Bob Gallager on Shannon’s tips for research

One of the classes I enjoyed the most in undergrad was Bob Gallager’s digital communications class, 6.450. I was reminded of what an engaging lecturer he was yesterday when I attended the Bell Labs Shannon Celebration yesterday. Unfortunately, it being the last week of the semester, I could not attend today’s more technical talks. Gallager gave a nice concise summary of what he learned from Shannon about how to do good theory work:

  1. Simplify the problem
  2. Relate it to other problems
  3. Restate the problem in as many ways as possible
  4. Break the problem into pieces
  5. Avoid getting locked into thinking ruts
  6. Generalize

As he said, “it’s a process of doing research… each one [step] gives you a little insight.” It’s tempting, as a theorist, to claim that at the end of this process you’ve solved the “fundamental” problem, but Gallager admonished us to remember that the first step is to simplify, often dramatically. As Alfred North Whitehead said, we should “seek simplicity and distrust it.”

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Five career-oriented things I wish I had done more of in grad school

As I’ve started my nascent academic career, I’ve faced a number of new and difficult challenges, and on more than one occasion I’ve felt hoisted with my own petard. Looking back on my graduate school experience, I realized there were a number of things which I could have done more that would have made things easier now.

  1. Write more grants. I came in to grad school with a NDSEG fellowship and then my advisor was well-funded. I had a blesséd life (especially compared to those in other departments). I should have gotten a bit more on the ball helping to write grants, even if it was just for the experience. Reading a proposal (or many) really gives a sense of what the document is about. More importantly, it’s a grant in your field and that’s something that you can’t really get out of one of those panels on grantsmanship that are pitched to a broad audience. Learning the process early has two benefits : it demystifies the strategy space in terms of writing, and it gives a good sense of what kind of things make sense and are “fundable.” I wrote little dribs and drabs of proposals here and there but it wasn’t until my postdoc that I really got to see and work on a full proposal.
  2. Do an internship. : It’s sad to say, but I never did an internship while in grad school. This was a real mistake. As an engineer it’s important to learn what is going on in “real” engineering but more importantly, as a engineering theorist it’s important to understand what’s going to be important in the future. Some of that you can do by watching the news and trends, but having a visceral sense of the challenges in making a real object is an important perspective. On the more practical side, it gives you more contacts in industry and the more people you know, the more ideas you can integrate.
  3. Constantly tell stories. : Part of this is for grant writing, but it’s a more general skill that is important for the job market and interacting with your colleagues, 99% of whom will be outside your area. This is a skill that is hard to develop in graduate school because we spend our time in our labs talking to other graduate students who are not that far away from us in terms of intellectual background. This kind of story-telling is often cast as “be able to talk to the general public” or “explain your research to a crowd that includes information theorists and device physicists.” Part of being able to tell a story about your research is being able to tell it in someone else’s language, which means understanding a bit about how people in other fields think. How would you explain your research to an anthropologist? I did practice explaining to other people, but I wish I had practiced more.
  4. Find a community. : I do a lot of work that falls between fields or on the corners of fields, so I’ve bounced around a bit. The last time I applied for jobs I had interviews wearing a networks hat, a signal processing hat, and an information theorist hat. Finding a community can have a positive or negative connotation. On the one hand, it’s dumb that people care so much about labels : “oh, he’s a machine learning guy,” or “oh, he’s a signal processing guy.” On the other hand, cultivating professional relationships with a research community is valuable because those are the people who will remember you when your name comes up.
  5. Write the journal version first. People always say this. I think Lalitha told me this in 2005 at my first conference. Of course it’s a good idea. And it’s a slippery slope if you let it slide for one paper… 5 years later you realize you have 4 nascent journal papers with nice full stories but not enough time to do the last bit of research or flesh out the results a bit more. Not every conference paper is (or should be) a journal-worthy idea. But the goal is to tell bigger stories than 4 page ICASSP paper, and it’s important to keep that bigger picture in mind. I wish I had done more work contextualizing some of the things I worked on so I could come back to them and expand on them later. Instead I have a lot of weird half-baked ideas in old PDFs sitting around on my hard drive.