages they to think beyond the assignments? Or the people around you do exactly what is assigned to them, and nothing more? What is the growth potential of a group if the manager is the only thinker? If you are with the people that do not think, what would you become? How much can you accomplish in your career?

“What happens if I reserve a taxi and a hotel but the manager is unwilling to pay? Do I have to pay them out of my own money?”  If you ask these questions, you are still not thinking. You can reserve a taxi and a hotel without paying in advance. “But this can be more expensive!”, you are concerned about spending more money than necessary. It is true that you may save some money if you pay in advance but saving money should not be the primary purpose of your group. If your group cares so much about the price differences, you are in a wrong group. Can you ask your manager to approve the advance payment if saving money is very important? In many organizations, saving a few hundred dollars is not that important because many other things, for example time and relationships with customers, are much more important. Can you ask the sales and engineering managers whether the payment comes from their budget? Can you ask the company’s business office whether the other company will pay? The key here is that you think about all of these before anyone asks you to do anything.

Successful people think and ask questions.

Unsuccessful people find countless reasons and limit themselves. Unsuccessful people find excuses in order to do nothing.

Successful people solve problems.

Unsuccessful people focus on unimportant details.

If you want to be successful, you need to know what is important and what is not.

“How do I know what type of person my manager is?” Talk to your manager. If you want to have a successful career, you have to talk to people. Understand what they think. Understand their expectations. Understand their styles.

If your manage does not encourage you to think, leave.

Research Team vs. Classroom

Do you want to join a research group? It is important to understand what is “research”. It may be quite different from what you think.

Students with high GPAs should naturally become excellent researchers, right? These students are motivated and have solid technical knowledge and skills. Moving from classroom to research laboratory should be easy. Wrong! Many students with high GPAs are terrible researchers. Why?

The strategies to become successful in classrooms are inapplicable in research.

Everyone solves many problems everyday. In the morning, you want to have breakfast. You want to check whether it is raining. After a whole day of work, you want to have a nice dinner and perhaps watch television. These things may seem common or even trivial. If you make some changes, these problems are no longer common or easy.

  • How would you provide breakfast to 100,000 people after an earthquake, when electricity and gas are unavailable?
  • How would you reduce traffic delays in large cities during bad weather?
  • How would you ensure that food is fresh and clean?
  • How would you build a network that can deliver television signals to every house?

If you think deeply, every problem can become a research problem.

What is a research problem?

Research means solving problems that have no known solutions to anyone in the world.

Research can mean solving a new problem or improving existing solutions.

 

How would you design an electric car that can run 1,000 km between recharging? How would you build a tunnel (or a bridge) across the Bering Strait? How would you create a spacecraft that can be reused and relaunched everyday? How would you design and implement a social network that can provide satisfactory performance to 10,000,000,000 users? How would you develop a pedagogy that can help 95% high school students graduate (current rate is about 80% in USA)? Could you double the mileage of a gasoline vehicle? Could you reduce crimes in a city? Could you make a robot play soccer?

Why do you want to do research? Why do professors advise students in research projects? Students do research to acquire the skills for solving problems. Most students learn by “acquiring knowledge” in classrooms or laboratories. Acquiring knowledge and solving problems are different. If a problem has already been solved (common in classroom learning), students need to learn the solution. Most things in our lives are learning existing solutions and applying the solutions. To solve new problems or to improve existing solutions, it is necessary learning how to “do research”.

A researcher has to answer these questions everyday:

  1. What is the problem? (definition)

  2. Why is the problem worth solving? Who cares? (motivation)

  3. What have people done on this problem? (existing work published in literature)

  4. What is my solution? (contribution)

  5. How is the proposed solution different? (innovation)

  6. Is the proposed solution better? In what ways? By how much? (evaluation)

 

Classroom learning is good, for some purposes

The ability to learn from previous generations is one of the most important factors in human civilization. Imagine what would happen if the knowledge and experience from the past could not be passed along. Everyone would need to rediscover how to hunt for food, set fire, grow crops, build shelters. Without learning, civilization would not exist.

Learning can occur in many forms. One of them is classroom learning. A group of “students” get together regularly learning something under the guidance of a “teacher”. In many cases, these students are of the same ages and have similar levels of knowledge and skills. Most of them have taken prerequisites. This form of learning exists for thousands of years. Please notice that I said “under the guidance”; I did not say “listen to lectures”. Classroom learning can appear in many formats, such as discussion, debate, hands-on laboratory, or lectures. Classroom settings can be an efficient way to learning. Many students learn at once and the teacher does not have say the same thing over and over again to individual students. Classroom is also a way to socialize with peers.

This article does not intend to discuss whether classroom learning is good or bad. This article intends to compare classroom learning with research.

Differences between classroom learning and research

Over the years, Dr. Lu has been working with hundreds of students (undergraduates and graduates) on many research projects. His experience suggests that one of the major challenges is to get rid of the “student mind” and get into the “researcher mind”. The “researcher mind” is quite different from the “student mind”; in some scenarios these two minds are completely opposite. Thus, it is worth pointing out the differences so that students can become excellent researchers sooner. Classroom learning usually has the following characteristics:

  • Everyone in the same class has about the same levels of knowledge and skills, learns the same materials, solves the same homework problems, and answers the same questions in exams.

  • Usually, the instructor and the teaching assistant (or assistants) know the answers to the homework problems and exam questions.

  • A homework problem last a few days to several weeks. The duration of a homework assignment can be as long as the duration of an entire semester, but must not be longer. After the semester, everything is “reset” and the next semester is a fresh start.

  • In order to give each student a grade, it is common that students work independently and collaboration is prohibited. Even when collaboration is allowed, a student usually works with only a few students.

Typical classroom settings are inapplicable for research. If you are used to classroom learning environment, you may be surprised when you start doing research. It is extremely rare that you and another person in your research group solve the same problem. If two people solve the same problem, then, by definition, one is redundant and should be removed. In other words, you will solve a unique problem and nobody else in your group solves the same problem. The problem should be non-trivial; otherwise, it is not worth your effort. Since you are the only person solving the problem, you should not expect anyone else to know the answers to your questions. You can certainly discuss with group members, but do not expect anyone to know the answers right away. In classroom learning, if a student performs poorly, the student receives a low grade and the other students are not affected. In a research project, if one member does not perform, the entire group is affected. You must take complete ownership of the problem because you are the only one solving it.

Common Mistakes by Students (Student Thinking)

One of the most common mistakes among students is that they expect the advisers to know the answers. They believe that the advisers set up the research problems to test the students’ abilities, in the same way as exam questions. Whenever they encounter difficulties, they want to talk to the advisers and expect to get precise answers immediately. The truth is the opposite. If the advisers know the answers, why would the advisers waste time solving the problems? If you work on a research problem, you are on your own. If anyone else knows the answer, you are not solving a research problem.

A direct consequence of student thinking is reflected in the reports. Students believe that the advisers know everything and the purpose of the reports is to convince the advisers that the students know the answers. As a result, the reports would be too short and too succinct, like answers to exam questions. The reports lack details and are meaningless to anyone.

Many students overlook the importance of explaining their work to others. The instructors are supposed to know the materials well. In a research project, the adviser is not supposed to know the answers, nor the other group members. Thus, communication skills are essential.

If you do not like to communicate, you cannot succeed in research.

When you are in a team, you have to communicate. Many students go to classrooms, sit and listen, take notes, and answer exam questions. Such behavior will not make successful researchers. Researchers must communicate. If you prefer to work alone, don’t do research. You will not succeed.

 

 

Because a student’s goal is to demonstrate to the instructor the ability to answer homework and exam questions, the student’s thinking is reactive: wait for the instructor’s questions and answer the questions.

Another common mistake among students is the “short-term thinking”. If a homework problem lasts only several days or several weeks, why should a student worry about anything beyond the due date? When a student starts doing a research project, the student likely keeps this habit. The student would not pay attention to documentation. The student would likely make short-term decisions and accumulate “technical debts”. If a student works on a project for only one semester, what happens after the semester ends is not the student’s concern.

Students are taught to learn from reading books, looking for answers online, talking to people with experience, attending seminars, etc. This habit, unfortunately, can hurt a researcher. A common mistake for students is the “one-more syndrome”: they keep postponing the efforts of solving difficult problems because they believe that they would acquire and possess the necessary knowledge and skills after taking one more course, reading one more book, attending one more seminar, etc. They hope the additional course, book, seminar, etc. will magically give the solutions to the problems. As a result, these students never start doing research.

When a student takes a class, it is usually a fresh start. If a class project allows the student to choose a topic, there is often high degree of flexibility. A research project is quite different. When a student joins a project, it is very likely that the project has started months or years earlier. The different parts of the research project have been defined. A researcher must solve the given problems; solving any other problems would mean failure. If the problem is to build a bridge, building a skyscraper would be a failure. If the problem is building an airplane, building a ship would be a failure. If the problem is to build a database, building a computer game would be a failure. Solving the given problem is especially important in a team project because other team members depend on the solution. A common mistake among students is to redefine the problem or to solve a different problem. Occasionally, researchers solve wrong problems and have breakthroughs. These lucky researchers earn praises from media. Why? Because the successes are rare and thus worth reporting. In most cases, when a researcher solves a wrong problem, the researcher probably leaves the research group long before anything can be accomplished. This researcher will not appear in any news.

Some students think research is wild thinking without boundaries. These students will never become researchers. Researchers solve problems and these problems are usually defined as part of bigger problems. Free thinking without boundary is called dreaming, not research.

Many students believe “a great idea” is the most important factor for becoming successful researchers. This is wrong. Successful researchers usually start by asking questions, not by coming out "ideas". In many cases, obvious questions. How can we make wireless network faster? How can we improve vehicle's’ fuel efficiency? Can we predict earthquake? Can we reduce urban traffic congestion? … Yes, occasionally, someone has “a great idea” and revolutionize the field. That is rare and often unintentional. It is reported that Hertz stated, "I do not think that the wireless waves I have discovered will have any practical application". HTML was invented to organize information, not to become the foundation of e-commerce. Students spend too much time looking for “great ideas”. They should instead focus on solving important problems.

A student sometimes thinks the problem will stay the same weeks after weeks, months after months. If a solution is found, the solution can be reused again and again. Why not? The problems and solutions in textbooks have been the same over many years. A research project, by the very definition, keeps changing. After a problem is solved, it is no longer a problem and the effort must be realigned to solve another problem.

Many classes have weekly homework assignments. A research project has no such tightly scheduled checkpoints. Instead, a research project may have only monthly or quarterly progress reports. A student would think the lack of weekly homework as an excuse to procrastinate.  

Success Requires Focus

A student takes different courses every semester. Naturally, a student wants to change research projects often. Can a student solve a non-trivial problem within one semester? Some students even work on multiple research projects in the same semester. How can these students accomplish anything? Many students think research is to broaden the knowledge. This is exactly wrong. Research is to deepen human's knowledge. To broaden one’s knowledge is to take courses.

In a classroom, students learn what has been discovered or invented. As a result, many students mistakenly believe that learning what has been done is important. However, this is only one part of research. To become a researcher, one has to invent a new and better solution. Some students do not pay attention to existing work because everything is new to themselves. Learning is not research. Research is to create new  and better solutions that are never known by anyone before.

Choose Now, Then You Have Options

Many students say, "I don't know what I want to do. I am not going to decide now." This is wrong. If you do not choose, you have no options later.

This is student thinking. Students think the same courses will be offered again next semester. There is no need to choose now. 

Some students jump around doing several "research projects". They do not concentrate and as a result they accomplish nothing. Without noticeable accomplishments, when these students apply for graduate schools or jobs, they will have very few options. 

To be successful, one has to choose and focus. After accomplishing something (such as leading a research paper), the person can choose to do something else. 

Need to Self-Evaluate

In classrooms, instructors set the metrics for evaluation (in homework assignments and exams). As a result, students rarely think about how to evaluate their work.

Some students think research is “experience”, somewhat like sightseeing by watching or taking photos in a national park. In reality, research is more like weight training or climbing a mountain: to gain the benefit, one must take efforts regularly for a long period.

Students expect courses to be well-organized; professors are supposed to plan everything before a semester starts. Students expect to have a syllabus at the beginning of each course. Students expect homework assignments are clearly defined and must not change before submission. Research by definition must be adaptive: as solutions are being developed, the understanding may change and the goals may change. Adjustment is expected.

Students expect “organization” in courses because courses' materials are mature. A research project, by definition, is not mature. The requirements change frequently. The approach has to adapt to new understanding of the problems. It is common that new discoveries are published in the middle of a research project and the project needs to adapt to the new knowledge.

 

Researcher Thinking

A researcher understands that a true research problem, a problem that is worth the effort, is one without a known answer. If anyone knew the answer, it would no longer be a research problem. A researcher understands that nobody knows the answers and thus must proactively anticipate questions while conducting research. A researcher knows the importance of writing reports with details and carefully document important decisions and steps. The purpose of a report is to help readers understand how to reproduce the work. A researcher would not take short-term decisions that could hurt the project later. A research project that is worth doing can last many years. Even if a researcher is no longer with the project, all the efforts accumulate over the years. A researcher knows the only way to start doing research is to start as soon as possible, and learn the relevant knowledge and skills along the way as needed. A researcher would not wait and hope a class or a book would offer solutions. New knowledge and skills are needed to solve new problems; therefore, a researcher needs to keep learning.

If a class has a group project, the group size is usually small, 2 to 5 people. All of them take the same class in the same university. In contrast, a research project may have dozens of people and some collaborators are in other organizations. In fact, it is increasingly common that research projects have collaborators in multiple universities from different countries. To succeed in a large team, it is important developing communication skills with people of different levels of experience, different skill sets, etc.

A true research problem is difficult and requires many years’ effort. A researcher does not join a group easily. Once a researcher joins a group, the researcher will stay until a solution is found, written, and presented. A successful researcher has to focus on solving one problem at a time. A successful researcher is one that knows a subject deeply and thoroughly. A researcher has to create better solutions and “better” must be evaluated using appropriate metrics.

Many students think taking notes is old-fashion; they think everything that can be learned is available on the Internet. A researcher, however, knows the solution is not on the Internet (otherwise, it is not a research problem). As a result, a research knows the importance of taking notes. Keeping a record of details is essential to becoming a successful researcher.

Students submit homework assignments and then wait for the scores from instructors.  If an assignment is not graded, most students would simply ignore this assignment. A researcher knows that a solution for a research problem is evaluated by the final results. This solution needs many steps and most steps are not “graded” by the adviser. A researcher would not ignore, skip, simplify, or minimize these steps because these steps are the building blocks for the final solution.

GPA is often the top priority for students. In contrast, researchers are measured by their contributions to solving important and difficult problems. To maintain a high GPA, a student needs to balance the efforts among all courses. A successful researcher, however, should focus on solving one specific problem (or a set of related problems). Getting A in every course is great for a student. Getting A is several unrelated research topics is a failure for a researcher.

A good researcher should get “A+++” in one topic and one topic only.

A student frequently thinks about getting high scores in exams. When someone (in particular, an instructor) asks a student a question, the student is likely to interpret the question as a test or a challenge. When a student does not know the answer, the student usually tries to say something with the hope of getting some points. This habit can cause confusion in research discussion because others do not know the intention of the student. A researcher is not in this “test” mode. Instead, when someone (in particular, an adviser) asks a question, the researcher thinks it is discussion and exploration of new ideas. When a researcher does not know the answer, the researcher will admit it because this is not a test. A discussion is more productive when all participants are truthful.

Students think everything resets at the end of each semester. To put this in a different way, everything is lost at the end of each semester. Students do not consider the importance of organizing their work so that some other people can improve later. Semester breaks are time for refreshing. Researchers usually work at different schedules: they pay attention to the major conferences in their fields. They submit papers to the conferences and present the papers. The conferences’ schedules are usually not aligned with semester schedules.

No research project resets after each semester. In fact, a research project may have a life of years or decades. A data set may be preserved in a repository, may have value for other researchers as a tool of future research, and may live on for many years. The more important a research project is, the more likely that a research output will take on an extended life beyond the research project.

The following table summarizes the differences between student thinking and researcher thinking.

 

Student Thinking

Researcher Thinking

The adviser knows the answers

Nobody knows the answers.

Ask the instructor when encountering difficulty

Solve the problem by self

Reactive, waiting for questions

Proactive, anticipate questions

Short reports to the instructor

Write reports for others to understand and reproduce

Work alone or in small groups

Collaborate with other group members

Pay little attention to communication

Explain and present to the research group

Short-term decisions

Long-term decisions

Do not care after a semester ends

Research projects last many years

Look for “great ideas”

Solve important problems

Accumulate technical debts

Avoid technical debts

Wait for another course, book, seminar …

Start as soon as possible

Talk to instructors only

Talk to other researchers

Change or redefine problems

Solve the given problems

Reuse the same solutions for different problems

New problems probably need different solutions

Procrastinate until a report is due

Work on the project continuously

Change groups every semester

Stay until a solution is found, written, and presented

Solve multiple problems simultaneously

Focus on solving one problem at a time

Want to solve many problems superficially

Solve one problem deeply and thoroughly

Ignore existing work

Study and compare with existing work

Learn what has been done and nothing more

Create new and better solutions

Focus on learning

Focus on contributions

Overlook the importance of evaluation

Develop metrics to evaluate solutions

Treat research as sightseeing

Treat research as weight training

Wait for adviser’s instructions and approval

Take initiative, suggest solutions

Expect to find everything online

Take notes with details

Ignore assignments that are not graded

Pay attention to every step

Getting A in every course

Getting A+++ in one topic only

Treat questions as tests

Treat questions as discussion

 

Research for Undergraduate Students

Research is not required for undergraduate students (in most universities). If an undergraduate student wants to join a research group, it is important to examine the purposes. There  are good and bad reasons to join a research group.

The most important reason of joining a research group is developing the skills solving non-trivial problems, finding solutions, evaluating the solutions, and explaining the solutions. Joining a research group means to learn the methodologies for solving problems. These methodologies are usually unavailable in classrooms, due to the settings of classrooms. A research group is a great way to learn how to work in a team for a project that lasts multiple years. In a research group, one has to solve the assigned problem and explain the solution (in both speaking and writing) to the other group members. To solve the problem, many new skills are needed, for example, surveying literature and developing metrics for evaluation.

Some students join research groups for wrong reasons. Some want to add “research experience” in their resumes, without doing anything real. They are not interested in answering the question, “What have you accomplished in the research group?” Some students hear stories about commercializing research projects earning a lot of money. This is not a good reason joining a research group because successful commercialization of research projects is extremely rare. (There is only one Google in history.) Some students want to get recommendation letters and believe that they can get strong recommendation letters simply by talking to the professors occasionally, without doing anything.

 

A research group has many tasks that are not “research” itself. These tasks are necessary keeping a group running. For example, students need to clean labs. Universities do not clean labs because some labs have sophisticated and expensive equipment. If the printer in the lab runs out of paper, a student needs to report to the adviser. If a machine is broken, a student needs to report to the adviser. Someone has to manage the group’s web site. From time to time, there are visitors to the group and students need to give presentations. These are all essential skills as researchers. If you think joining a research group means doing research and nothing else, you should not join any research group.

Some students have developed the habit of deadline-driven. If there is no deadline this week, nothing needs to be done. This does not work for a researcher. A researcher has to look far ahead. When your adviser tells you to write a paper six months before the submission deadline, your adviser knows a good paper takes six months of hard work. It is impossible to write a good paper in a month. Do not even try. A researcher is self-motivated and thinks ahead. If you need to be pushed regularly, do not join any research group. It would be painful for you and everyone around you.

You must have heard “Old habits die hard.” You have been a student for most of your life and you have developed many strategies and skills for getting good grades in classrooms. As explained above, these strategies and skills can be counterproductive in a research project. If you want to apply the same strategies and skills, you will waste your own time and the time of the group members.

If you want to join a research group, you must be ready to dramatically change yourself.

Think carefully before you make a decision.

 


Where to find Recent Research Progress?

Before joining a research topic, it is important understanding what has been done. These are common sources of publications of research research progress:

  • ACM digital library
  • IEEE xplore
  • Google Scholar
 
To download a research paper off campus, enter https://www.lib.purdue.edu/find/databases (Purdue Library) first.