Tiju ThomasDepartment of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology Madras
Sardar Patel Road, Chennai 600036, Tamil Nadu, India
Contactph. no: +91 8056456442
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Research is a fascinating endevour. In my own opinion, it is one of the most rewarding activities one could engage in. While doing research you will inevitably push the frontiers of human knowledge in an area that you have chosen for yourself. What you choose is quite important and is likely to be very specific. But that which you will end up learning will help you in almost all spheres of life, and hence will be of general value to you. Research training inevitably results in an eye for details, desire for perfection, a stronger work ethic, and an ability to learn a new topic on one's own. All these qualities are of immense worth in an increasingly knowledge-oriented society.
For me, in addition to being a passion, research is also a fantastic teaching tool. This is so because, research provides several "teaching moments", where in concepts can be re-visited and appreciated in a new manner. I have seen research being particularly rewarding to students, who wish to see the practical relevance of lessons learn during their courses. Besides, research is what gives birth to knowledge. Through research, the teacher and the taught are engaging in the process that gives birth to human knowledge. If you were to ask me, that is truly a remarkable privilege! So the teachers and the taught (including me) have a responsibility to make the best out of the opportunities available to them.
I will talk about my research methodology in "broad strokes", and will talk about it in the context of what I call as "ingredients of good research".
Good research requires a combination of a bird's eye view of a subject, and persistent engagement with nitty-gritty details of a specific problem. A "bird's eye view" of the subject enables the researcher to understand the relevance of her/his results, which is in turn helpful for interpreting and understanding the impact of one's work. Likewise, an "eye for detail" enables the researcher to examine the tiniest details with great care and precision, ensuring the accuracy of the statements and claims s/he makes. This combination which includes a combination of bird's eye view, and an eye for details is somewhat rare; which is why good research is so precious and hard to come by. Also a good researcher usually has a very long attention span. This is so because pushing the frontiers of knowledge requires long and extensive engagement with a specific topic, which often requires an impressive attention span. If one wishes to be a researcher, it is helpful to cultivate some of these qualities. Hence a sensible research methodology involves sensitivity to these basic "ingredients", which is essential to good research.
Much of my research philosophy and methodology can be understood if you look at the section called "For Graduate Students". The bottom line is that one must never lose the "big picture", while engaging in details. Both the big picture, and the details are essential to good science. The balance of these two aspects of science are essential to good research. Keeping the "Ingredients of Good Research" in my mind, here is my flowchart for good research methodology. I must mention here: I am by no means the most experienced researcher, hence do not expect this flowchart to be dogmatic. This flowchart will most likely be adapted or modified as I gain more experience in the years to come.
(a) identify a problem that excites you. The problem should be sufficiently "addictive" to you, so that you spend night and day musing about the problem at hand.
(b) understand the overall context of the problem, using extensive literature survey. Do not miss out on latest developments in the field. Being conversent with the latest developments, will help you understand the plausible significance of your research findings.
(c) in light of the recent most literature, clearly define your hypothesis.
(d) think of where you would like to communicate your results. I like to think about this earlier on, rather than later in the project. This helps plan the paper carefully. In other words, have a mental picture of how the paper will look, when it is completed.
(e) clearly lay out an action plan and time line for yourself, so that you can schedule and pace yourself accordingly. Be sure that your time lines, and action plans are reasonable.
(f) now that your hypothesis is clearly defined, come up with a clear cut experimental design.
(g) start your experiments, and identify crucial experimental variables and sources of error. This is very important.
(h) fine tune your hypothesis based on what you are finding. This may also necessitate a revisit to the action plan, and the time line.
(i) after fine tuning your hypothesis enough, and ensuring consistency in results, start thinking about overall trends that you are observing. Always keep the "big picture" in mind, as you wrestle with these nitty-gritty details.
(j) after you have wrestled with your data, interpreted it, and placed it in context; write up the most coherent paper you can.
(k) your paper/patent/report must must be such that the reader should be able to understand the primary findings and its context by merely reading the introduction and conclusion, with occasional glances at the figures. Ensure that the impact of your work must be somewhat obvious even to the non-specialist. This will increase your readership. The experimental section and the results section must be a thorough discussion on the nitty-gritty details.
(h) communicate the paper, with a nice cover letter, which concisely states your contributions, and places it in context. The choice of journal is non-trivial, and might require a lots of experience and exposure (and confidence in your own abilities). So a good discussion about that with your experienced and supportive colleagues might help.