Thoughts on research opportunities

Recently, a friend asked me a few questions on finding research positions. My answers to her questions summarized my newfound philosophy on finding the “right” question to work on.

Disclaimer: These are just like my opinions man. Not anyone else’s. As with all things, you should take it with a grain of salt.

Me: Hi, X said that you were looking for research positions and wanted help.

Her: Hi! Yeah, I had a few questions about working in a lab. I’m trying to figure out if I can work at a lab this semester starting in March, take the summer off, and continue in the fall?

I’m also looking for a research opportunity that isn’t extremely coding heavy so if anything comes to mind let me know.

Me: It depends on the people you work with. There are organizations and research groups that employ you based on contracts. And the contract defines your length of stay, how many hours you will work, pay, etc. Generally, these contracts are “set in stone”, but the employers tend to understand you are a student and allow things to be less rigid.

Most of the time, ff you reach out to a professor whose research you think is cool, your work schedule might be more flexible. For instance, I worked for free with Dan Larremore for the first 3 months. Then, I asked him for a summer job and was on his payroll for the next year. Then, I took off to to an internship at Microsoft the next summer but still was able to work with him and get paid. Finally, I am doing a thesis with him right now.

I am happy to talk more about my research journey.

What kind of research things are you interested in?

Her: Yeah I’ve been thinking about reaching out to professors but I’ve been worried it’s too late since it’s already March. I won’t be able to continue the research in the summer so I would need something flexible.

And I think I’m more interested in the labs housed under TAM as opposed to the ones housed under the engineering college.

What kind of work did you do with Dan Larremore? What did a day at “work” look like for you at the lab?

Me: I don’t think it’s too late. Research generally doesn’t follow semester schedules. Worst case, they tell you to start in Fall and that’s still better than nothing.

The work I do with Dan is more mathematical. When I started, I was working on automatically extracting data from faculty CVs to study the scientific ecosystem. Now, my thesis is focused on inferring hierarchy in networks based on interactions between different nodes and their characteristics (think ranking chess players).

When I worked full time, I would usually go to the lab space and spend most of my time reading, coding, and working out math on a whiteboard. Now, since it’s part-time, I generally work whenever/wherever I feel like. And he doesn’t mind if I work fewer hours I work as long as I have results to show every week.

But, this is a more CS/Math research group and the “typical day” is very different for different research groups even within the same field. For instance, in biology, you would spend more time doing wet lab stuff.

If you’re interested in TAM things, one thing I’d suggest is narrowing down exactly what you want to do and why you want to do that. Do you have a sense of that?

This question is hard to answer and generally trying multiple things can give a sense of what you like. In my case, I worked in an aerospace lab for a semester before I realized what I was doing was not interesting at all to me. And I met Dan after that.

Once you know that, you can move away from the TAM umbrella and find the same kind of things at various other places, giving you more options. As an example, someone I know (studying TAM) works as the scientific communicator/marketing and media person for a research group that analyzes data from Earth systems to better understand the environment.

Her: It’s good to know that it maybe isn’t too late, I guess after talking to you a bit more I’ll get back to emailing professors about their labs.

I think I’m having difficulty narrowing down exactly what it is I want to do. I’ve read a lot of summaries about different labs but I have a hard time getting a sense of what I would be doing in a lab, so I guess I would have to just reach out and talk to professors about it, there’s no other solution to that.

Right now it’s kind of hard for me to see where to even start given I don’t know what I want to do. So here’s a question I’m gonna throw at you: There are a lot of interesting labs here at CU, but not every lab will be suitable for me to work at. Is there any way to narrow down what it is I wanna do besides “picking what seems the coolest”?

And what made you not like the aerospace lab?

Me: The first question you asked is something almost everyone struggles with at the beginning, and I didn’t even know I was facing this. I think an easier question to answer is, “What do I care about? Why?” Write down the answer. Literally, write it down. This could be research ideas/topics, problems in the world you care about, the kind of people you want to work with. This thinking helps focus your goals and declutter your mind from the coolness aspect (you may still have cool things, but you remove the ones you don’t care about). And this will change over time as you experience new things.

Then, it will be easier to find projects and people whose goals align with what you care about. And when you reach out to professors, it will be much easier to just tell them what you want and ask if they can offer it, but also be open and humble to their perspectives when you talk. An added benefit is that they will appreciate you for having put thought into what you want.

Another thing to realize is that trial and error is not a bad thing. Volunteer to work for someone (and sincerely do it) for a few weeks and see if it’s a good fit. Commit if you like it.

Another important thing I should mention is that you should also take into account the kind of people you want to work with. In my opinion, someone who is fun to work with and genuinely cares about your success is a better fit than someone who has racked up awards and citations but is toxic to be around.

The way I look at the question is there are two orthogonal axes - my personal “joy” factor and does it impact the world in a way that is meaningful to me. Of course, this is just my answer and yours may be different.

I want to find something that hits both these categories. I want to enjoy my work and it should have a meaningful impact. For instance, curing cancer is an important issue and has a meaningful impact. However, working in a wet lab to address this issue is not something I would consider joyous (there are other ways I can attempt to solve this problem that bring me happiness at the same time). Another example is, I find string theory fascinating, but it does not impact the world in a way that is meaningful to me, at least in the foreseeable future.

And in the world of mathematics, it’s hard to find that sweet spot. There are only a handful of problems that do hit it. So recently, I’ve had to redefine what it means to have a meaningful impact. Now, I also care more about the ripple effect as opposed to just the immediate applications.

So, to answer your second question, why did I not like the aerospace lab, after a few weeks into it, I realized it had almost zero impact. The code I wrote will probably be thrown away as soon as I leave. I was designing an autonomous navigation system in deep space, which is basically science fiction at this point. And I was using deep neural networks. Working on this project, I realized I did not find deep learning interesting, because it is a highly incomprehensible black box and that made it slightly disturbing. Essentially, it scored negative on both my axes.

Also, reading this, you may wonder if I had it all figured out and worry that you don’t. All of my answers are based on retrospection and reflection. The truth is, I did not actively have any of these thoughts when this happened. Talking to other people, and writing essays for grad school applications forced me to think through all this, which is why I have concrete thoughts. And in hindsight, I wish I did all this thinking before and it would have helped me better.

Does that answer your questions?

Her: It really does answer my question, that was the most comprehensive response possible. I’ve read it over a few times to make sure I didn’t miss any details, so thank you for that!

In terms of finding the right opportunity, do you think I should just start reaching out to professors via email and see where it takes me? I would like to find a set up where I won’t be paid and the work would be voluntary and I want to start getting some experience as soon as possible.

Me: Yep! That’s basically what I did. I reached out to Aaron Clauset twice before he turned me down (twice!) and pointed me to Dan. Luckily I was familiar with Dan’s work because I attended one of his talks.

Some professors are too busy to respond to/take new people. So if you don’t hear back in a week, move on.

And that’s another thing: find talks and colloquiums to attend. You get familiar with other cool things happening around campus and the world.

This conversation took place on Slack, which is why it was possible to make a post here. The conversation continued and revolved around specific research groups.

This is unedited for the most part - the edits were primarily fixing typos and grammar corrections. I decided to leave it in the form of a conversation to follow the Socratic method.

I hope this was interesting to read!

Updated March 3, 2020: Corrected an error about the research done at Earth lab. Rephrased my choice of axes, and examples for uninteresting problems, to avoid misinterpretation.