A Personal Note on How to Start Research in Computer
Seven Steps on the Road to Success
This is a short note on how to start defining your topic of
interest and zooming in on specific research problems and challenges.
This note is geared towards graduate (M.S. and Ph.D.) students interested
in computer networks related topics for their
directed research (DR), M.S. thesis,
or Ph.D. dissertation. The general guidelines, however, may apply to a
class of students (e.g., in Electrical Engineering or Computer Science
[Note: This is only a starting point. There's a lot more to research
than what's here!]
[Hint for advisors: I find it quite effective to define 'four' milestones
for the students per semester (e.g., for term projects) based on the above
steps: (1) initial
proposal (~2 pages, due around the 5th week of the semester), (2) final
proposal (~2-4 pages, due around the 8th week of the semester), (3)
initial report (~8 pages, due around the 11th week of the semester), (4)
final report (~10 pages, due around the 14th week of the semester).
- Pick a direction or area of interest based on your background in
netwoking (e.g., courses you have taken, readings, conferences, talks to
Professors, etc.). Try to be as specific as possible. For example, do not
pick 'multicast' (it is too general), but perhaps 'congestion control for
reliable multicast' or 'multicast routing in ad hoc networks'. Do not pick
'wireless networks' (too general), but perhaps 'systematic testing of
wireless MAC layer' or 'efficient handoff for IP mobility', for
instance. There could be a list of topics that interest you (related
or unrelated). I do not recommend a list of more than three topics.
- Compile a set of 'keywords' to start searching for high quality
readings for each of the previously selected topics. Good places to start
your search are IEEE library
and ACM library on-line.
Pick one research topic
at a time.
You can also search on the web (e.g., Google, or Google scholar) but please double check
the publication details for quality (there are a lot of papers out
Another literature-rich scientific digital library is citeseer.com, but
again, please double check details for quality.
- Out of the search hits, select around 15-20 papers that you think are
most related to what you had in mind and are of the highest
quality. Do NOT read all these papers yet!
Check the title, abstract,
names of authors, their
affiliations, and most importantly the conference or journal. Many IEEE
and ACM conferences/Journals are of high
quality. Some, however, are more selective and competitive than
others. Examples of well-known conferences/journals include, but
are not limited to:
Some gathered statistics about conference/workshop acceptance rates can be
found through Kevin
Almeroth's website. Note, however, that this is only one
possible indication of quality.
- In the general area of Computer Networks: IEEE/ACM Transactions on
Networking (ToN), IEEE
Journal on Selected Areas in Communications (JSAC), ACM SIGCOMM,
IEEE INFOCOM, IEEE ICNP, IEEE SIGMetrics,
Computer Networks Journal (Elsevier), IEEE ICC, IEEE GlobeCom, ACM CCR,
- In the more specific areas of wireless networks (including mobile ad
hoc networks, sensor networks and cellular-like infrastructure-based
ACM MobiCom, ACM MobiHoc, ACM MONET Journal, AdHoc Networks Journal
(Elsevier), ACM Wireless Networks (WiNet) Journal,
ACM SenSys, IEEE/ACM IPSN, IEEE WCNC, ACM MC2R, to name a few.
[Note: try to refine your set of keywords and perform multiple searches to
cover most related quality work.]
Another hint is to use references and citations. Usually the most
cited work by high quality papers is also of high quality. If you
like a specific paper look at the list of references, this will give
you a good direction to follow.
- For the selected 15-20 papers read only the abstract, introduction and
conclusion in detail (you may skim the rest of the paper for a general
idea). Identify the
emphasis of each paper:
Out of these 15-20
based on your reading and understanding, pick a list of 4-6 papers that
you think are the highest quality and that address your research interests
and the challenges in the field most appropriately.
- (I) which problem it addresses,
- (II) what solution
- (III) how the solution differs from previous solutions, and
- (IV) what
are the main contributions and conclusions.
- Read those 4-6 papers from beginning to end, identifying in
detail: (I) the
main approaches, (II) methods of analysis: (a) metrics, (b) evaluation
tools, and (c) analysis and interpretation
of resulting simulation or measured data, and (III) conclusions. At
the same time, try to keep a list of what you think the authors
may have missed in the paper/study, gaps or limitations that could be
upon and any ideas on how to accomplish these improvements. Some
questions to ask include: Did all/some papers use similar
approaches? Have they used the same evaluation criteria, or method of
analysis? If not, then what are the strengths/weaknesses of each
method? Also, keep a
list of ideas that you want to explore further, or background material you
want to brush upon. This will create another list of readings for you in
- Write a two page proposal defining, as clearly as possible, the
Have some knowlegeable
(trustworthy) friends review
the proposal for you and give feedback (mainly on presentation and
clarity, leave technical remarks for the reserach advisor). For
example, have them read the 2 pages and tell you (in their own
words) what they think you are proposing. If/when you think it is clear,
then discuss the proposal with your research advisor.
If you do not think it is clear, go back and re-write. If you think
you have missed some other work, then go back to the 15-20 list and
pick another 3-5 good papers to read in detail, and re-write parts of your
- Research challenges
- Overview of existing work
- Limitations of existing work
- Potential directions and ideas for improvement
- Expected results and impact on the field.
Try to focus... it is hard, and there are a lot of good
ideas out there, and the more your read, the more you want to read
(which is good), but you have to focus and write those 2
pages. [Remember that having a strategy is sometimes more important
than dispersed ideas. More readings will come at a later phase. It
is more important to focus at this point and not get confused, so be
very selective in your readings.]
For an outline and sample instructions on how to write those two initial
- If you have done a good job at the above, I think you are at a good
'starting' point to pursue research! Good luck with the rest...
next step is to write a 10 page proposal elaborating on the 2 pages
above, adding your own twist on the problem, outlining your
initial thoughts, results and findings, and outlining a clear plan to
continue the work.
For a suggested outline and instructions on how to write the ~10 page
After each milestone the
advisor would provide the student(s) with feedback on the
work and guidance to reach the next milestone.]
Associate Professor of Computer Networks
Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE)
University of Florida