Friday, January 18, 2008

Hunting for Problems

An anonymous commenter asked:

What advice do you give to graduate students hunting for problems?

I'd advise the following, though your working style may differ:
  1. Read a lot. Nobody else wants their paper proceedings anymore, so keep those hefty tomes lying around and start reading from 2008 backwards whenever you can. I found problems (including my thesis topic) in graduate school just by reading proceedings and thinking hard when I thought I saw how to do something better. At worst, reading through proceedings introduces you to techniques, ideas, and problems, so it won't be a waste. Two notes about this approach: you'll probably have to read at least 40-50 papers before you find even one with a problem that appeals to you and that you have an idea on, and the problems you tend to find this way are generally incremental -- after all, they're based on somebody else's paper! For a beginning graduate student (with lots of time, and where publishing something incremental is just fine), those negatives aren't too bad.
  2. Go to talks. For the same reason you should read a lot -- for exposure to problems and ideas.
  3. Talk to people. Don't just talk to your advisor. Find other people with interesting problems and research, and see if you can help them, or if by talking to them you get a new idea for a research direction. I certainly don't come up with all of my own problems. Sharing ideas with others is key. In fact, I strongly recommend you talk with your other graduate students as much as possible, and try to start a paper-reading group/research group with them. Other students have more time than your advisor, so leverage that and work together to solve a problem. (Thank goodness we work in a field where cooperation is considered a virtue and collaboration is the norm.) At worst, it will make your work/social life at graduate school much better and less isolated.
  4. Don't limit yourself to reading papers by/going to talks by/talking to theorists. If you're looking to come up with a new problem, odds are the motivation for that problem will come from outside the theory community itself. Find out what kinds of problems the systems people are having, and see if you can turn it into a theory problem. Even if your theory version is too toy to solve the real-world problem, you'll have a reasonable motivation for your introduction. And if your theory problem actually helps solve their real-world systems problem, bonus -- you now have contacts/letter-writers from outside theory that can help you in the future. And again, it will make your work/social life at graduate school better and less isolated if you talk to other people in the department besides theorists.
That's the top-of-my-head advice.


Anonymous said...

Also, subscribe to the RSS feed on Arxiv? (that would help keep oneself at least a few months ahead of conference proceedings)

Anonymous said...

this motivates the natural question: what is the best way to do non-incremental work?