Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Interacting with Pakistani Students: Some Tips for Taking Up a Research Career

Almost every week or two I receive emails from students around the world requiring help in their research work and tips on getting into a research career. However, there is a marked difference in the emails that I receive from Pakistani students and the ones that I receive from students in other parts of the world. European students in particular are normally requesting for my Master's thesis or papers and are at times asking questions about the techniques we use in our papers. Similarly students from Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Egypt, and Malaysia ask brilliant questions with respect to research and are more focused towards a specific topic, in fact they even suggest some novel aspects into already existing work including pointers for some useful technique we can incorporate in our work. In short they have already identified a research path for themselves and work towards that research path with their questions aimed at getting guidelines towards their chosen topic. On the other hand, most of the students from Pakistan have this single question: please suggest me some research topic or research idea?

Today I feel the urge to write to specially address this question by Pakistani students as I feel this issue has to be taken up carefully. My advice for such students is very simple: no one can tell you a research topic of your interest. I am sure Pakistani CS students would find this answer slightly confusing so I will elaborate further. Just like nobody can tell you what is your favorite food, similarly no one can tell you what area of research you should pick for that is completely dependent upon your likes and dislikes. The fundamental problem with such a question asked by Pakistani students is that they do not even narrow down the research area/domain within which they want to work and rather put the question up at others that please suggest a research topic for me, it would be understandable if the students at least narrow down research area in which they wish to work. Dear students, please remember one thing: if you would be told your research area by someone else although you may be able to finish up the task at hand but you will never be able to realize the passion that is needed in research, you will never enjoy your research and research without enjoyment can never attain fruitful results.

"If you fancy a career as a researcher, you'll spend tens of thousands of hours on work over the next 10 years. The only way you're ever gonna spend 10,000 hours on research is only when you truly deeply love it. If something really engages you and makes you happy, then you will put in the kind of energy and time necessary to become an expert at it." - Click for Source

This is not to blame or strongly condemn the students. In fact my point is to convey what mistake our students do and I do not blame them for this state of affairs. In a country where education is more of a corporate business, and where in particular Computer Science education is hijacked by technologists who know nothing about science and where Professors do not know international standards of research and are not even aware of the best academic conferences of their field such a confusion among students is bound to exist. The problem is clearly lack of guidance for the students and not many people wish to do anything about it, in fact there are some "technology experts" who are even cashing on this "lack of guidance" for their own fame and publicity. In fact the state is so pathetic that our students do not even know what a research paper is let alone reading one, and hence they fail to grab the whole point of scientific research. When a student has no idea where to begin how can he/she get any idea about a research topic.

Here I list down some tips on basis of my research experience, these are specifically for such students who wish to do research but have no clear idea of how to carry on.

1. Narrow down your research area: if you do not know which research areas exist within the broad field of Computer Science then no worries: simply visit the web site of Computer Science departments of famous research universities such as MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, CMU, Cambridge, Oxford, CUHK, ANU, KAIST etc. and browse to their research sections where you will find many research areas listed. Do not just get fascinated by the name of a particular research area, read more about it and then make your decision on whether the area interests you or not.

2a. After step 1 i.e. identification of your research area find out the conferences/journals that are well-known for that particular area. This task will also not be hard, use DBLP for that purpose which is a Computer Science bibliography web site listing all reputed conferences and journals: the name of the conference/journal will pretty much tell you whether it's for the field you have identified or not.
2b. In addition to step 2a one more step is to google out names of famous research groups working in your identified research areas, for instance if the field you have narrowed down is Social Computing then simply search for "Research Groups Social Computing" and then browse the works of the well-known groups of that domain.

3. After listing down conferences and journals within the research area of your interest, read the most popular and latest papers of those conferences. For example any one interested in distributed systems would immediately discover Google's MapReduce paper as the de-facto distributed computing standard and should read that. Another significant factor to look for is the citations the paper has received, read the most cited papers first to get a grip on the topic, Google Scholar will help you in finding number of citations for a paper.

After having read 20-30 papers you will definitely come up with a crude idea and refinement of that idea will of course require discussions with your advisor/seniors researchers, in fact you can even email the authors of some of the papers you read. Researchers love to share and increase knowledge for that is the whole point of research: unlike the corporate, commercial world the research world does not like to hide for it is all about knowledge-sharing and a researcher who does not share his/her knowledge is never looked upon with respect.

Another handy and useful tool that can help immensely in research is Twitter, although it's known as a social networking or micro-blogging service yet it is known as the new journal archive by many in the scientific community. Some of the groups you identify within your areas of interest would be active on Twittter and you can follow them there for updates, for their latest works, and many a times for useful reading material that can help you a lot in your research. But a note of caution: don't bother them with silly questions like please tell me a topic of research, they are quite mature researchers with top-quality students and when anyone would come up to them with such questions they will consider that student as an alien and this is where you have to be extra-cautious.

Feel free to email me with any questions, and I will be glad to help. Please remember that a research career on the surface seems to be attractive but it requires extra hard-work than you would normally have to do in the software house or technology culture of Pakistan because there are no ready-made sweets in research: crafting and scientific knowledge discovery is what you would have to master which of course requires years and years of efforts.