Hints on doing research

These hints summarize my decades of thinking on this topic. I also gave a talk based on these hints called "Doing GREAT Research" at the Student Workshop in CoNext 2007.


  • Work to develop a research vision. Ask yourself "If my research succeeds, how will this make the world a better place?"
  • Be passionate about your work. If your research topic does not interest you, it is very likely not going to interest anyone else either. You are going to spend a lot of time on it, so you may as well enjoy it!
  • Look for a mismatch between hype and reality. Good research comes from re-examining conventional assumptions and separating wishful thinking from whats actually true. As a corollary, be very, very careful in making assumptions. Validate them continuously.
  • Always start with a literature survey. There is nothing worse than knowing you've wasted your time unknowingly duplicating someone else's work.
  • Seek theoretical bases for your work. A prototype is one-off, but a theory is for ever.
  • Simplify the problem to make it tractable, then add complexity one step at a time. Don't be tempted to 'boil the ocean'.
  • Use simulations when necessary, but remember that "The goal of simulations is intuition, not numbers" R.W. Hamming.
  • Be open with your research. Share ideas freely. Some of your ideas may be stolen, but your overall impact will be greater.
  • Write your work down. Always carry a notebook.
  • Take detailed notes at meetings and lectures. Your mind is more unreliable than you think.
  • If you do not understand something in a paper, correspond with the author.
  • Do good work that can be published, but don't let publications drive your work.
  • Always give credit where credit is due.
  • Seek to explain your work to everyone you meet. Constantly explaining your work will refine your vision. Respect and incorporate any feedback.
  • Rejection of a paper is your chance to strengthen it. The best papers are rejected at least once. On the other hand, you should probably give up after three rejections.
  • Fuzzy writing indicates fuzzy thinking. Avoid both.
  • Do not be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom -- but be sure of your facts.
  • Maintain a research website and update it frequently.
  • Attend talks in all areas of research - you never know if it may turn out to be relevant.
  • Choose your collaborators carefully.
  • If you find your assumptions about your work are wrong, discard your work immediately and move on. If you are not convinced about the validity of your work, no one else will be either.
  • Research in an area goes through three stages- naive simplicity, complexity, and a second simplicity. Do not confuse the first with the third.
  • Read widely.
  • Once you have crystallized a problem, focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. A solution will present itself naturally.
  • Use mathematical notation judiciously. If something can be explained in words, then do so.
  • A few publications with great impact are much better than many publications with no impact.
  • Ask questions at talks. It keeps you from sleeping.
  • There is no greater thrill than discovering something new. Enjoy your work!