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Finding a Research Topic

Janie Irwin CSE, Penn State with credits to Kathy Yelick, EECS, UC Berkeley

The Real Equation

Topic + Advisor = Dissertation

Fear of Topic Selection

Settling on a PhD research topic is often a low point in graduate school

Even for the most successful students Even for the men

Why? Because it is very important!

Its the next two (or three) years of your life It will define the area for your job search You may be working in the same area (or a derivative) for years after

Things to Consider

Do you have a preassigned research advisor or do you have to find one? What kind of job are you interested in?

Top 20, teaching, govt lab, industry Programming, design, data analysis, proofs Key insights vs. long/detailed verification/simulation Technology, puzzles, applications, interdisciplinary

What are your strengths? weaknesses?

What drives you? bores you?

More Things to Consider

Does your advisor know anything about the topic? What is your advisors style?

Are you more comfortable working as part of a team or alone?

Do you (i.e., your advisor) have funding for you to work in the area?

6 Ways to Find a Topic

1) Flash of Brilliance Model

You wake up one day with a new insight/idea New approach to solve an important open problem Warnings:

This rarely happens Even if it does, you may not be able to find an advisor who agrees

2) The Apprentice Model

Your advisor has a list of topics Suggests one (or more!) that you can work on Can save you a lot of time/anxiety Warnings:

Dont work on something you find boring, fruitless, badly-motivated, Several students may be working on the same/related problem

3) The Phoenix Model

You work on some projects and think very hard about what youve done looking for insights

Re-implement in a common framework Identify an algorithm/proof problem inside

Especially common in systems

The topic emerges from your work


You may be working without a topic for a long time

4) The Stapler Model

You work on a number of small topics that turn into a series of conference papers

E.g., you figure out how to apply a technique (e.g., ILP) to a number of key problems in an area

You figure out somehow how to tie it all together, create a chapter from each paper, and put a big staple through it Warnings:

May be hard/impossible to find the tie

5) The Synthesis Model

You read some papers from other subfields in computer science/engineering or a related field (e.g., biology) And look for places to apply insight from another (sub)field to your own

E.g., databases to compilers You can spend a career reading papers! You may not find any useful connections


6) The Expanded Term Project Model

You take a project course that gives you a new perspective

E.g., theory for systems and vice versa

The project/paper combines your research project with the course project

One (and ) project does double duty


This can distract from your research if you cant find a related project/paper

What to Do When Youre Stuck

Read papers in your area of interest

Write an annotated bibliography

Read a PhD thesis or two (or three) Read your advisors grant proposal(s) Take a project class with a new perspective Serve as an apprentice to a senior PhD student in your group

Keep working on something Attend a really good conference in an area of interest Do a industry/government lab internship

Get feedback and ideas from others

Dont be Afraid to Take Risks

Switching areas/advisors can be risky

May move you outside your advisors area of expertise You dont know the related work You are starting from scratch Recognize when your project isnt working

But it can be very refreshing!

Remember, its hard to publish negative results

Thank You

Questions Comments Discussions