Research advice

Research advice from others

  • Michael Nielsen has an excellent essay on the "Principles of Effective Research".
  • William Stallings, a prolific author of widely-used textbooks in OS and networking has an excellent set of student resources
  • Here is a nice description by my colleague Tim Brecht on writing a thesis.
  • Simon Peyton Jones has an excellent Research Skills site that includes sections on how to give good research talks, how to write papers, as well as pointers to some other excellent advice, including a long article on mathematical writing by Don Knuth.
  • Here is a brilliant article on what is important when doing research by Nobel Laureate John C. Polanyi. An excerpt: "Scientists do not go to meetings to applaud one another's ideas, but to tear them apart."
  • "Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency." Ibn Al-Haytham circa 1000 AD.
  • Here is a speech by Richard Hamming on his perspective on research. It's well worth reading. An excerpt: "Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance."
  • In memory of John Backus, a quote from him: "You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don't work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work."

Do you really want to do a Ph.D. ?

  • And probably not even worth it, according to the Economist
  • And here is a collection of really good advice from Daniel Lemire.

Advice on other matters

  • So, you want to do a startup? Read this first!
  • Here is some advice on "How to hold a meeting" that I wrote when I was at my company. The immediate upshot of this was that I got dis-invited from most meetings. That was terrific.


Inspired by the class I took with Prof. David Patterson in 1987, I always teach my classes in 20-minute chunks, with breaks in between. For the last several years, I have been doing a roll-call in the first break, which helps me learn students' names, and in the second break, I either juggle or tell a story. Many students tell me that they remember the stories better than the technical material, and asked me to put them on my site. So, here are some of the parables.

Life advice

Here is some advice on life and living that I have collected over the years. As you read, remember that Swami Vivekanada said, "If you want to become an astronomer and sit down and cry "Astronomy! Astronomy!" it will never come to you.". Or as my favorite Sanskrit aphorism goes "Deeds are accomplished by effort alone. Deer do not enter the mouth of the sleeping lion".

So, just reading these rules will not help you. You have to live them. That is the hard part.

The only things you need to know in life

From my former Tai Chi instructor, Martin Lee (who was also a Professor of Physics at Stanford) I learned that you only need to know four things:

  • Relax
  • Breathe
  • Feel the Earth
  • Do nothing extra

I read an article about a very successful life coach (I forget his name) who taught his clients three lessons:

  • Life is good
  • Be happy now
  • Let it go

My cousin, Shyam Chari, sent me the following advice that he gives young people:

  • Be fearless in your conviction
  • Have compassion towards the less fortunate
  • Give selfless service to those in need

What to do when you don't know anything

In research, and in life, you often are lost. Here are three rules I have found useful in doing anything new:

  • Start simple
  • Learn as you go
  • Prepare to change