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Scientific and Academic Research: A Survival Guide 


Published on

Payam Barnaghi
Institute for Communication Systems (ICS)/
5G Innovation Centre
Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department
University of Surrey

Published in: Education

Scientific and Academic Research: A Survival Guide 

  1. 1. Scientific and Academic Research: A Survival Guide  1 Payam Barnaghi Institute for Communication Systems (ICS)/ 5G Innovation Centre Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department University of Surrey
  2. 2. 2
  3. 3. Why do we do research? − Officially: − Explore new ideas and explore new horizons. − Develop novel solutions and prove they work! − Solve unsolved problems and/or find new problems. − Unofficially: − Publish papers (and travel to conferences in nice places) − Attract funding − Create new systems/solutions (demonstrators) - to get more funding − Enhance our CV − Secure an academic/industry job − Or maybe impress people (your parents?) 3
  4. 4. Why do we do research? “One of the great things about science is that it can change the way we see the world”. Shankar Vedantam, Hidden Brain, NPR 4
  5. 5. Questions to ask before (and while) doing research These questions can be applied to publishing a new paper, starting a new project or applying for a new funding. 5
  6. 6. 1. What is the problem? −What problem you are trying solve. −Not in vague and technical terms but in a simple form. −Pause for a minute and think what problem(s) exactly your work is trying to solve. −Designing x or building y is not solving a problem; what do that x or y will do to overcome some issues/challenges that we are facing today? 6
  7. 7. 2. Why is this problem important? − Most people will say the problem(s) that they solve are very important. − Here you need some clear statements and evidence to show that the problem is an important one. − Working on a complex problem does not necessarily make it important, nor does linking it to a complex subject (but this will definitely make it harder and it will have a higher risk of failure). − Focus on the problem not the solution (at least, to begin with). 7
  8. 8. 3. Who will benefit from this research? − Again you need to be specific and say who, what sectors, why and how these will benefit from your research. − This can be an applied or fundamental research; both are (hopefully) driven by curiosity; however: − Applied research: This can be linked to a popular (or unpopular) problem/issue related to economy, society and other technical and none-technical challenges that (hopefully) will benefit people and the cost (time, complexity, investment) of doing this will be worth the benefits. − Fundamental research: If you do pure science, you may argue how this will change the way we see (or perceive) the world. 8
  9. 9. 4. How is this different from what has already been done? − You need to compare and contrast your work with some of the existing and well-known solutions. − If there are several papers/solutions/projects in the area of your work, you need to have some clear understanding of these and provide statements that stand out quickly; you should probably avoid generic statements. − You obviously need to support your claims with some practical evaluation/comparison. 9
  10. 10. 5. What are (or will be) the key novelties? − Scientific research advancements. − Industry/use-case solutions that can benefit from this work (you need to explain what will be novel about them). − You can discuss how you have changed (or will change, if you are writing a proposal) the way that people look at a problem or view a domain. − You may propose a completely new product/service/algorithm/technology/… or something that no one has done and/or thought about before - but to make it interesting from a research point of view you need to say why it is new or better, compared to what is already out there. 10
  11. 11. 6. Why is this a challenging research and development? − You need to clearly explain why simple or existing solutions won’t work or are not sufficient. − e.g. centralised solutions are not suitable for large scale … because they have large overhead, so we propose …. . − Justify why one should fund/support this research for x period with n number of people; or, if you are trying to publish your work, justify why this work has been so interesting and fascinating (painful?) that it deserves to be published. − Put simply, you need to show why an easy fix wouldn’t have worked. 11
  12. 12. 7. What is the main impact(s) of this work? − Specific statements on how this will contribute to … and the well-being of people, society, safety, etc… and why this impact will be (or is) achieved by this work/project and not something else. − Otherwise everyone can say we have an impact on x, y, z,; it is very important to say why (and how). − Think of your work’s unique offerings. − Put yourself in your audience’s/customers’ shoes. 12
  13. 13. 8. What will you require to do this work? − More funding, more help, … − You need to justify the resources that you are asking for and show why your work is worth it. − For proposals, you also need to explain why you believe the team that you have/propose is the best combination of people/expertise to deliver this. 13
  14. 14. 9. What are the tangible outcomes? − What your results will look like. − What products and services you will offer by end of this project (at what TRL levels). − Discuss your plans to use/exploit the results. − If this is a paper: −Show demos/screenshots, −Add links to underlying data/code (if there are no IP/privacy issues), −Discuss the reproducibility of your results. 14
  15. 15. 10. Who else could be involved? − Standardisation, − Stakeholders, user groups, − Other teams, other disciplines, your peers. − Think of a wider audience for your research. 15
  16. 16. Be prepared for set-backs and failures 16
  17. 17. 17
  18. 18. 18 Source:
  19. 19. Fault tolerance in research −Do not compromise the quality and results, −However, be prepared for failures, −and have a recovery plan. 19
  20. 20. “Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”. (Bertrand Russell) 20
  21. 21. “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. (Susan Jeffers) 21
  22. 22. Creativity 22
  23. 23. Creativity…well it’s all hard work, good thinking and more work. 23
  24. 24. Innovation vs. (Random) Alchemy 24 Image source:
  25. 25. Creativity − It is not equivalent to complexity − or obscurity − It’s the art of seeing things in a way that hasn’t been seen before. − Finding metaphors and explaining things using the new metaphors. − Looking and looking until you unlock the problem. 25
  26. 26. Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin 26 source: Jerry Sintz, BLM
  27. 27. A method for counting Canadian beavers from outer space 27
  28. 28. “The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. Every mind is a building filled with archaic furniture. Clean out a corner of your mind and creativity will instantly fill in”. (Dee Hock) 28
  29. 29. Web search in the early days 29
  30. 30. And then came Google! 3030 Google says that the web has now 30 trillion unique individual pages;
  31. 31. HITS Algorithms 31
  32. 32. Technique vs. Problem Orientation − “no technical skill is worth more than knowing how to select an existing research project”. Peter J. Feibelman, A PhD is not enough − Focus on the problem; you can always learn the techniques. − And also know/learn the basics and principal concepts/theories in your field. 32
  33. 33. Creativity sometimes requires doing things differently 33
  34. 34. Ideas 34
  35. 35. “Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain”. - Arthur Weasley in J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 35
  36. 36. Scientific Research- the process 36
  37. 37. Consensus − Scientific process relies on organised scepticism. − Your ideas and your work should be clear and reproducible. − Your work and ideas will become really useful if other people agree with them and use them. − Write/present them in accessible forms. − Make your underlying assumptions clear. − Make your data/results/code (depending on the IP/privacy/sensitivity) available. − Respond to queries and questions. 37
  38. 38. Generosity in research −Be generous and make friends. −IP and protection are important. −But, research and innovation also come with sharing knowledge and discussing your work with your peers, −This will always keep you one step ahead… 38
  39. 39. Institutionalised Conflict − People (read managers) [may] make mistakes; sometimes these mistakes [may] hurt other people. − Competition can cause conflict. − Differences of opinion, and different methods and approaches to solving/addressing the problem can cause conflict. − “Successful collaboration is possible when one or both contributors have established reputations, or when each researcher brings a different identifiable skill to the collaborative project”. 39
  40. 40. Find a good mentor − Someone who doesn’t see you as a competitor. − Don’t be shy about getting to know people outside your team. − Ask for help; everybody likes to give advice  − A good mentor can be a former advisor, a senior member in your institution, someone you meet at a conference (that’s why you should be well prepared for your conference/workshop talks and attend important talks at conferences and ask questions). 40
  41. 41. Communication − Never send angry emails… − Never send emails while you are angry… − Always wait and don’t send emails if you cannot think rationally… − Sometimes if you wait enough an annoying matter (which at the time may seem to require immediate attention) will solve itself or will get solved; just be patient. Avoid the impulsive moment. 41
  42. 42. Communication − Don’t threaten to leave your job (unless you already have a very good offer) and never leave (without having a better offer that is confirmed) just because you don’t like … or …. − Even if you decide to leave a place, always leave on good terms. − If you are upset find the right time (and the right person) and express your frustration but resist the temptation to talk about someone who is not present. 42
  43. 43. Prioritise − You need to set your own targets; who you want to be, where you want to be. − There is a lot that you are capable of doing and there are lots of things that you may be asked to do (or volunteer for); but always think about their importance and your obligations. − Don’t overdo it, and don’t avoid helping others - have some priorities. − Learn to say “No” – thank you for your invitation. I appreciate your interest in our work, but unfortunately I am overcommitted at the moment. 43
  44. 44. Prioritise − If you are involved in a collaborative project/meeting/discussion/proposal that seems to be going nowhere, politely (and slowly) reduce your involvement. − You are in academia so there must always be some meetings, teaching obligations, tutorials, lab supervision that [can] overlap with the (group in question's) meeting. − Before saying “Yes” think: 1) do I have time for this? 2) is this really important? 3) Will I or someone important will benefit from this? 44
  45. 45. Get your priorities straight and revisit them from time to time. 45
  46. 46. Work with your peers − Help them because one day you may need their help. − Try to find a group of people with whom you would genuinely like to work and collaborate over time; from your discipline and other disciplines as well. − But, have clear targets; if you only meet and talk and never get anything tangible done, you will get tired and others may get tired of you (the latter is more dangerous). 46
  47. 47. Choosing an advisor − A prominent scientist versus a young advisor. − Look at their track record; find a group to whom you can offer something valuable and from whom you can get sufficient advice and mentorship. − If you are applying for a postdoc, always consider whether the postdoc role in the place to which you are applying will help you to land a permanent job in the field/sector in which you are interested. 47
  48. 48. Key to success as a postdoc − Finish something. − Make yourself known and useful to your colleagues and your external collaborators. − Publish and make your results available/visible to your future employers. − You need to develop/create something interesting that you can talk about. − Don’t be a slave to your postdoc advisor. 48 Peter J. Feibelman, A PhD is not Enough.
  49. 49. Giving Talks 49
  50. 50. 50 Naomi Oreskes at TED
  51. 51. Giving talks − Know your work. − Be well prepared. − Respect the time and focus on the key points. − Avoid self-promotion; your work should speak for itself. − Understand and respect the needs/interests of your audience. − Your talk is for your audience not for you; so think and investigate what it will be important for your audience to learn/know. Put yourself in their shoes and think what you would expect/want to see or hear. 51
  52. 52. Giving talks − Talks for job interviews, your colleagues and collaborators, conference/workshops and public talks. − Use your time efficiently and do not overestimate or underestimate your audience. − Provide some basic information about your work. − Tell a good story; something that people will follow and engage with. 52
  53. 53. Giving talks − Often you don’t need to show an agenda. − If you are showing graphs, at least say why you are showing them and highlight the important points. − Show mathematical equations and complex formulas only and only if you don’t have anything else interesting to show (unless maths is your field of work). − The opening to your talk is important. 53
  54. 54. Giving Talks − Practice and practice. − Be prepared. − Slides should look professional. − If it is for a job interview, learn about your audience, their work, interests; link your work to some of their projects and work. [Indirectly] tell them why you think your expertise will be valuable and will complement their work. − Don’t oversell/over-promote your work but at the same time don’t be too humble. − Be enthusiastic about your work. 54
  55. 55. Use humour (if you can) but don’t be offensive 55 Image source: Stocky, NPR
  56. 56. Giving talks – Q&A − Appreciate the audience’s time and attention. − Don’t be too defensive (or aggressive). − Listen to the questions and answer them to the best of your knowledge/ability. − If you don’t know the answer, give a response based on your analysis but say that you don’t know the exact answer to the question… − Some people may come across as aggressive or ask their question in a way that makes you uncomfortable; the audience will hear and feel this so just be cool and try to answer the question with logical statements and according to scientific facts and evidence. 56
  57. 57. A Career in Academia − Establish a reputation for your work (different from trying to become famous- this can come later). − Make friends and show that you are willing to work with others. − Study the department(s)/group(s) that you would like to join and see what are their key criteria for hiring academic members. − Have a web presence. − Be a good citizen of your field/community (but don’t overdo it). − Show interest in teaching and try to gain some experience (TA, Tutorials, talks). 57
  58. 58. A Career in Academia − Create a vision for your future research and align it with the priorities of funding bodies (and talk about this in your interview and/or whenever suitable with your Manager, HoD, Dean, Provost for research, …). − Be prepared to attract research/industry funding. − Interact with people- sometimes calling someone on the phone or offering to go and meet them personally can turn out to be really, really, helpful. − Stay out of office politics if you want to do something interesting. 58
  59. 59. A Research Career in Industry − You can probably get a permanent job (if there is anything like this anymore) more quickly. − Your job description will probably be simpler than your academic friends. − You will work in a “managed” environment. − Your research will most probably be around your company’s field of work and interests. − Depending on the company’s interest, you may be asked to generate patents, applications, demos, or papers. Try to find out about this before you join and see if that’s what you are interested in. 59
  60. 60. Publications “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic”. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 60
  61. 61. Publications −They will stay in libraries and most probably be accessible for ever. −So think about this when you submit them. −This shouldn’t discourage you from sending an early stage work; but be precise and clear. −Remember, your students and colleagues may read your work in the future; or you may even read it yourself one day. 61
  62. 62. Publications −Choose the right journal/conference. −You need to publish a certain number of papers but quality is more important. −People spend their time reviewing/reading your papers; respect their time and effort and write something pleasant to read, that the readers will learn from and will find interesting. 62
  63. 63. Publications −Survey papers are not a summary of the published work in your domain. −The literature review/related work section of your paper is not a set of sentences about some related work with a citation. −Avoid any “magic” in the the results section- make it clear how you have obtained your results and under what conditions/assumptions. −Proof read. 63
  64. 64. Publication −Talk about the limitations of your work and link these limitations to the direction of your future research. −In your discussion/conclusions, if you can, talk about the lessons that you have learned (and mistakes that you made during the work). −Make sure your claims are reproducible. −Acknowledge other people’s contributions. 64
  65. 65. Survival Checklist − Consider your audience - their interests, priorities, … − Be a resourceful colleague/collaborator but also learn to say “No”. − Define your priorities. − Meet and network with people within and also outside your discipline. − Create a plan for your publications and target key events. − Apply for funding (consider the 10 questions that we discussed earlier). − Remember and remind yourself of your goals. 65
  66. 66. Acknowledgements − Several people have contributed to the thoughts and discussions related to this talk, including Prof Amit Sheth, Atti Emecz, Prof Hamid Aghvami of King’s College London, my students: Yasmin Fathy, Daniel Puschmann, Nikos Papachristou and many other friends and colleagues. − Some parts of the slides are adapted from Peter J. Feibelman’s A PhD is Not Enough (one of my most favourite books), Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam and his Hidden Brian Program, NPR’s Guy Raz and his TED Radio Hour program and several brilliant speakers at TED. 66
  67. 67. Desire for innovation 67 Driverless Car of the Future (1957) Image: Courtesy of
  68. 68. Q&A Thank you for your attention. @pbarnaghi