Leading a research project for the first time – what I learned from my advisors

A long time ago, Hu Shi (1891-1962), a very respected Chinese scholar said to do academic research we should “make assumptions boldly and prove it carefully”. (大胆假设,小心求证). This is a very famous saying that I have been hearing a lot in various occasions since my childhood, though I never really empathized with this saying, until one day it exemplify itself through near the end of my project, when Vincent spent three hours on Saturday morning to give me careful feedback on the 20-page paper. When reading the feedback and reflecting on recent meetings, I realized the way of research they guided me to do, was “make assumptions boldly and prove it carefully”. And it occurs to me, that in an interesting way, good scholars do research in similar way, regardless of their nationalities, or era for that matter.

I spent around nine months leading my first research project, regardless of the experiment results and paper result (yet to be known), it has really been a very gratifying experience and this all have my caring, intelligent, and experienced collaborators (Vincent, Ken and Joseph) to thank.

I have once heard the saying that, having yet to learn about doing research is better than having learned the wrong way of doing research. Through this my first time of full research cycle, my collaborators all exemplified the most rigor, patience and support, thus no matter what the paper result is, I believe what I have learned through this process is at least a right way to do research.

So now that the paper is submitted, I want to take some time to reflect on what I have learned from this research and from my mentors. Some are not about doing research, but more about being an academic, and these are only my own perceptions and personal reflections, which may or may not fit every situation.

About importance of research questions

Coming up with research questions – 11 weeks.

It took us at least 11 weeks to finalize on what we are doing. These 11 weeks we tested out and discussed about different research ideas, I sketched out different design mock up, the initial ideas were actually very distant from the one we end up doing. It got a little frustrating to me near the end, because I felt I was marching on the same spot. But later I think, it is through this training, that I understood how important it is to ask good research questions, which I also keep in mind here in the new lab.

So the first and foremost thing I learned is the importance of the research questions. I know this is not new, (though I feel it wasn’t stressed enough sometimes). Having a research question guide us all the way through and clear a lot of confusions and help us do research with a stronger purpose. At one meeting, I remember Vincent asked explicitly if our research questions are settled as statements (as there were many iterations before). In his critic of my paper draft, the most commonly seen one is that I should make sure the analysis, discussion,(basically any sections existed in the paper), are linked to research questions. If they are not directly answering the research questions, they need to be “motivated separately” – meaning we need to say explicitly why it is interesting to write about them.

About advising students

Even though it may not be immediately applicable (as I probably wouldn’t have students to advise soon), but I actually learned a lot of tips from my advisors about how to advise students. None of these “tips” or “principles” were explicitly said or advised by them, and may be conscious or unconscious behaviors, but these are just what I believe may be good strategies judging from our interaction.

Be Professional and Approachable

My mentor Ken was finishing his fourth year Ph.D. when he joined the project, even he is somewhat more like a peer and more approachable than professor, I was swept by how knowledgeable and how helpful he was and the professionalism he demonstrated. Though they are all very busy, Ken was always responsive and very positive (always prompt in helping me with questions and replying with meeting availability), and I have never heard him saying about being busy, all that I felt was they are really trying their best to help. I can really feel their good intention, and that whenever they can, they are prioritizing helping others.

The professionalism I am referring to here is not only superficial or external representation of professionalism, but the devotion of your mind and heart into your work, the dedication and deep care for your work and your students, the high standard you always hold for yourself and your work. This is very important, because it conveys silently to your students your expectation of them. This is also very contagious, one of the strongest power I felt for being in CMU – many people themselves are the Andrew Carnegie motto – “My heart is in the work”.

Be Encouraging (especially when students are less experienced)

It can be very important for new students to feel the support and acknowledgement from their advisors. At probably the hardest time (around 2-3 months into the project when I was a bit stuck with the experiment design and research questions), I remember for several times coming out of Vincent’s office, he would always say to me cheerfully, “Okay, we are making progress!”, which was really a relief especially when you have some doubts about the progress and yourself.

Give Students the Ownership

Another big thing I learned from this experience was the importance of having students taking ownership of the project. This can be important in cultivating students’ motivation and research interest, and it’s really tricky because it is a fine line, between holding them by hand (over-scaffolding) and inadequate support, but I think my advisors managed it perfectly. I felt adequately supported and yet also felt the perfect amount of ownership and responsibility for the project.

One example was in a meeting when the four of us was discussing about the framing and practical contribution of the paper, even though they are more experienced in this, as others mentioned their thoughts Vincent suddenly turned to me and asked, “What do you think is the practical contribution of the paper?” I really appreciate this gesture of him to ensure student’s voice get heard do not just nod along others’ opinion on the discussion about important piece. In POL office hour, Vincent also did the similar thing, when my teammate asked him questions continually and explained, he said “yeah I understand, I was trying to take a step back and (let you guys decide).” Ken also similarly said it could be “good practice” for me to come up with analysis plan, and I really appreciate these learning opportunities while we are working.

Letting students running the meeting is perhaps the first step to ensure ownership too. So usually in the beginning of the meeting, they would ask me “What should we talk about in this meeting?” Being the one to make agenda and meeting slides is great because I can more or less control the pace of the meeting and make sure the most important questions get addressed first.

Their advising style is they usually voice many of interesting ideas in the meeting, they tried their best to help when I am stuck or really need help, but most of the time they give students the freedom to make the decisions, and never make any arbitrary decisions for the students without giving them sufficient reasoning. I think this is a very important thing to do when advising students. Because I feel the hardest thing in research for novices is making decisions – big and small ones. If we can’t make decisions by yourself, we can never grow as a researcher. At first I was more worried about making the wrong decisions, but gradually I become much more comfortable in making decisions.

About being an academic

“Here to learn? here to contribute.”

When deciding independent study topics, I attended a small team meeting where there are 3-4 undergrads, Jonathan and Vincent. In the beginning I introduced myself and said I was “here to learn more about what the group is doing”. I remember Vincent saying, “Here to learn? (you are) here to contribute.” I ended up choosing a different topic and did not contribute to that team’s work, but this saying of his stay in my memory for a long time. Ph.D. students are no longer the consumer of knowledge, but producer of it. And I think this saying captured a lot about how my advisors identified their roles in the community too.

For numerous times, I see them contribute just for the purpose of contribute. That’s probably why, at the time of my graduation, when I asked for some “final word of wisdom” from Vincent, he said , ” … I could not think of a better job (than being a professor), though you have to be dedicated.” It wasn’t until later that I realize gradually what this dedication means. It’s easy to be dedicated to things you love, but being an academic is not all about things that you love. This “dedication” may mean even though sometimes you are very tired, or there are tasks/ jobs you don’t particularly want to do at the moment, you would still push yourself to do it, and do it with your heart, because you know others need it.

The first time is very important, and I am very thankful that I get to be mentored by these great people. This very much shaped my perspective of research and being a researcher. The project went on for quite long time, it is because my mentors’ continuous support and encouragement, that keep me going forward and lead to this fulfilling experience.

There is another Chinese idiom – influence and teach by one’s words and deeds (言传身教). This may capture well a lot of what’s written here. Very little of what I learned taught to me in words, but exemplified in what they do in the past 9 months, which speaks much louder than words.

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