Machine Learning (Theory)


What it means to do research.

Tags: General jl@ 8:33 pm

I want to try to describe what doing research means, especially from the point of view of an undergraduate. The shift from a class-taking mentality to a research mentality is very significant and not easy.

  1. Problem Posing Posing the right problem is often as important as solving them. Many people can get by in research by solving problems others have posed, but that’s not sufficient for really inspiring research. For learning in particular, there is a strong feeling that we just haven’t figured out which questions are the right ones to ask. You can see this, because the answers we have do not seem convincing.
  2. Gambling your life When you do research, you think very hard about new ways of solving problems, new problems, and new solutions. Many conversations are of the form “I wonder what would happen if…” These processes can be short (days or weeks) or years-long endeavours. The worst part is that you’ll only know if you were succesful at the end of the process (and sometimes not even then because it can take a long time for good research to be recognized). This is very risky compared to most forms of work (or just going to classes).
  3. Concentration This is not so different from solving problems in class, except that you may need to concentrate on a problem for much longer to solve it. This often means shutting yourself off from the world (no TV, no interruptions, no web browsing, etc…) and really thinking.
  4. Lack of feedback While doing research there is often a lack of feedback or contradicting feedback. The processing of writing a paper can take a month, you may not get reviews for several months, and the review process can be extremely (and sometimes systematically) noisy.
  5. Curiousity This is not merely idle curiousity. A desire to understand things from different viewpoints, to understand that niggling detail which isn’t right, and to understand the global picture of the way things are. This often implies questioning the basics.
  6. Honesty Good Researchers have to understand the way things are (at least with respect to research). Learning to admit when you are wrong can be very hard.
  7. Prioritization You have many things to do and not enough time to do them in. The need to prioritize generally becomes common, but it’s not so common in undergrad life. This often means saying ‘no’ when you want to say ‘yes’.
  8. Memory Problems often aren’t solved in the first pass. Conversations from a year ago often contain the key to solving today’s problem. A good suite of problem-solving methods and a global understanding of how things fit together are often essential.
  9. Ephemeral Contact The set of people who you know and work with may only be talked with for a few brief but intense hours a year at a conference.
  10. Opportunism Possibilities come up. They must be recognized (which is hard for conservative people) and seized (which is hard for people without enough confidence to gamble).

Not all of these traits are necessary to do good research—some of them can be compensated for and others can be learned. Many parts of academia can be understood as helping to reduce some of these difficulties. For example, teaching reduces the extreme variance of gambling on research output. Tenure provides people a stable base from which they can take greater gambles (… and often results in people doing nothing). Conferences are partly succesful because they provide much more feedback than journals (which are generally slower). Weblogs might, in the future, provide even faster feedback. Many people are quite succesful simply solving problems that others pose.

5 Comments to “What it means to do research.”
  1. Drew Bagnell says:

    Great post John! I would add one more, perhaps closely related to “gambling your life”: confidence. I’ve had a number of scientist comment that they have to “psych” themselves up by convincing themselves that they can solve a problem, and possibly one that no one else can. What amazes me about, for instance Isaac Newton, wasn’t that he was sharp enough to come up with calculus and classical dynamics, but rather that he had the confidence to work through the implications of his ideas. He surely made mistakes, but he had confidence in a wild set of new tools applied to a totally new set of problems. I think research takes a certain chutzpah that being an undergrad simply doesn’t.

    Hamming has a nice piece that touches on a number of these issue.

  2. I agree.

    The “confidence” aspect is also related to “lack of feedback” (you must have the confidence to go one, even without feedback) and “curiousity” (= confidence to forge ahead with new tools and see how they work).

  3. I would add that it is also important to be (constructively) critical. When listening to another researcher giving a talk, a good researcher should try to find flaws in the work/arguments being presented and then ask about those (of course, being polite). This is important because it “keeps the ball rolling” (meaning other people, including the presenter, can follow up on the research). It also demonstrates to the speaker that the audience is interested and trying to follow what is being said. Maybe this goes into “curiosity” or “posing problems”, but I am stressing it because when I was starting in graduate school I had some difficulty with this. I would go to a talk and pay attention to it as if I was in a lecture. When other people (including my advisor) asked me about the talk, I did not have anything intelligent to say about it, other than whether it was “good” or “bad”, or whether I had learned something from it or not.

  4. I agree, again. Conversely, it’s also important to learn that questioning your work is not necessarily attacking it.

  5. Tanvir Miah says:

    I agree.

    The “confidence” aspect is also related to “lack of feedback” (you must have the confidence to go one, even without feedback) and “curiousity” (= confidence to forge ahead with new tools and see how they work).

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