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Choosing Successful Research

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Tessa Lau of IBM's Almaden Research Center

In industry research, choosing your research project is a matter of taste. I've seen a lot of research projects come and go. Some projects succeed (e.g., by getting turned into a product that makes a lot of money for your company); others face an uphill battle, and some never make it out into the world. In all cases, you can churn out papers for conferences, but only a small subset of projects capture people's imagination and lead to widespread success.

Given how much of our lives is spent working on research, how do we maximize our chances of working on more successful research? Luck is always an enormous factor (doing the right work at the right time), but I also believe that you can create your own luck.

Here are some factors I use to evaluate whether a research project "smells" good:

  • Are you solving an important problem? Why can't it be solved using today's technology? How will solving it make the world better?
  • Is the market big enough? In other words, who will benefit from you solving this problem, and by how much? Who will care?
  • Is it simple? The more complex an idea, the harder it is to communicate. If you can't explain it to an executive in one slide, they're unlikely champion your idea. If the product team doesn't understand your implementation, they will never take ownership of it.
  • Is it a breakthrough? What idea or technology do you have that your competitors don't? What prevents the product group from solving this problem on their own using known technology? Does your approach compare favorably to the alternatives, both in product and in the academic literature?

Research can be successful without hitting all of these points, but the projects that hit all these criteria are the ones I'm most excited about.

What do you think? What criteria do you use to evaluate research projects?


Judy Robertson

Speaking as an ivory tower academic, my favourite criterion is "does this topic fascinate me?"

The account that made this comment no longer exists.

A great piece of advice I've heard: "If you don't have a burning question to answers, don't pursue a PhD." In other words, you need to care about the problem before you even begin your studies, much less decide on a research topic.

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