Thursday, December 10, 2009

More Advices to a Youngster

Tapas Mukherjee, one of my nephews, is doing his BSc in Microbiology. He was recently at our place for some training at IISc. Among many things, he wished to hear me out on my thoughts about individual development. I shared some thoughts with him during one of our chats, and later scribed it down in the form of an email. I now feel it's apt to find a place in my blog. Here we go (the reason why some of my statements appear in past-tense is because the mail was written as a recap of the a discussion which had happened recently):

Algorithm, Computer Science
I suggested that it's a good idea for you to be acquainted with basic computing. One thing is that in your work you may have to use computers more and more. But the prime reason is that if you happen to work on structural biology, or on genomics etc., you may even have to do rudimentary programming. It would help to be conversant with programming methods, a couple of programming languages like C, Perl and Java. Then your dependence on computer specialists would be minimised. Finally, algorithmic way of thinking augments logical thinking which is in general a researcher's best friend.

Basic Methods of Problem Solving
In order to be able to make quick switch between subjects -- which everyone will have to do more and more in his career in the coming times -- one must be able to promptly get to the core issues of things. My assertion was that there are a few basic tenets or characteristics of problems that are shared by pretty much all problems that we solve. And the fundamental tools to solve such problems are also few in number. We should be able to grasp these basic characteristics and methods. What are those basic characteristics? It's not easy for me to tell you. I am just on my way to prepare a list of my own. For example, one problem that recurrently appears in the world of computing is 'inconsistency'. It appears in so many various avatars. But there's a way to model them all as instances of inconsistency. In programming the solution to this problem comes as modularity and re-use. Right now, I have been able to work out a handful of such fundamentals for my field. I have reasons to believe that there are fundamentals which apply across fields. All this mayn't make immediate sense to you since they are specific to my field. Your field may have its own list of fundamental problems and their solutions. Be on a look out for them.

A very simple interpretation of the above paragraph is: keep your fundamentals clear.

Importance of Literature Review
You had asked how a researcher ever finds out whether what he has come up with is novel or not. My answer to that was that you must spend a majority of your efforts in reading the literature in your area so that you have a feel of the cutting edge. It also depends a lot on your experience to find out roughly if a given problem has likely been solved or not. However, at the end of the day, it boils down to finding it out from the community. You share your work within circles of progressively increasing radii. Eventually, you share it with the open community in the form of a paper. If no one comes out with a feedback that the exact idea has already been published somewhere else, the paper gets published. It's then that it's novelty is an accepted fact, not through a formal proof, but by the consensus amongst the experts of the area.

Therefore, you must know that as you grow as an expert, you also become partly a keeper of the forefront of the knowledge in that area. When a paper comes to you for review, it's a great responsibility because a wrong decision on your part may lead to a good idea not coming out into the open, or the credit of an idea being misappropriated by a wrong person. Both these things are unacceptable.

Hence, both as a producer and as a reviewer of scholarly work, the importance of literature review can't be over-stated.

Knowing the Important Players in the Research Field
Unlike traditionally believed in our country, research is no more a lonely act to be performed in solitude. Now, the process of proving your credibility gradually makes you an accepted member of a community. Unless you belong to a community, you run little chance to be believed for your ideas easily. Hence, socialising is very important. Knowing the right people, starting from those who are the most important people, not only makes you aware of the hierarchy of the work, but the power structure that is inherent in a scholarly community. It also helps you determine where you belong in this community.

Therefore, find out the greatest guys in your area. Your search for information may end you anywhere, but it'll pretty much always start on the webpages of these big guys.

Role of Guide
The guide's role is central in defining the quality of the PhD thesis, sometimes even your career as a researcher. When you start your PhD, he will guide you out of your immaturity. He will criticise you when you are being too naive, and will reassure you when your confidence takes a nose-dive. He will give your the action points to work on as you gradually learn to walk around in the intellectual space you are out to master. The guide's importance is infinite in the beginning. By the end of the PhD, it should be your joint goal to reduce his role to a name in your acknowledgement, which means, that at the end of your PhD you should have learned to define and formulate your problem and work out a solution to it without anyone's guidance. Till then, guide teaches you to do that.

Be careful in choosing your PhD supervisor.

How to find out if your work is new
Please see 'Importance of Literature Review.'

Interacting with Others
This is where I have plenty to tell you, worth a separate mail. But anyway...

First thing to learn is to respect others. Always remember, people you interact with everyday are pretty much as intelligent as you are, if not more. Your body language and speech should express that respect in plenty. Show eagerness to listen. Don't be too eager to present your point of view in everything and anything, particularly when it doesn't bring value to the discussion. Giving uninformed opinions on things often doesn't give an impression of your being an all-knower. Among intelligent people, such people end up being shunned as incessant blabberers, bores. It's a good habit to weigh one's words when saying it. Always, before saying anything, give a moment of thought on 'Is it going to make this discussion a more fruitful one; or is it just aimed to increase my share in the discussion, even though with garbage.' Don't spew garbage. Maintain your dignity.

On the other hand, those who carefully listen to others end up imbibing enormous amount of information and knowledge. So, listen. Listen carefully. Even passively. Which means that while you internalise the information being given by a speaker, do it without colouring it with your own interpretation, with daydreamings, with ulterior thoughts. It's easier said than done. It requires a lot of discipline to become a good listener. Frankly, I myself continue to struggle.

While discussing, if you have a choice, always try to keep the focus on the other person and his work. Ask more questions. Exude interest and curiosity. Make the other person amply aware how fascinating you find their field and their ideas. It will encourage them to reveal more and share more. It's not with a cunning intention that you do so. It's to make the discussion valuable to all parties involved. If required, speak about your thought frankly, with a balance of pride and modesty. But always be factual. Always try to make it valuable to your listener. It hardly helps to brag. It hardly helps to speak more than you know. It hardly helps to keep blabbing endlessly about things your listener doesn't want to hear.

Given that, you should always try to find out the commonalities between your field and the other person's. Remember the thing about fundamentals? There are fundamentals common to any two areas, however disconnected on the surface. A discussion which at least indirectly reveals a set of commonalities between you and his interests is more than just fruitful. It's fabulous.

One Page Presentation of Your Idea
In various scenarios, this one page could be called an abstract, an introduction, a synopsis, a summary etc.

A general sequence of coverage is the following:
- Introduction to the problem
- Existing work to solve the problems
- Gaps
- Your work and explanation as to how it fills the gap
- Your reason to believe that your work indeed fulfils the promise, presented via proofs or experimental results.

You will learn with time that the above is just a guideline. You have to make a structure of your own. Remember, through your introduction, you must evoke interest in your audience to look deeper into your work. Always imagine that the audience is asking you: 'Why should I listen to you? Why should I believe you?' Your introduction should answer those questions somehow.

At this stage, I can't speak more on this topic. But with time, we will get plenty of opportunities to revisit it.

Related Post:
Advice to a Youngster

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