What doing research as an undergrad can teach you.

Source — https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02847-8 ( yeah I thought I should mention the source of the images from now on, its a good practice )

Although my coaching teachers used to say now and then ki

“itna deep me jaake kya karega topic me, research karni he kya tereko isme?”

If someone told me in my first few months at college, that I’ll be spending most of my time pursuing research as an undergrad, I would have probably laughed it off. And honestly, it was accidental for most of the part, a random conversation with a senior and some fateful string of events made me consider research as a direction that I would like to explore and then it was just one thing after the other, and it’s not as if I am considering research as a life-career, it’s more of a just for fun kind of activity.

Also, I am not a full-fledged researcher, I am just an undergrad lol, with only a few small research experiences ( you can find more about it here). Most of them happened under the supervision of highly experienced people, and it was more of me doing stuff for their research and not a research of my own per se, and so I shouldn’t be writing this blog, but there are two reasons I am doing so :

  • I probably won’t continue to pursue research as a career in future, so I thought I should write down the feeling, the lessons learnt while they are still fresh, just to come back to them after some years and maybe get inspired or stuff.
  • It’s been way too long since my last blog post, and I wanted to write about something ( the real reason lol)

So, I strongly believe, that everyone should try to get some research experience in their undergrad, even if you don’t want to pursue academic research, especially if you don’t want to pursue it as a career. But you might find this statement contradictory and ask, what would research teach me? If I don’t want to pursue it as a career, why is this for me?

Well, that’s what I will talk about in this blog —

Bringing Order to Chaos

What is research but a blind date with knowledge?

— Will Harvey

The most obvious reason for getting research experience that comes to my mind is that it teaches you how to approach an abstract, unstructured problem and gradually bring order to all the chaos, structure stuff up, and devise a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem.

Usually, research problem statements are poorly specified, and there is no right or wrong answer to them, no one knows how to solve them accurately, and you get to work on the frontiers of human knowledge, and although it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to make the next great discovery that will lead humankind to salvation, you might be able to take a small small part in the conversation of experts of the world and maybe help shift the conversation from one point to another ( or you can get effectively remain unknown and practically dead for the community, and well, there’s a graveyard for all such dead ideas — arxiv.org 😛)

This ability is precious in whatever career you want to pursue, problems in the real world are like research problems too, they don’t have one correct answer ( maybe they don’t have any answer at all ), but you still need to make hypotheses, test it, and then repeat, and that’s precisely what doing research teaches you. I personally feel more confident about tackling any problem in any field after doing some research work, because it has taught me how to approach a problem statement scientifically and break it down into smaller manageable subproblems.

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants

A researcher who believes that he can figure it out all by himself is probably not a very good one. Good researchers respect the opinions of people who came before them, dive deep into their work, what they did, what problems they discovered and how they tackled them. A lot of good research work has been done by taking inspiration from something done by someone lots of years back, which was forgotten over time, and redesigning it into the present. In fact, Issac Newton famously quoted —

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants

— Issac Newton

And well, I don’t think anyone is vain enough to believe they are smarter than this guy, so if the biggest daddy out there in research says that respect those who came before, you bet we do precisely that.

Also, research is a highly collaborative environment. People openly discuss ideas ( albeit, there are some constraints due to the ideas being an intellectual property ), they welcome criticism of their works since they believe that the problem statement they are working on is yet unsolved, they are probably not lucky enough to have it all figured out correctly. And I think this is a bit more prevalent in the US and a bit less in India as of now, but hopefully, that would change in the future.

Working in such an environment would pay off in alternate careers, because well, developing a collaborative spirit is quintessential to success. You get comfortable with putting your “ego” aside and look for ideas from everywhere. You become intellectually humble, and begin to realise that one cannot possibly know everything about anything and also begin to respect other people’s work. You stop discarding things as inherently easy because you know that there is probably some really complex research going on even for something seemingly simple. Personally doing research has made me more open to asking for help from others ( sometimes I think I ask for help a little too much lol, but that’s okay ) and also appreciate the inherent complexity of stuff around us.

The art of storytelling

The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories

— Mary Catherine Bateson

A critical part of life as a researcher is making other people believe that your work is actually worth considering in the larger conversation going about that problem. And what better than storytelling to make a large group of people believe in something ( take religion, for example, it’s mostly storytelling used to unite a people under a common idealogy ).

Even while writing a research paper, a lot of effort goes into making stuff sound coherent and in line with the overall “story” you are putting forward. You conduct experiments that further strengthen your story’s validity. You review other people’s version of the story and try to add some quirks of your storytelling into it. A PhD thesis is basically a story of your beliefs, and a PhD defence puts that story to the test, hoping that you can make others believe it.

Again this art of storytelling is a vital skill in any career. Say you want to be an entrepreneur, I can’t imagine someone being successful as an entrepreneur without storytelling. You need to make people believe in your story for making them work with you, and you need customers to believe in your story to buy services/products from you. Political parties need people to believe in their story if they want to come to power. The human population has grown to such a level, that to unite these many people, what works the best is making them believe in a common story.

Also, as an added bonus, as a researcher, you have to give a lot of presentations ( since you need to present your research work to multiple peoples, at various conferences, guest lectures, reading groups etc. etc. ). So you also get to learn the crucial skill of making great presentations quickly and also a lot of time you have to present complex research work to people who don’t necessarily have the same level of expertise in that area, so you also learn how to simplify complicated stuff and explain it in a simple manner, and that my dear reader, is genius.

Do or Do not. There is no try.

Research teaches a man to admit he is wrong and to be proud of the fact that he does so

— H.E. Stocher

This one is probably the most critical thing research has perhaps taught me personally. Rejection becomes a daily thing for people doing research and failure your only true companion. You work your ass off on a research paper, spending countless hours, doing tedious experiments, and submit it for peer review, and then get it rejected by the whims of a moody reviewer. Also, especially as an undergraduate, research opportunities are sparsely available. You get rejected a lot while applying for research positions, hell most of the people don't even bother replying to undergrads lol.

Also doing research requires you to be quite persistent and intrinsically motivated. It’s quite common to feel lost in the process of finding the answer to your question, and help is not readily available, cause well, its a research problem, nobody really knows/cares about it other than you and probably a few more people. You need to stay motivated and keep trying and trying until you finally overcome it or decide to pivot around the issue ( knowing when to pivot and change your hypothesis when stuff isn’t working is also a crucial skill in itself).

When failure becomes a daily thing for you, you start getting used to it; you become used to give it your all, knowing that you might fail. This ability is vital in any career, and it makes you fearless and bold, and more willing to take risks. I personally feel that after getting rejected so many times in my early applications in finding research, I have become quite shameless about failing and have become used to doing whatever it takes to get shit done.

Some other stuff…

Here are some other points that come to my mind, but I don’t want to drag the post too long, so I’ll cover them quickly.

  • It makes you a faster reader and makes you able to gather knowledge pretty quickly, which is a bit obvious since you spend most of the time reading research papers and seeing other people’s work.
  • It makes you more creative since you have to figure out novel solutions to problems day in and out. You can’t just repeat a previous idea, you’ve got to think something new, hell, you might be trying to solve something that no one else did before, you obviously have to be highly creative.
  • It teaches you to respect the small details and how to follow rigorously meticulous experimental procedures. I think doing research has made me better at organising stuff and following the proper procedure of things even if it’s boring.
  • You become better at expressing your ideas, concisely and clearly. Research papers usually have an upper bound on the length of pages, and thus you get used to explaining stuff in as little words as possible ( although you do tend to start using more jargons, but ah well there is no free lunch )
  • You get used to breaking down a problem to its core and doing things from first principles ( like a physicist ), an approach used by highly successful people like Elon Musk to reimagine the world.

While I might not continue pursuing research as a career, I am grateful for whatever research experience I got in the last year. It fundamentally changed the way I approach problems. I hope this article might motivate more people to give it a shot even if they don’t want to become a scientist and remove the stigma surrounding research from their mind ( cause well, even I thought research was for weirdos with a grey beard when I started xD ).

As usual, feel free to hit me up if you have any feedback for my writing, I would highly appreciate that! Also hey, let’s talk anyway! Its been a long year, and I am sure you have a lot of interesting stuff to share :P

Until then….Stay safe!

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Vision and Language Group, is a student-run deep learning centric group of IIT Roorkee. We meet up regularly to take up discussions on latest advancements in the deep learning field by reviewing various papers accepted in various tier-1 DL/CV/NLP conferences.

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Ayush Mangal

Ayush Mangal

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