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Research Methods David Parkinson 26th April 2007.

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1 Research Methods David Parkinson 26th April 2007

2 Outline What is research? How do we do it? How can we do it more efficiently?

3 Science Science is the process of using accumulated knowledge to explain observed phenomena. It proceeds from hypothesis to experiment to analysis to conclusion. It is (or should be): logical (each inference step proceeds rationally from the previous one) transparent (all steps from hypothesis to conclusion are apparent) reproducible (the same conclusions can be drawn by another scientist doing exactly the same steps again)

4 Research Research is the process of creating ideas and solving problems. It quite often: proceeds in a disconnected manner (some steps may be solved before others) relies on intuitive leaps (new methods of solving problems become obvious only in retrospect) Although science is scientific (by definition), research is often more of an art-form

5 Research Process Definition Define the problem to be solved Collation Collect materials relating to the problem Frustration Start solving the problem, but get stuck Incubation Think about it for a bit Inspiration The Eureka moment With thanks to Archimedes of Syracuse

6 Definition Deciding on a research topic can be the hardest step Talk to friends and co-workers about what you are working on, what they find interesting and what you find interesting (Bassett method): Find a paper in your subject, list the assumptions, and then remove one, as to make the work more general. Perhaps even find a new collaborator this way But know your own abilities: A scientist gets no credit for failing to solve a problem that is beyond his capabilities" Sir. Peter Medawar Try not to think about publication right at the beginning Think Does this interest me?, not Will other people find this interesting?

7 Collation Find material that relates to the problem (see my previous talk on conducting a literature review) Break the project down into segments, and find literature that deals with each bit Look outside your own particular research area for material. A problem unsolved in astrophysics may have already been partially solved elsewhere As new problems become apparent, be prepared to stop working and go back to the literature. It may be that there is no material that deals with the problem. In that case, go back to basics (textbooks, lecture notes etc)

8 Frustration Takes three forms: Lack of knowledge (no idea how to proceed) Failure of method (what should work doesnt) Hydra effect (solving one problem creates many new ones) Debugging tips: Try breaking the problem down into smaller parts and solving each in turn Try removing elements from the problem until it looks less daunting Try a case that you already know the answer to first, before extending it into the unknown regime Reverse the problem, or look at it from some other angle

9 Incubation The unconscious mind is also really good at doing research. It just needs a chance to examine the problem. If you have made no progress with a problem for a while, take a break (maybe have a bath) Explain the problem to someone else Rubber Ducking: the act of explaining a problem to someone who has no technical knowledge at all (such as a Rubber Duck). It is the act of explaining the problem that makes the solution clear Go back to the literature Maybe someone else has solved this problem, or something similar Try something completely different Give up, and work on some other (hopefully) more solvable problem

10 Inspiration May come upon you at any time So remember to put on clothes before rushing back to the office Dont forget the answer once you have it Write it down Explain it to someone else Remember to CHECK the answer Just because it sounds right in your head, it doesnt mean it will necessarily work on paper

11 Flow The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described the concept of flow: when a someone is completely immersed in the task at hand. It is characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment and fulfillment, and external concerns (time, food, ego, deadlines, etc.) seem to fade away. He found the happiest experiences of peoples lives came when they were in this state. Procrastination tasks (such as reading email, surfing the web, doing admin etc) make it impossible to concentrate hard enough to enter flow at work. However, if you can enter flow while researching, it becomes its own reward, and will positively reinforce itself so that you keep working, without the need for external motivation

12 Words of Advice Consider that your current method of doing research may not be the most efficient. Examine how you can improve your work style and environment Research is (in many ways) an art-form, and like all creative arts, you can improve with practice. So dont be disheartened if inspiration takes a while to come at the beginning Know your abilities, and be prepared to try and challenge yourself by attempting harder problems. The closer that a problems difficulty is to your own skill level, the easier it will be to enter flow, and the better you will feel in solving it.

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