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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Student Tip: Choosing Research Topics

In this post I throw in some points to ponder for students trying to find research and thesis topics.

As a student, finding research topics can be difficult. First, as as new research student you are not sure of which topics interest you more than others. Second, you have to work with an advisor or mentor (e.g. professor, postdoc or senior PhD student) and sometimes they may be vague about what they want you to do. Third, there are many choices. How to choose?

Needless to say, choosing a research topic is a big professional decision. It will define the scope of your publications, your thesis or dissertation, and later come up umpteen times when you interview for jobs. Remember, if your research career takes off, you may be working in and around the chosen research topic for years to come. So the first and foremost rule is to choose topics that really interest you.

To some extent, the broad scope of research work you start with is bounded by the interest of your research advisor and the research grant that funds your stipend (in case you are hired as a research assistant). Research grant proposals contain the planned direction of research and this information can help you narrow down topics. Your research advisor's recent publications are a good indication of topics which interest her. There are research advisors who give their students a lot of latitude in what they can do but tread carefully - in the end every advisor has a certain vision of what comprises successful research. For example, she may equate success with a publication being accepted to a certain conference. Ask your research advisor about what makes for a successful research topic in her opinion. Then select research topics that have a realistic chance of achieving this goal.

In case you do not have a research advisor and are not funded via a grant, shortlist those faculty and staff members with whom you want to work. Then look at their recent publications and speak with them about possible research topics. Senior researchers usually have a number of research topics in the back of their minds. A motivated student (especially one who has read some of their research papers) is very hard to resist for them!

What do you think? Post your comments below.

Roles of Research Laboratories

In this post I put forth the logic behind the existence of research labs and some of their benefits that warrant the investment.

The lions share of non-academic R&D happens in research labs. These institutions, as part of private corporations or governments, conduct research in fields related to their sponsoring agency. For example, government research labs may have a focus on agriculture research or defence-related research. Private R&D labs usually focus on scientific work related to the products and services offered by their parent private corporation. However, most research labs are afforded a certain degree of freedom because their core task is looking beyond the current version of products and services of their parent institutions.

In many cases research labs create future products or services. For example, Bell Lab researchers invented the electronic transistor in 1960, the basic electronic component in all electronic and computer systems today. Pharmaceutical companies rely on their research labs to come up with new drugs on a continuous basis. Scientists in research labs create intellectual property - for example, papers, patents, experimental prototypes - as a means of enriching the intellectual assets and idea repository of their sponsoring organizations.

Research labs are the (sponsoring) organization's eyes and ears into research and development happening around the world. This is becoming more important because a large number of products and services incorporate open-source modules to push down product development costs and benefit from the quality control, rather than rely on building every product feature from the ground up. For example, modern TVs have the ability to display pictures and videos stored on a USB drive. Several leading TV manufacturers use open-source Linux instead of building proprietary and expensive systems of their own. Because of the open organizational nature of research labs, they are great conduits to engage this sort of "community driven" product development and adoption.

Labs working openly with external business partners (suppliers, clients) foster collaborations that may lead to improving suppliers' product offerings or boosting sales to clients. For example, BBN Technologies routinely works with government research labs in conducting research in defence- related work. Unsurprisingly, the US governmental agency DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) routinely sponsors BBN-lead projects.

One often overlooked function of research labs is to contribute to the social responsibility aspect of organizations, because research is seen as a activity that generally benefits society, at least for a couple of reasons. First, many of the technologies that have had a tremendous social impact were created in research labs, a great example being the Internet. Second, scientists employed in research labs embody a repository of human knowledge in their fields of speciality; when they participate in activities like publishing or teaching/mentoring students/interns, that knowledge is propagated in society. No wonder many governments confer tax benefits to organizations investing in R&D.

All in all, research labs are good value, but only if their biggest asset - the intellect they nurture - is utilized effectively. If an organization has disposable resources to spend on its future products and services then an internal research lab is certainly worth the investment.

What do you think? Post your comments below.