Posted by: hmchang | November 16, 2007

Research: Searching for a topic

Finding a great project to work is something every (at least most) Ph.D student needs to go through. I am currently in the process and find it extremely difficult. The challenges come from several perspectives.

First of all, you need to survey broadly to know what has been done and what has not been done. Knowing what people have done may be good but sometimes they may be misleading since not every work is as valuable. Developing judgment is also one of the key steps in this process. In several cross-disciplinary fields, you will need to pay attention to activities in all those fields. As one has limited bandwidth, understanding what has been done itself may take years. Moreover, one important concept is that, one should not just read the papers that are directly relate to the topic you are working on but also need to pay attention to what’s happening in the general field. Otherwise, you might find yourself one day become obsolete because of some breakthrough.

Tim suggests to find topic from both the experimental approach and the paper approach. The paper approach is the survey work I previously mentioned and the experimental approach is the hands-on experience from projects. Once you start with a project, it would be easier to find new problems to solve. More importantly, you can potentially leverage on the system or software you already built. For many new Ph.D. students, they will engage in certain projects with elder students and then gradually develop and move on to their own defined projects.

In a field like the IC testing area I am working on, finding a topic that people has not involved in is not good enough. I would need to consider several practical issues: will the industry be willing to use it, what are the potential cost reduction as compared to other methods? Of course, from the academia point of view, research does not necessary need to be “useful”. However, it never hurts to do some more practical things – good for the industry and good for future job search.

I am very anxious these days not only in searching through topics but also developing experiments. I am still lacking some important backgrounds for doing the research I am working on. Moreover, I don’t really have much time to read a lot of papers in addition to my project. Perhaps I should spend more time thinking of building a re-usable platform and build my future research upon that platform. Then after figuring out good topics to work on from the paper survey, I can delve deeper into several topics and generate good results faster. In fact, in some research labs, they have existing infrastructure that they can leverage on – either built systems or software tools. In that case, they will be able to move faster on research. If I were to become a professor in the future, building reusable resources might be the important things I want to start working on.

All these process takes time. No wonder it takes years for a Ph.D. training.

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