Arunn's Notebook

How to do Research

Arunn Narasimhan

There are no rigid rules to do research. Like cycling or swimming you do it by doing it. As you do it, you learn to do it better. Or give up. Analytical, experimental and other technical skills will prove useful. Knowledge of your field of research will save time. On many instances of doubt, common sense is sufficient and on many occasions of failure, perseverance a must. Extraordinary intelligence is welcome. Genius is rare.

Obviously, communication in all forms is essential for recognition and success. Research and semi-technical articles, monographs, formal and popular books, seminars, talks and lectures, incentive-less web writing, all could and should be done consistently. Staying motivated for enough years is crucial to enhance your chance for delivering, if not anything outstanding, something substantial. To give a weak analogy: Just a boundary or a six makes us literally a one hit wonder. Scoring a century, with or without boundaries or sixers, is still a commendable effort.

Can research method(s) or method(s) to do science be capsuled into an algorithm yielding assured success, irrespective of the user? Such attempts of algorithms are mostly met with counter examples of scientific advancements that happened without practicing those algorithms. To reproduce from Cosma’s Scientific Method note, a quote by Sir Peter Medawar

If the purpose of scientific methodology is to prescribe or expound a system of inquiry or even a code of practice for scientific behavior, then scientists seem to be able to get on very well without it. Most scientists receive no tuition in scientific method, but those who have been instructed perform no better as scientists than those who have not. Of what other branch of learning can it be said that it gives its proficients no advantage; that it need not be taught or, if taught, need not be learned?

Nevertheless, there are many excellent texts that explain and describe research in its various facets. A sample collection that I use and get inspired by follows. The list is by no means exhaustive.

One could start (I did) with the books,

  • Advice to Young Scientist [ Amazon Link ] by Sir Peter Medawar.
  • Advice to an Young Investigator [ Amazon link ] by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Although dated and more experimental-biology-centric, this book is influential with practicing researchers. The chapter on the "Diseases of the Will" is particularly recommended. You may also want to read Cosma's review to get another perspective.

Next there is the

  • transcript of an excellent talk by Richard Hamming on how to do great research (no, not merely 'good' but great research). Always useful at times of distraction.

And here is a collection of papers that provide advice on various aspects of research (and) life for a scientist. Most of these papers and personal essays are available as 'pay-wall free' content and/or at the author’s website. For the benefit of the readers, I have provided direct links to the files (or their pre-prints) for download. Notify me of any possible copyright violation and I shall remove the links immediately.

  • A Student’s Guide to Research by Prof. David Bernstein, an electrical engineer, appeared in 1999 in IEEE Controls magazine. It is a fine and organized collection of advice to graduate students and young researchers. Covers all aspects of research and provides a relevant collection of references for exploration. A constant “must read” article for fledgling researchers. I read this at the start of every semester.
  • On Being a Scientist, Responsible Conduct in Research [link to updated version; thanks Prof. Barbara Gastel, TAMU, USA.]: is by the US National Science Academy, released by its press for free - check the archives. This small book explains the importance of ethics and other essential responsibilities in a research career. A long but necessary read for beginners.

Both the above articles could be used as supplemental read in courses like Research Methodology or Research Skills.

  • Next is, Advice to a new faculty member [pdf, DOI 10.1007/s00216-005-0285-1] by Patricia Ann Mabrouk in the Anal Bioanal Chem. 2006.

    A sample:

    Don’t accept new students blindly into your research group simply because they are overly excited about you and your new research program-find out about their interests, ask them why they want to work specifically for you, and check their academic background. There is nothing worse than a “bad” student.

  • More Advice to Young Researchers [pdf, DOI 10.1109/MCS.2008.929065] by Malcolm Shuster in the IEEE Control Systems Mag. 2008.

    A sample:

    Wrong work is not “practical,” just because you can describe it simply without equations. Rigorous mathematical work is not “only of theoretical interest,” just because it requires a lot of equations. Do not let yourself be influenced by the kind of person who favors simplicity over correctness.
    It is worthwhile to approach some research [...] do the work on your own, on your own schedule [...] Don’t necessarily give your most original ideas to a Ph.D. student, unless you are certain that the student is at least as smart and as imaginative as you [...] Research cannot all be part of the business of being a professor. Some of it must be a truly joyous personal activity not easily given to a subordinate. If we forget this, then we risk making research just a job.

  • Advice for the Young Scientist by John Baez is a good read explaining the importance of getting a quick tenure to pursue what you actually like to do. And to keep your soul intact while you pursue a quick tenure, he suggests “to make sure you never lose that raw naive curiosity that got you interested in science in the first place.”
  • Ten Lessons I wish I had been Taught by Gian-Carlo Rota brings out interesting points like you will be known (more) for your expository work and mathematicians have only a few tricks (which they use well)…
  • Grad School to Professor - a write-up by Prof. Giridhar of IISc. suggests some good books and articles on how to go through graduate education - from choosing an advisor to writing in English to finding success in a subsequent faculty profession.
  • Prof. Terrence Tao provides ample and excellent advice on a research career in mathematics. His series of essays are collected in a separate page at this blog.
  • Principles of effective research: [ blog version link | ps format download ] “This essay is intended as a letter to both myself and others, to hold up in the sharpest possible terms an ideal of research I believe is worth working toward.” begins Michael Nielson, a physicist in Australia. A good, deep, article that discusses creative process, collaboration, type of research etc. Useful for those who are already into research for some years (you may be interested in his Extreme thinking article).
  • Night thoughts of a theoretical physicist - Michael Berry, physicist from Bristol UK, takes a critical look at science as practiced in academia. The incompetency of checking the “inputs” by documenting extensively on how the time of the day is spent etc. while failing to remain creative and produce “outputs” is criticized well.

On publishing and writing...

  • How to Publish -- an algorithmic and definitive guide to publishing in modern times, by Kwan Choi, Editor, RIE
  • Writing a Paper (2004) [free pdf download] by Prof. Whitesides. Sample this:
    If your research does not generate papers, it might just as well not have been done. "Interesting and unpublished" is equivalent to "non existent".

    The value of writing an 'outline' early in a research problem, described here, cannot be overstated.

  • Book: How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia. -- psychology professor's take, but relevant advice on most academic writing. [review]
  • Book: Write to the Top!: How to Become a Prolific Academic by W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen -- an elaborate venture covering all aspects of a research career. [review]
  • Book: On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser. A classic that is going on its 30th anniversary print edition, this is a definite book on writing with clarity; the chapter on clutter is my favorite; a chapter is devoted to 'technical writing'.
  • Book: Indlish: The Book for Every English-Speaking Indian [ Flipkart link ] by Jyoti Sanyal, Martin Cutts (Edited By). A bitter pill for Indians -- of course, like me -- who presume they write English well. That, even after reading this book, several would continue to write Indlish and think they write good English proves the pill could work only as a palliative.
  • Write Everyday is a quick read on why one should write everyday on some topic related to work to hone the skills of writing.
  • Six rules of rewriting by Michael Nielsen

Now, few cautionary notes…

  • Two of my opinion pieces: On Research Publishing and Should an Academic Publish Less?
  • Publish or Perish is a Physics Today note by Prof. Mohammed Gad el Haq. It is a stinker on the evils of mindless quantity research and writing books at a young age. He cites of a Dean who had 52 papers in the year the article is written, which means, an idea is thought of, polished, worked upon to its logical conclusion and written about and submitted and published in a journal every week.
  • The Role of the Professor is a personal essay where Prof. Walter Noll, disciple of Clifford Truesdell, explains the role of the professor is not to merely teach and do research but to profess. A timely article for our accelerated “make the customer happy” academic times.
  • Foundations and flagpoles of research - [pdf download] commentary by Prof. V. Ramanarayanan, IISc.; appeared in Current Science, v. 99, no. 1, 10 July 2010. Here is an excerpt:
    If the research work of an individual or a group of researchers is compared to an iceberg, then the publication record is the tip of that iceberg.

    This analogy is quite apt. Icebergs in oceans form in deep, cold and still waters. Depth of thinking, objectivity of analysis and constancy of purpose are the research counterparts. Productive research work is always backed by continuity of effort and constancy of purpose. Evaluation of the effectiveness of a teacher/researcher is certainly as challenging as carrying out research.

    On the one end is the tip of the research iceberg namely the publications, which may be seen and counted. On the other end are the unseen foundations – teaching, development work, sponsored funded research, mentoring the research scholars and their placement. Current bias tilts in favour of counting the visible tip and discounting the invisible base.

    My charge is that journals are not objective players in this mission of researcher performance evaluation; they have a vested interest of plugging their citation indices. My appeal is that the academic community cannot shirk the responsibility of objectively evaluating the effectiveness of teachers/researchers. This job cannot be outsourced to professional journals whose interests lie elsewhere.

    Let us build and strengthen the foundations; the structure will eventually rise; the flagpoles will follow; the flags will flutter in good time.

And finally,

© Arunn Narasimhan | Original version written ~ 2009 | Last revision on Aug 18, 2012