HOW TO (For Current Members)¶
How To Choose Research Topics¶
Choose Now, So That You Can Choose Again¶
A common problem among many students (in fact, most people) is that they cannot decide. Many people hesitate to choose because they are afraid of choosing something wrong and then regret later. Some studies suggest that people feel less happy when they have more options. In some retail experiments, customers leave without buying anything if too many items are on sale.
Imagine the following scenario. You want to select a place for the next vacation. You cannot possibly be in two different places at the same time and you cannot decide. As a result, you sit at an airport without going anywhere. “This is funny and stupid.”, you may say. However, many people do that: they are afraid of making decisions and instead sit at airports without going anywhere.
Many students say, “I don’t know what I want to do. Thus, I am not going to choose.” This thinking is wrong in multiple ways:
First, you have already chosen a major.
Second, you have already chosen to study at Purdue University.
Third, you have already chosen to join Dr. Lu’s research team.
Fourth, you have already chosen to read this page right now.
Everything has a cost. The highest cost is time because nothing can get time back. When you are reading this page right now, you have already been spending the most precious resource of your life: time. You have already made the decision to spend this moment this way.
When students join research teams, they may face the options of choosing topics. Here are some common misunderstanding about choosing research topics:
Students decide research topics. Some students think research means disappearing from civilization for several years, coming out “crazy ideas”, and completely changing the world after they reappear. This is wrong. First, it is unlikely that you can disappear from civilization; you still need access to the Internet, right? Second, it is unlikely that you can come out crazy ideas alone. Third, even if you can come out crazy ideas, you need to validate the ideas and compare them with existing studies. Maybe some people have already done similar things when you are hiding.
If a student chooses a topic, the student cannot change the topic for the next forty years. Once in a while, a person makes a major breakthrough in science and gives a speech about the process to the success. The person may say, “I have been solving this problem for forty years since I was a student.” These cases are rare (that’s why they are reported in news). It is common that a researcher changes topics as technologies become mature, new technologies (and problems) are created, or simply because these researchers change their interests.
The most important factor of deciding research topics is the needs of the research teams, not a student’s preference. A research team is often similar to a baseball team. If the team needs a left field now, you have to fill that position, or you are out of the team. The research topics are decided by professors according to multiple factors, for example, the existing expertise of the teams, the projection of the teams’ future needs, etc. It is rare that a professor allows a student to choose a topic without any boundary.
Many students think not choosing any topic gives them the freedom to choose something else later. This is also wrong for multiple reasons:
If you do not choose a research topic now, you may have no options later. If you want to attend a graduate school, research experience can be very helpful getting admissions (and financial supports). If you do not choose a topic, you may not receive the admission from the university you want to attend. As a result, you do not have the option of attending that university.
If you do not choose a research topic now, you may not stand out in job interviews. As a result, you do not have the option of joining the company you like.
Most important, if you do not choose a topic now, you may never know which topic you actually like. If you are an outsider, you do not know the good and bad things about a particular research topic. As a result, you have no information to make the best decision for you.
“How to choose a topic?”, you may ask. The best answer is “Just do it”. The best way to know whether you like a research topic is to start doing it. Read research papers. Repeat the experiments. Derive the formulas. Talk to the people doing this research. Just do it. You will likely determine, within a few weeks, whether you really hate it. If you do not do it, you will never know whether you like it or not.
Choice is a Package¶
Some people imagine that they could choose the best pieces among different options. That is usually not possible. If you like to travel around the world, you have to tolerate flight delays, jetlags, etc. If you like to live in a city, you have to tolerate traffic. Every choice is a “package”. Everything in the package comes together. Each research team has specific culture and style of doing research. Some teams emphasize teamwork. Some other teams encourage students to work independently. Some professors usually write short papers (2-4 pages). Some professors usually write long papers (10 pages or longer). Some professors’ papers have many equations. Some professors’ papers have no equation. Some professors expect students to appear during daytime; some other professors do not care if students appear only between dinner and breakfast. Some research teams need to write software. Some research teams need field studies. When you join a research team, you embrace all these into your topic.
Do Not Chase “Hot” Topics¶
Many students choose “hot” topics. They choose topics based on the popular terms in news. This has many problems. First, a hot topic means many people are working on it. When these students graduate, there may be over supply of talents and jobs may be hard to find. Second, a hot topic must be a hard topic. Easy things cannot be hot because everyone can do it and there is nothing to talk about. That means a hot topic takes a lot of effort to understand and to master.
Hot topics inevitably becomes cold.
Spend some time understanding the history of a research topic. Some topics become hot, cold, hot, cold over multiple decades. A topic may be hot for a while, many people work on the topic and solve easy problems. Then, the remaining problems are too hard and people stop (hence, the topic becomes cold). Some years later, a major breakthrough occurs and the topic becomes hot again. You need to understand these cycles. Breakthroughs are made by those people that are willing to continue when the topic becomes cold and most people have left that topic.
When you choose a research topic, you need to know your personality. Do you like more conceptual problems, or you prefer something tangible? You also need to know the restrictions imposed on you. If you have two semesters before graduation, you should not intend to solve a problem at the scale of a doctoral thesis. In most cases, students do not have the knowledge or experience choosing the right scale of problems. They should discuss with professors.
Understand the Four Stages of Doing Research¶
It has been observed that most students go through four stages when they do research:
Excitement due to ignorance. New researchers are always excited when they encounter new problems. They have not started and have not encounter any obstacles. They are ready to change the world by their endless energy and unlimited optimism.
Frustration and disappointment with knowledge. The first stage may last several days to several weeks. After reading research papers, the researchers lose excitement. They realize “Everything I want to do has been done.” The more they read, the more frustrated they become. They conclude that they are late about everything. Anything that is worth doing has already been published.
Experiments and failures. The second stage may last several weeks to many months. Most people give up during the second stage. Some think deeply enough and move to the third stage. They identify things that have not been published. They think of ways to improve existing solutions. They try these improvements and compare these new methods with existing methods. The new methods do not work at all, or are worse than the existing methods.
Improvement and innovation. The third stage may last several months to forever. Reading more papers usually does not help getting out of the third stage. Staying in office or laboratory is often not productive. Improvements and innovations usually come from non-routine activities: attend a seminar, do exercise, watch a sci-fi movie, talk to strangers, listen to podcast, take a short vacation, attend a conference … Research has shown that people are more innovative when they break their daily routines.
How to get out of Stage 2 and Stage 3? There is no method that always works. Here are several suggestions that can help:
Talk to experts. If you find a paper that is truly inspiring, contact the first author and ask whether you can talk by video call for 10 minutes. Of course, you have to read the paper very carefully and understand most of the context. Don’t ask trivial questions. Instead, ask questions about directions, such as “What direction would you suggest to take?” “What mistakes would you suggest to avoid?” Use you @purdue.edu email. DO NOT USE @gmail.com. Studies have shown that strangers are more willing (about three times more) to help students. If you use @purdue.edu, you increase your chance of response to about 15%. If you use @gmail.com, you have only 5% chance getting responses.
Talk to non-experts. Sometimes it can help if you talk to people that know nothing about your topic. These people may ask surprising questions and open new thinking. Do not intend to do everything alone. Sleeping less and working longer hours usually does not help.
Pay attention to details. Maybe all existing studies use images taken indoors. If you use outdoor images, will anything change? Maybe published studies are conducted on sunny days. If you do the study on a rainy day, will anything change?
Create a table comparing different methods. What are similar and different among the published methods?
Repeat published studies. You may get different results because you take slightly different approach and the details are not published. Discover the differences.
Read biographies of great inventors. Learn how they solve problems.
Talk to People: Does Anyone Care?¶
Academia has many studies that are completely irrelevant and nobody cares. Why? Some researchers imagine some problems, solve these problems, and publish papers. Some other researchers read the papers and improve the solutions, without asking deep questions. Over years, many papers are published on these topics but these results will never be adopted in the “real world”. Many people do research for the only purpose of writing papers. Dr. Lu does not. Dr. Lu wants to conduct research that can improve the world.
It is certainly admirable pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and nothing else. Please notice the difference between research for knowledge and research for writing papers.
However, if you think you are solving a problem to help people, you need to know whether people actually care about that problem.
Many studies have been conducted about how to identify worthwhile problems to solve. One method is to talk to people “in the field”. If you think you are solving a problem important to some people, find these people and talk to them. They may tell you the problem is indeed important, or not. You need to talk to strangers, not your family members, classmates, or friends. Strangers are more likely to be honest to you, giving you answers you do not like (such as, “I do not care about this problem.”).
Go to Linkedin and find these people. Talk to them for 5-10 minutes by video or phone call. Often, you need to talk many people before you converge to a problem worth solving. Some studies suggest that you need to talk to 100 people to determine whether a problem is worth solving:
The first 20-30 people help you understand what questions you want to ask
The next 20-30 people help you identify the right people to ask
Another 20-30 people help you narrow down the problem to something specific and avoid distractions (related but unimportant problems)
Finally, 20-30 more people help you identify the most important problem to solve
How long does this process take? If you talk to 3-4 people per day, you will spend about 3 months.
“This is a total waste of time”, you may say.
The question is what would happen if you do not ask these questions.
If you do not ask these questions, you may spend several years solving a problem and nobody cares what you have done.
An efficient way meeting many people is to attend a large conference or a trade show. You may talk to 20 people on a single day.
This research team encourages you to talk to people. Take notes in every conversation. If you talk to 100 people, you will have the confidence that you have identified a problem that is worth your time solving.
One concept from the business world is to “Fail Fast”: Do not select a very complex problem that requires many years to solve. Instead, breaking this complex problem into many small problems and determine how to evaluate success often and quickly. Every small problem helps you determine whether you are in the right direction or not.
Researchers can learn from the movie industry: Before selecting casts and picking up cameras, a movie studio first draw a story board illustrating the plot of a story. If this is not an attractive story, stop and consider a different story. If this story is worth pursuing some more details are added. After a lot of details have already been figured out by drawing the story board, the studio starts selecting casts and crew. A story board allows researchers to evaluate many problems without investing a lot of time to each.
Another concept from business is “Fake it before you make it.” Imagine that you can to build a computer program with user interfaces. You can first build the front page with buttons, textboxes, menu… without building anything else. Show this front page to potential users. It is possible that nobody likes the user interface and nobody will use the program. It is unnecessary building the rest of the program because there is no user. When you build a complex system, you need to build a few small parts, “fake” some unbuilt parts so that you can test what has already been built. If you do not fake those parts, you cannot test what you have built.
The concept of “fail fast” forces researchers to think critically what is the most important and evaluate whether that is indeed worth doing. Make a little progress and then evaluate again. In many cases, “great ideas” are not worth pursuing because nobody cares (other than writing papers citing each other’s work).
Why Don’t Professors Just Give Problems to Students?¶
Some students want professors to give problems, like homework assignments in classrooms. This is not ideal because nobody (even “professors”) can know all the most recent progress. The ability to identify a problem worth solving is an important skill for students to learn. Students need to become thinkers, not only doers.
How To Give Progress Reports¶
Research is fundamentally different from classroom learning. Please review (you should have already read it before joining this team)
Differences Between Progress Reports and Homework Assignments¶
Progress reports are not homework assignments. The following table compares the difference
Research Progress Reports
Each member solves unique problems
Everyone solves the same problem
Need to explain how to evaluate success
Grading criteria are given by professors
Often encounter unexpected obstacles and take long time
Assignments can usually be done within a few days
Why? Explain to the team
Why? Professors assign the problems
What? Explain to the team
What? Professors assign the problems
To inform other members of the progress and difficulty
To inform the instructor that “I know the answer.”
A research problem cannot be solved easily
Most homework problems can be solved by studying
Require a lot of thinking
Attend lectures, read textbooks, talk to TAs
Essential Components of Good Technical Presentations¶
First, give a meaningful title that describes your work. Read the title once, slowly. The title should not be “Progress” or “Progress Report”.
Second, explain the problem (or problems) you are solving. Nobody knows exactly what you are doing. Do not assume anyone knows the problems. Do not assume that your team leader or professor knows the problem. You have to explain.
Why do you solve this problem? Why does this team need your solution? How is this problem related to other problems solved by other team members? Again, do not say, “I solve this problem because my leader told me to.” or “The professor told me to do this.” You need to understand “Why”.
What has been done? What are the alternatives? Why are existing solutions insufficient? What problems, in the context of existing solutions, do you solve?
What is your solution? Give details. Nobody knows what you are doing. Your presentation needs to explain details. Do not assume that everyone knows the details because everyone is solving the same problem. Do not assume that professor knows all details.
Evaluation. How do you know your solution actually works? How do you know you actually solve the problem you want to solve? Is your solution better than existing solutions? In what ways? Why?
How does your solution fit into the work of your team? How will your work be integrated into the team’s work? If your work is not integrated, it is lost and you waste time.
You definitely need practice. Do not imagine that you can speak well without practice. You cannot. Do not intend to fool anyone. You cannot. You should follow the 1-10 rules: For every minute’s presentation, spend 10 minutes preparing. If your speech is 15 minutes, you should spend two and half hours preparing.
Make Effective Visual Aids¶
You need to provide details. Use figures, drawings, photos, equations, screenshots, source code … to explain. Here are some principle in making visual aids:
If you can say it, do not put on the visual aids. Many students type a lot of words into their slides. These words are not effective.
Anything you put in the slides must mean something important. Do not put anything because “it looks nice”.
If it is not readable, remove it. Anything smaller than 16 pt font is not readable.
It Does Not Work¶
A very common scenario is when a student tries a few things and does not get expected results. During progress report, the student says only one sentence, “My progress report is that I tried a few things and they did not work.” This student does not understand the precious information about
What has been tried?
Why are these things worth trying?
What are the expected results? How to define “working”?
What are the evidence “they did not work”?
What information can be obtained from these activities? What lessons are learned?
What actions will the student take next?
Most students do not know that the unexpected results (do not call them “failure”) form the foundation of new discoveries or invention. The unexpected results provide precious information.
It is understandable that you encounter problems that are harder than expected. It is understandable that your other commitment may prevent you from making enough progress. It is understandable that unexpected things happen. Be honest. If you have not made progress, tell the truth. If something does not work, explain what happens.
Honesty, integrity, and trust are the foundation of research. Never lie. Never fake data.
Distinguish “Solving a Problem” from “Fixing a Solution”¶
Too often, people are confused between “solving a problem” and “fixing a solution”. Here are two examples explaining the differences.
Imagine that you are going to take a vacation and a friend will take you to the airport. Several hours before your flight, your friend’s car breaks down. You say, “I can fix your car.” It turns out fixing the car takes longer than expected and you miss the flight. “How can anyone be so stupid?”, you may ask. “Too many”. The “problem” is that you need transportation to the airport for your flight. One (among many) solution is to ask this particular friend to give you a ride to the airport. There are many other solutions for the problem (going to the airport for the flight), such as asking another friend, taking a bus, or calling a taxi. However, you completely focus on this particular solution and want to fix the solution (repairing the car).
You want to make a graph showing the results from an experiment. You are very familiar with a computer tool. You recently purchase a new computer and your familiar tool does not run on the new computer. You spend several hours install, remove, install again this tool. You search online why this tool does not run your new computer. You erase the entire computer, install a new operating system, and install the tool again. What is the problem? The problem is to show the experimental results. Your familiar tool for making a graph is one possible solution. You spend several hours fixing this solution but you can use many other possible solutions, such as making a table, using another tool, or simply looking at the data and hand draw the figure.
Ask yourself often whether you are solving a problem or fixing a solution. If it is the latter, are there other solutions? If there are (usually there are), why do you stay with the current solution that needs to be fixed? Can you choose another solution?
Put Down the Laser Pointer¶
A laser pointer is bad. Never touch the laser pointer. When you use a laser pointer, you have to turn your head to the screen and your back to the audience. That’s the first problem. If you are nervous, a laser pointer amplifies your shaking hand. If you are really nervous, you keep pressing the on button when you talk and shine the laser to your audience. Some people lose their eyes and you are arrested.
If you speak in a large room with two or several screens, which screen will you point to?
Nothing good can be said about a laser pointer.
Use the computer’s cursor.
How to Get Good Grades in Research?¶
Research is very very (very very) different from classroom learning. Learning focuses on getting knowledge and skills into you. Research focuses on creating something new, new to everyone in the world, not new to you only. In many cases, classroom learning means attending lectures, taking notes, read textbooks, submitting homeworks, answering exam questions. It is possible getting a good grade without saying a single word in a class. Research has none of these. There is no lecture, textbooks, exam questions. Instead, you need to think about how to evaluate your work. Communication is extremely important in research.
Each person is expected to attend the weekly meetings. Absence must be reported to the team leader and Dr. Lu by email. Having an exam is an acceptable reason only if the exam is held at the same time of the meeting. It is not acceptable if the exam is on the same day at a different time.
During the weekly meetings, each person has to report progress for 3-5 minutes: What has been done? Why should it be done? What is the result? Please provide details. It is not acceptable saying “It does not work.” as a progress report.
Approximately near the middle of a semester, each person needs to give a presentation (8-10 minutes) explaining the problem. The presentation must provide enough details, including the reason why this problem needs to be solved, the relationship between this problem and the team’s goals, and the planned approach.
Approximately near the middle of a semester, each person needs to fill a peer evaluation of the team members. This is an opportunity to find the members that have performed well or poorly.
Before the semester ends, each person needs to give a presentation (15-20 minutes) about the results. This presentation needs to include three important things: (1) details, (2) details, and (3) details. What has been done? How is the method evaluated? What are the results? If something “works”, please provide evidence. If something is “better”, please provide detailed comparison. If something “does not work”, please provide diagnosis. Everyone has to practice in advance. Everything on every slide must be carefully explained. It is acceptable if you include code, as long as you explain.
One of the most important difference between doing class homework and research is the need of team thinking. You are part of a team and your must contribute to the team. Many students make significant progress in their computers but they do not share what they have done with the team. As a result, whatever they have done is restricted to themselves. What does it mean sharing work with the team? At the minimum, each member should document contributions You need to clearly document everything you want to do, you have done, and the results. You are responsible explaining to the other group members that you are doing. Your document must provide enough details so that other people can reproduce your work.
How To Become a Team Leader¶
One of the spacial parts of this research team is the comprehensive leadership development program. The experience of leading a research team can define your career for many years after you graduate from Purdue.
The CAM2 team has two types of leaders:
Topic leader: A leader manages a specific topic (for example, active learning, drone video, crowdsourcing …). A topic leader needs to know the topic’s goal (write a research paper, build software, create data …) and guide members toward the goal. A leader needs to know enough about different parts of the topic but does not need to know all details of everyone’s work. A topic leader is a technical leader.
CAM2 leader: “Leader of all leaders”. The CAM2 team has multiple topics and the entire team needs a leader. The CAM2 leader needs to think about the entire team strategically, for example, how to recruit and screen new members and how to reorganize future projects. The CAM2 leader represents all topic leaders and communicate with the advisers. It is typical that the CAM2 leader is also a topic leader.
Benefits and Responsibilities of Leaders¶
You get the opportunity to develop the skills that cannot be obtained in classrooms. In classrooms, most students are used to “mind their own business”. Their success depends only on their own abilities and efforts. A leader’s success depends on the team members. This is a completely different experience and requires new sets of skills.
Leading a research topic or the entire research team gives you new prospects about how to interact with people (team members, other leaders, professors, external collaborators, sponsors …).
Leaders need to understand their members: their abilities, their long-term aspiration, their short-term constraints. Leaders need to understand the topic’s and the team’s needs, such as paper deadlines.
A leader has to think about the project’s needs and plan ahead. If the research project writes a paper, the leader is by default the first author. If it is a conference paper, the leader is the first choice to present the paper.
If you need recommendation letters from the advisers, the letters will be much stronger. By default, a leader’s recommendation letter is one or two levels stronger than members.
Talk to the advisers, often. The leaders are selected by the advisers. If you do not talk to the advisers, you will not be selected. In most cases, new members are not leaders. A leader has to be in the project for at least one semester.
Shape the directions of the projects. Leaders have greater opportunities suggesting projects’ directions.
Train new members. Explain the organizations, goals, and culture of this research team to new members Understand new members’ expertise and determine the most appropriate tasks given to the new members
Suggestions to New Leaders¶
Include Everyone in Meeting¶
A leader has to ensure that everyone in the team is engaged in meetings. New leaders sometimes get too excited about the progress by a few members and ignore the others. This is particularly common when a team has new members and returning members. Returning members are more comfortable speaking in meetings sharing their progress. New members feel that they have not made much progress and silence is often their first option in meetings.
New members (still thinking as students) often incorrectly believe that “Everyone knows everything. I cannot offer anything new to the team.”
A leader has to ensure that all members participate in meetings. Several things can be done to achieve this:
The leader limits the amount of time each person speaks. If someone (usually a returning member) has more to say, tell the person to summarize first. Give everyone a chance to speak and then come back to this person for discussion.
The leader may meet new members outside the team meeting time. Explain to them the expectation and help them identify the materials to present in meetings. Call their names in meetings.
If anyone in the team wants to dominate the discussion (i.e., always talking without giving others opportunities to speak), the leader has to stop this person. If this person has the habit of dominating the discussion, communicate with this person outside the meeting. If this situation persists, inform the advisor to intervene.
Another common mistake of new leaders is to think everyone is equally devoted to the team. The truth is that some members may think this project as a high priority, willing to spend 20 hours per week; some others may think this project as one of many important things, maybe 10 hours per week; the others may think this project as a way to get credits and graduate, spending as little time as possible. A good leader has to take advantage of every member’s talent, even though some members can spend little time.
How to Get Strong Letters of Recommendation¶
Helping students succeed is one of the missions of university professors. Dr. Lu writes recommendation letters for graduate schools, awards, jobs, etc. Before you ask Dr. Lu to write a letter for you, please ask yourself these question:
Does Dr. Lu know me well?
Do I have something special to be recommended?
Can Dr. Lu write a strong letter for me?
Does he have time writing a letter for me?
If you answer No to any question, STOP. Don’t waste your time. If you took his class but never talked to him, he knows nothing about you and has nothing to recommend. Your grade is already in the transcript. If the only thing Dr. Lu can write is about your grade, the letter does not help you. Thus, Dr. Lu will not write a letter for you.
This video explains how recommendation letters work for applications of graduate schools. Please watch.
Dr. Lu writes letters for a student only after talking to the student. If you want a letter from him, you have to talk to him. If you are not on Purdue campus, please schedule a video call.
Do not ask Dr. Lu to write a letter because you cannot find anyone else. It is your problem, not Dr. Lu’s.
Dr. Lu’s letters always focus on accomplishments. You need to provide evidence of your accomplishments. “I really enjoy your class” is not an accomplishment and Dr. Lu cannot write a letter because a student enjoys his class. “I do not know who else to ask” is not an accomplishment and Dr. Lu cannot write a letter for this reason.
When you ask Dr. Lu for a letter, he will always ask you the following questions (because graduate schools ask them). Please bring your answers with evidence (such as your project reports).
Your ability to speak and write. You can answer this question by giving an excellent technical presentation and a well-written technical document.
Your ability to work in teams.
You must give Dr. Lu at least three weeks to write your letter. When you ask him to write, you must give him a list of universities you want to apply. He will send letters to only these universities. You must send all applications within one week.
You do not decide the content of the letters. Dr. Lu will never say anything if he has no supporting evidence. Dr. Lu will never sign a letter written by you.
Some students think sending email to professors is the only needed action for getting recommendation letters. This is not true for Dr. Lu. Dr. Lu works with individual students and writes many details in the letters. If you are unwilling spending time with him through this process, do not ask him to write letters. Every letter must have a known destination.
You are busy. So is everyone. Your time is precious. So is his.
If you need a letter, please fill this form. Please send email to Dr. Lu after you have filled the form.
How To Arrange Business Trips¶
- Please work with Emily Fuller <firstname.lastname@example.org> in MSEE 268 and
Christy Millen <email@example.com> in MSEE 112.
Please download Travel Form.
Purdue Rules about Travel:
Some general principles in arranging trips:
Use your judgment. Balance among safety, convenience, comfort, and cost.
Use money wisely. Do not think “This is not my money. I am going to spend as much as possible.” Research fund is not easy to get. If you spend too much money on travel, less money can be used for other things (such as a new machine or another business trip).
Your time is precious. Do not spend a lot of time looking for cheap airfare or inexpensive hotels. Do not choose a cheap hotel that requires long commute to your business destination. Do not choose a very long over to save a few dollars.
Safety is your highest priority. If you feel unsafe, take reasonable actions to reduce the chance of harm (stay in the conference hotel, call a taxi, …)
Take advantage of the local opportunities. Can you visit a collaborator or a sponsor in the same city?
Make as many friends as possible. The main reason for you to travel is to meet people. Talk to them. Learn what they are doing. Ask them questions. Do not hide at corners and wish you are invisible (many students do that). You will not be eaten if you say, “Hello, I am from Purdue University. Can you tell me more about your recent research?”
How To Write a Research Paper¶
First, forget everything about your “semester papers”. These are not real research papers. A research paper typically takes one or two years (not weeks, not months) to write. If you want to write a research paper quickly, this team is not for you.
Books to Read¶
If you want to write papers, please read these three books:
Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills by John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
If you want to be successful, you should learn efficiently. One way to learn is to read books. Some students do not read these books and want to “learn from mistakes”. This is inefficient and extremely stupid. It is like you jumping out from a tall building, break a leg, and say, “Oh, gravity exists” or putting your hand in a flame and say, “Oh, that hurts.”
Some students say, “I have learned writing in high school.” What you learned is not “technical writing” and is not helpful. In fact, many students learn wrong things. Some students say, “This is different from what my teacher at high school taught me.” Do you know how many research paper the teacher has published? If the answer is zero (or a few), please forget what the teacher told you.
Before writing a research paper, it is important to understand the purpose. If you are doing real research, you must be doing something new and you are the only person knowing what is going on. You have write down the details so that others can understand. The most common mistake when students write papers is that they misunderstand the purpose of research papers. They believe that everyone is doing the same thing (like all students doing the same homework) and there is no need to explain anything.
A research paper is not a place you show off tricks of grammar. You should keep the writing as simple as possible: The English is easy to understand, even though the content may be difficult. Do not write long sentences. If a sentence has three or more verbs, you should consider to shorten it or break it into several sentences.
Dr. Lu has published many research papers and he knows how to write research papers. He will not discuss with you about how to write papers. He will not accept your suggestions. Dr. Lu does not need your advice about how to write research papers. Do not waste time teaching him how to write papers.
If you disagree, leave.
Types of Papers¶
Roughly speaking, there are four types of research papers.
Research papers: Present a new solution, a new problem, a new interpretation of existing knowledge, etc. The key here is new. The target readers are people investigating the same or similar research topics. A good research paper should provide enough details so that experts in this topic can learn something. A good research paper should also have enough overview and references so that new researchers can follow the paper. A good research paper may be read by a few thousand people. Most new researchers (i.e., you) start by writing such papers.
Magazine papers: These papers target a wider audience that is not doing the same research topic. These papers are usually color and have good visual aids: figures, images, drawings, tables …. Magazine papers may be read by many thousand people.
Survey or tutorial papers: Provide overviews about specific topics. These papers help new researchers in these topics. Survey papers are usually more technical than magazine papers. A survey paper often refers 50 or more papers and writing such a papers would be difficult for new researchers. A good survey is more than listing what has been done; a good survey paper identifies what is common among existing work and suggests directions for future improvements.
Vision papers: Inform the research community what topics to work on in the next ten years. New researchers rarely write vision papers because new researchers do not know the research community enough.
Structure of Research Papers¶
The rest of this section focuses on research papers that present something new. Please focus on the word new. A good research paper should have the following components:
Obviously, the title is the first thing readers see. Usually, a title has only one or two lines. Please choose every word in the title carefully. This is the first impression to readers. This is the most precious real estate in the entire paper. Make sure every word means something important to readers. Obviously, the first word in the title is extremely important. Think carefully about what word you want to use.
Some students love to create interesting acronyms and put the acronyms as the very first word in a title. This is unwise because the acronym probably means nothing to readers. For this research team, you must not use an acronym in the title because every word must mean something important to readers (not authors).
An abstract has about 12 sentences and 200 words with the following structure:
Problem (2 sentences)
Existing work and deficiencies (2-3 sentences)
Your method and why it is better (3-5 sentences)
Evaluation methods (2-3 sentence)
Results and comparison (2-3 sentences)
The introduction is approximately 15% of the paper. An introduction usually has four or five paragraphs:
Big picture. What is this whole thing about?
Description of the problem to be solved in this paper and related work. What has been done? This paragraph cites some papers. The end of this paragraph describes what is wrong in existing work, as a way to get ready for the next paragraph.
Your solution and why it is better. This paragraph should start with “This paper presents a solution ….” This must be a new paragraph. Help readers understand your paper quickly. You need to use active voice here. Some students say, “Technical papers must use passive voice.” These students are wrong.
(optional) [More details about your solution]
Evaluation, comparison, and results. If your solution is not better, do not write a paper.
Summary of contributions.
(optional) [Structure of the paper] “This paper is organized as follows …” This is needed only if the paper is longer than 8 pages.
This is the place where you explain your solution. Give a meaningful title describing your method.
How To Give a Technical Presentation¶
The BIGGEST problem when students present their projects is the “student thinking”: “Everyone is doing exactly the same homework. I do not need to explain what I am doing and why I am doing it. Everyone should already know.”
Please take every presentation seriously. You must understand that each presentation is as important as an exam and you should spend at least four hours preparing each presentation. Important decisions are made based on your presentations. Dr. Lu uses your presentations in making decisions that may have profound impacts in your career, for example,
Selection of team leaders.
Nominations of awards.
Collaboration with industry partners.
Financial supports to conferences.
A good presentation must have deep technical content and well-polished delivery.
If you do not know how to give a good presentation, take a class, join a speaking club, join toastmasters ….
When you prepare a presentation, please follow this format:
Give a meaningful title. The title should not be “Progress”, “Final Presentation”, “Update”, “CAM2 Report”, … The title should describe your work in a meaningful way.
The problem your team is solving and the problem YOU are solving (not the entire team). This is usually the weakest part of students’ presentations. Many students cannot describe the problems because “the problems are given by the professors or the leaders”.
Evaluation. Does your method work? Please make the evaluation quantitative. Many students say, “It works.” or “It does not work.” What does that mean? In most scenarios, “working” depending on specific inputs.
If you want to make a video, you can use Camtasia. You can download the
Give meaningful title. The title cannot be “progress report”, “semester report”
General rules: If you can say it, do not put words in the slides.