Douglas Reeves

Starting Graduate Research

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The Process

Here are some general steps, primarily for PhD students. The process for MS students has to be shorter because of their time limitations.

  1. Meet with me and discuss your interests, your training, your past experience, your skills, and your goals. I will try to make some initial helpful suggestions and observations. I will help you identify some good quality conferences or workshops or journals related to what we discussed. In some cases, I may also suggest an IETF working group that is actively developing new standards in a particular field.

  2. Peruse the last year or two of the conference proceedings and journals. This gives you a sense of what the current research topics are, what the required background is, and what the standards for a research contribution are. It also tells you whether you like the topic, have an aptitude for it, are qualified to work in it, and are motivated enough to seek new, creative solutions.
    [Note: When I say "peruse", I don't mean read every word of a 1500 page conference proceedings. Rather, you are skimming the table of contents to see what the scope of papers is, and what sessions or topics might be of interest. Then, you are restricting your attention to those papers. You read the title and abstract, possibly skim the figures, and the conclusions and possibly references. Now you know something about the problem, the solution, and how it was accomplished. If you do this for a conference, or for a year's worth of a journal, you get a feeling for what is going on in research, without being overwhelmed. ]

  3. Tell me again what your interests are, now that you've got a better perspective on current research. I will need awhile to consider your interests and identify a handful of relevant, current papers for you to look at.

  4. Read these papers in depth. Identify their limitations. Consider future directions / extensions. Present to me your findings. We'll discuss your choices and I'll make a recommendation. Read in depth whatever is known about this specific problem.

  5. At this point, you need to start writing and doing original work. Write a 5-10 page proposal that describes:

    • The motivation for the problem
    • The model of the system you are proposing to work on
    • A precise problem statement (goals)
    • The assumptions you are making
    • What the criteria (metrics, tradeoffs, ...) for this problem are
    • Sketch a potential method or methods of solution (if you have any in mind at this point)
    • How you plan to evaluate this method or methods
    • A few references
  6. After I read your proposal, we can negotiate and refine it to our mutual satisfaction.

Identifying and defining the research problem is an essential part of the graduate experience, particularly at the PhD level.

How to Pick a Research Topic

The following are the main criteria for picking a research topic:

  1. You like the topic. You are enthusiastic about this problem, the techniques used to solve it, the potential impact of the work, the intellectual challenge it presents, etc.
  2. You have a good chance of success. You have the skills and knowledge necessary to tackle this problem, or you are prepared and have time to acquire them.
  3. The scope of the problem is about right (comparable to other MS or PhD theses), and the intellectual challenge is appropriate for an advanced degree (must require more than just engineering / implementation).
  4. It's novel. This precise problem has not been previously addressed.
  5. The solution will be useful to someone. In my opinion, this is the factor that consistently separates the top researchers from the next rung. They tend to work on problems that again and again turn out to be important to a lot of people, often before anyone else realizes they will be important problems.

The most important item is #1. If you don't like the subject it's going to be a long, hard slog to get the degree. Only you can decide this point. Deciding #2 is largely my job, based on my knowledge of you and my experience of what is required to work on problems. You and I jointly consider and negotiate #3. You must convince me that #4 is fulfilled, just as you must convince anyone evaluating your work.

#5 is potentially the hardest issue. It requires insight into current needs and practices, the prediction of technology trends, and an understanding of what factors and tradeoffs are important in "the real world". If you go for 4 out of 5 (i.e., a problem satisfying #1-#4, but not #5), you are working on something "of academic interest only". That is OK in some cases, if you know this is the choice you are making and want to work on it regardless (perhaps because of the beauty or elegance of the problem). Too often, however, I see students who say "X has been worked on, and Y has been worked on, but not the combination of X and Y, so I'll work on that", without even considering whether X and Y together makes sense or not. This is elevating novelty (#4) above everything else, which to me is the wrong priority.

Important Sources of Information on Networking and Security

Below are some resources in networking and security. The lists are under development, and your suggestions / observations are welcome. There is no attempt to be comprehensive; in fact, my aim is to be highly selective. To find these papers:

  1. Hardcopies of previous issues / proceedings are in the library.
  2. All IEEE and ACM papers are available online to NCState faculty and students. See for access to these and other databases.
  3. Programs (and often abstracts) of recent /upcoming issues and proceedings are available online. The actual papers can often be found on the author's web site by searching on the paper title. Recently, the papers are being made available through the conference web site in advance of the actual conference.
  4. Google Scholar is an invaluable reference.

Top journals / conferences in the general field of networking



    IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking

    IEEE Journal on Selected Areas in Communications

Top journals / conferences in security

    ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security

    IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy

    Usenix Security Symposium

    ACM Transactions on Information and System Security


Last modified on Wednesday, 17-Sep-2014 07:00:19 EDT
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