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Choose Research Topics

A common problem among many students (in fact, most people) is that they cannot decide. Many people hesitate to choose because they are afraid of choosing something wrong and then regret later. Some studies suggest that people feel less happy when they have more options. In some retail experiments, customers leave without buying anything if too many items are on sale. 

When students join research teams, they may face the options of choosing topics. Here are some common misunderstanding about choosing research topics:

  • Students decide research topics. 
  • If a student chooses a topic, the student cannot change the topic for the next forty years. 

The most important factor of deciding research topics is the needs of the research teams, not a student's preference. A research team is often similar to a baseball team. If the team needs a left field now, you have to fill that position, or you are out of the team. The research topics are decided by professors according to multiple factors, for example, the existing expertise of the teams, the projection of the teams' future needs, etc. It is rare that a professor allows a student to choose a topic without any boundary. Sometimes news reports major breakthroughs in science or technologies and says the people have been working on solving the same problems for decades. What is covered in news is rare; common situations are not covered in news. In other words, most researchers change topics over their careers. 

Many students say, "I don't know what I want to do. Thus, I am not going to choose." This thinking is wrong in multiple ways:

  • First, you have already chosen a major. 
  • Second, you have already chosen to study at Purdue University.
  • Third, you have already chosen to consider to join Dr. Lu's research team.
  • Fourth, you have already chosen to read this page right now.

Everything has a cost. The highest cost is time because nothing can get time back. When you are reading this page right now, you have already been spending the most precious resource, time, of your life. You have already made the decision to spend this moment this way.

Many students think not choosing any topic gives them the freedom to choose something else later. This is also wrong for multiple reasons:

  • If you do not choose a research topic now, you may have no options later. If you want to attend a graduate school, research experience can be very helpful getting admissions. If you do not choose a topic, you may not receive the admission from the university you want to attend. As a result, you do not have the option of attending that university.
  • If you do not choose a research topic now, you may not stand out in job interviews. As a result, you do not have the option of joining the company you like.
  • Most important, if you do not choose a topic now, you may never know which topic you actually like.  If you are an outsider, you do not know the good and bad things about a particular research topic. As a result, you have no information to make the best decision for you.

"How to choose a topic?", you may ask. The best answer is "Jump in and do it." The best way to know whether you like a research topic is to start doing it. Read research papers. Repeat the experiments. Derive the formulas. Talk to the people doing this research. Just do it. You will likely determine, within a few weeks, whether you really hate it.

If you do not do it, you will never know whether you like it or not.

Choice is a Package

Some people imagine that they could choose the best among different options. That is usually not possible. If you like to travel around the world, you have to tolerate flight delays, jetlags, etc. If you like to live in a city, you have to tolerate traffic. Every choice is a "package". Everything in the package comes together. Each research team has specific culture and style of doing research. Some teams emphasize teamwork. Some other teams encourage students to work independently. Some professors usually write short papers (2-4 pages). Some professors usually write long papers (10 pages or longer). Some professors' papers have many equations. Some professors' papers have no equation. Some professors expect students to appear during daytime; some other professors do not care if students appear only between dinner and breakfast.  Some research teams need to write software. Some research teams need field studies. When you join a research team, you embrace all these into your topic. 

Understand Your Personality and Restrictions

Many students choose "hot" topics. They choose topics based on the popular terms in news. This has many problems. First, a hot topic means many people are working on it. When these students graduate, there may be over supply of talents and jobs may be hard to find. Second, a hot topic must be a hard topic. Easy things cannot be hot because everyone can do it and there is nothing to talk about. That means a hot topic takes a lot of effort to understand and to master.

Hot topics inevitably becomes cold. 

When you choose a research topic, you need to know your personality. Do you like more conceptual problems, or you prefer something tangible? You also need to know the restrictions imposed on you. If you have two semesters before graduation, you should not intend to solve a problem at the scale of a doctoral thesis. In most cases, students do not have the knowledge or experience choosing the right scale of problems. They should discuss with professors.

Understand the Four Stages of Doing Research

It has been observed that most students go through four stages when they do research:

  1. Excitement due to ignorance. Students are always excited when they encounter new research problems, They are ready to change the world by their endless energy and unlimited optimism. 
  2. Frustration and disappointment with knowledge. The first stage may last several days to several weeks. After reading research papers, the students lose excitement. They realize "Everything I want to do has been done."  The more they read, the more frustrated they become. They conclude that they are late about everything. Anything that is worth doing has already been published. 
  3. Experiments and failures. The second stage may last several weeks to many months. Most students give up during the second stage. Some students think deeply enough and move to the third stage. They identify things that have not been published. They think of ways to improve existing solutions. They try these improvements and compare these new methods with existing methods. The new methods do not work at all, or are worse than the existing methods.
  4. Improvement and innovation. The third stage may last several months to forever. Reading more papers usually does not help getting out of the third stage. Staying in office or laboratory is often non productive. Improvements and innovations usually come from non-routine activities: attend a seminar, do exercise, watch a sci-fi movie, talk to strangers, listen to podcast, take a short vacation, attend a conference ... Research has shown that people are more innovative when they break their daily routines.

How to get out of Stage 2 and Stage 3? There is no method that always works. Here are several suggestions that can help:

  • Talk to experts. If you find a paper that is truly inspiring, contact the first author and ask whether you can talk by vidoe call for 10 minutes. Of course, you have to read the paper very carefully and understand most of the context. Don't ask trivial questions. Instead, ask questions about directions, such as "What direction would you suggest to take?" "What mistakes would you suggest to avoid?" Use you email. DO NOT USE
  • Pay attention to details. Maybe all existing studies use images taken indoors. If you use outdoor images, will anything change? Maybe a published study is conducted on a sunny day. If you do the study on a rainy day, will anything change?
  • Create a table comparing different methods. What are similar and different among the published methods?
  • Repeat published studies. You may get different results because you take slightly different approach and the details are not published. Discover the differences.
  • Read biographies of great inventors. Learn how they solve problems.