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GRADCOHORT Finding a Research Topic Lori Pollock Professor, Computer and Information Sciences University of Delaware.

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Presentation on theme: "GRADCOHORT Finding a Research Topic Lori Pollock Professor, Computer and Information Sciences University of Delaware."— Presentation transcript:

1 GRADCOHORT Finding a Research Topic Lori Pollock Professor, Computer and Information Sciences University of Delaware

2 GRADCOHORT The Next Hour… What is CS research? What should I consider when choosing a topic? How do I identify a research topic? –Focusing from area to topic –What do I do if I am stuck? –Taking risks Sharing personal experiences

3 GRADCOHORT What is (CS) Research? the systematic investigation into and study of materials, sources, etc., in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions Oxford dictionary –Theoretical scientific research: Identify an open question Formulate a hypothesis Prove hypothesis –Experimental scientific research: Observe a problem Formulate a hypothesis Develop a strategy to solve problem based on hypothesis Perform experiments and demonstrate conclusive evidence Interpret results Research is not knowing the answer or how to get it

4 GRADCOHORT What is CS Research? Example from Compilers Observe a problem: Loop code is costly because repeated many times; some statements have same effect on every iteration. Hypothesis: Performance gains if such code can be hoisted out of loop bodies without affecting correctness. Strategy: Develop automatic analyses to determine when safe and transform. Evaluation/Evidence: Implement in a compiler & measure performance Interpret results: Observed performance gains => invariant code motion as standard compiler optimization

5 GRADCOHORT So, what isnt PhD research? Help me out here…

6 GRADCOHORT How do I choose a topic area for my research? Whose interest do you need to grab? –You –Your advisor –Your research community Gain breadth to broaden choices Love your topic! –Sets the course for your next 2-3 years –Determines, in part, opportunities offered to you upon graduation –May work in same/related area for years

7 GRADCOHORT More Things to Consider What are your strengths? weaknesses? –Programming, design, data analysis, proofs –Key insights vs. long/detailed verification/simulation What drives you? bores you? –Technology, puzzles, applications, interdisciplinary Do you (i.e., your advisor) have funding for you to work in the area? –Working as a TA –Working as an RA –Having university/college, government, industry, etc… fellowship/scholarship/grant

8 GRADCOHORT Which comes first? Advisor or Topic Area? –For many people advisor before topic Meet faculty member with compelling research interests –For some people topic before advisor Need a guide in an area already of great interest to you Want an advisor –Knowledgeable about your topic Interdisciplinary topics may require >1 advisor –With compatible working style (e.g., solo vs team) –With lots of research ideas –With strong interest in working with PhD students –….(more this afternoon)

9 GRADCOHORT Focusing from Area to Topic Area - Too broad to be a thesis topic Topic/Problem - set of related open questions formulated as a well-defined problem in an area Characteristics of a good research problem -

10 GRADCOHORT 7 Ways to Identify a Good Research Problem

11 GRADCOHORT 1) Flash of Brilliance You wake up one day with a new insight/idea New approach to solve an important open problem Warnings: –This rarely happens if at all –Even if it does, you may not be able to find an advisor who agrees

12 GRADCOHORT 2) The Apprentice Your advisor has a list of topics Suggests one (or more!) that you can work on Can save you a lot of time/anxiety Warnings: –Dont work on something you find boring, fruitless, badly-motivated,… –Several students may be working on the same/related problem

13 GRADCOHORT 3) The Extended Course Project You take a project course that gives you a new perspective –E.g., theory for systems and vice versa The project/paper combines your research project with the course project –One (and ½) project does double duty Warnings: –This can distract from your research if you cant find a related project/paper

14 GRADCOHORT 4) Redo … Reinvent You work on some projects –Re-implement or re-do; Evaluate –Identify an improvement, algorithm, proof You have now discovered a topic Warnings: –You may be without a topic for a long time –It may not be a topic worthy of a doctoral thesis

15 GRADCOHORT 5) Analyze Data You participate in more senior students evaluation study: –Help with data collection and analysis –Identify open challenges You have now discovered a topic Warnings: –You will have to agree on who works on identified open challenges –It may not be a topic worthy of a doctoral thesis

16 GRADCOHORT 6) The Stapler You work on a number of small topics that turn into a series of conference papers –E.g., you figure out how to apply a technique to several key problems in an area You figure out somehow how to tie it all together, create a chapter from each paper, and put a BIG staple through it Warnings: –May be hard/impossible to find the tie

17 GRADCOHORT 7) The Synthesis Model You read some papers from other subfields in computer science/engineering or a related field (e.g., biology) Look for places to apply insight from another (sub)field to your own –E.g., machine learning to compiler optimizations –E.g., natural language processing to software analysis Warnings: –You can read a lot of papers and not find a connection –Or realize someone has done it already!

18 GRADCOHORT … Combine, Compose… but also Propose! Try any combination of these ideas –Its good to make sure youre passionate about a problem –BUT focus on tangible progress too Are you converging to a problem? Have you ruled out a problem? Warnings: –Trying these techniques can take a lot of time without any results!

19 GRADCOHORT Sharing Experiences/Concerns Flash of Brilliance The Stapler The Synthesis Model Extended Course Project The Apprentice Data AnalysisRedo/ReImplement

20 GRADCOHORT Tips and Suggestions Topic + advisor are both important Keep a research ideas journal (wiki) Keep an annotated bibliography (bibtex) Follow your interests and passion –Key driver for success and impact Are you eager to get to work, continue working? If not really interested, adapt Is it tedium or actual lack of interest and motivation?

21 GRADCOHORT When Youre Stuck In the beginning… –Read/present papers regularly to find open research issues –Practice summarizing, synthesizing & comparing sets of papers –Write your own slides for presentations –Work with a senior PhD student on their research –Actively participate in research meetings –Get feedback and ideas from others Attend a top research conference in your area of interest –Listen for open problems –Talk to attendees about research Attend your dept colloquia series and ask qs Do a government or industrial lab internship

22 GRADCOHORT When Youre Stuck… –Read a PhD thesis in your area –Often contain an open problems or future work section –Read your advisors grant proposals –Attend PhD oral exams and thesis defenses –Understand how to formulate problems –Understand what constitutes a problem solution –Assess your progress, with your advisor –Set goals per semester - Have you ruled out an area? converged on an area? Chosen a topic for an exploratory research project? –Focus on measurable good progress in an interval not in k months goals

23 GRADCOHORT When Youre Stuck Once started… –Divide your topic into milestones, and develop a plan to work on them one-by-one –Reward yourself when you finish a milestone –Publications and/or posters as milestones –Vary what you do during the day, but set aside blocks of time for each activity –Assess your progress regularly, with your advisor –Have you submitted a workshop paper? A term project with documentation? A poster at a conference? A talk at a regional conf?

24 GRADCOHORT When Really Really Stuck Change research topics? May move you out of your advisors comfort zone of expertise Have to learn the related work in a new area Starting from scratch Change research advisor? May have to go through shakedown period again May or may not be better off But change can be invigorating Whats hard? Need to recognize when things are not working out and take action Must weigh consequences of changing and not changing

25 GRADCOHORT Taking Risks Choosing a hot area with lots of competition in research community Good results ensured of impact May be easier to get funding But you may be scooped Make a context-dependent decision Need to take some risk Should choose significant problem Reward for solution, but higher risk to obtaining solution –High risk problems may not have solutions –Difficult to publish negative results Overall need to balance and to specialize choices for your situation and your interests

26 GRADCOHORT Identify a research topic and get started! Great relevant article in ACM Crossroads, How to Succeed in Graduate School: A Guide for Students and Advisors, (part I, Dec 1994; part II, Feb 1995), available in ACM Digital Library Questions? Comments? Discussion?

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