White Balloon

Daily Journal of Mahaan, an Iranian-American student residing in USA.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

My problems with research

There is something fundamentally wrong in my research methodology. I have been around research community since my junior year of college, but I constantly feel that I have problems in:
1. Picking a well defined and isolated problem that is practically solvable in the given time frame.
2. Defining the problem clearly for myself and others.
3. Following major research priorities as I progress. (Based on wrong estimations, I have spent over extra amount of time on poritons of the work that have minor effects in the final result).
4. Wrapping up the work

At the same time, for the areas that I'm able to clear things up and understand and solve the problem, I'm able to present my work fairly clearly. That's the reason that my major presentations in conferences and seminars usually go fine, because I am able to selectively talk about the things that are crystal clear for me.

Today for the first time, I clearly felt that if I can not overcome the above problems, I'll have serious problems not only in my future research career, but even in finishing my PhD. I feel the continuation of this situation, makes me very insecure in dealing with new research questions and with presenting my ideas to my advisors and local research community properly.

Fortunately or unfortunately, before this summer I've usually worked with advisors who were fairly liberal towards my research direction. In many cases this liberalism has resulted a feeling of being lost in the research work and feeling unable to really proceed. I believe that an advisor needs to have two types of criteria for dealing with a student researcher: 1. For some students that for whatever reason know what they are doing, leave them alone and let them impress you and the research community with their work. (This is what most of advisors do) 2. For students who might not have clear ideas who to advance: Assign them small tasks in a way that it builds up towards a long term research direction. This second strategy is something that I've observed happening in the research lab that I currently work as a summer intern in LA. I've observed that majority of successful PhD students, have developed very basic toolsets upon their arrival and throughout that development, many interesting and well defined research ideas have been brought up and shaped their research direction.

Minor part of the blame of being unfamiliar with right research methodology might go to my background in Iranian education system which lacks serious research training in secondary and highschools. Couple of months ago, I was picked to be the judge of a Math competition in a local secondary school. I was so impressed to see how much those young American students were capable of analyzing a simple research problem scientificaly and clearly. This was something that was totally absent in our dry and fully theoric secondary and hight school education. I should admit that this is definitely a minor issue with respect to my problem, because I've seen tens of successful Iranian students in American universities who have similar educational backgrounds like me.

But big part of the blame goes to my personal mistakes in over reaching and in most cases my obsession with balancing many minor issues when I pick a problem. Actually at the moment, I'm again dealing with this problem because I'm trying to define the right and interesting research question to pick.
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