TITLE: How to Really Succeed in Research... AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 19, 2007 11:39 PM DESC: ----- BODY: ... when you work at a primarily undergraduate school. My Dean sent me a link to Guerrilla Puzzling: a Model for Research (subscription required), a Chronicle Observer piece by Marc Zimmer. The article describes nature as "full of intriguing puzzles for researchers to solve". Unlike the puzzles we buy at the store, the picture isn't known ahead of time, and the shape and number of pieces aren't even known. Scientists have "to find the pieces before trying to place them in the puzzle." From this analogy, Zimmer argues that researchers at schools devoted to undergraduates can make essential and valuable contributions to science despite lacking the time, manpower, and financial resources available to scientists at our great research institutions. While some at the elite liberal arts colleges do so by mimicking the big-school model on a smaller scale, most do some by complementing -- not competing with -- the efforts of major research programs. The biggest disadvantage of doing research at an undergraduate institution is the different time scale. An undergraduate is in school for only four years or so, and the typical undergrad is capable of contributing to a project for much less time, perhaps a year or two. In computer science, where even empirical science often requires writing code, the window of opportunity can be especially small. My hardest adjustment in going from graduate school researcher to faculty researcher was the speed with which students, even master's students, moved from entering the lab to collecting their sheepskin. Just as we felt comfortable and productive together, the student was gone. Zimmer points out one positive in this pace: the implicit license to take bigger chances. When one's grad students depend on successful projects to land and hold their future jobs, an advisor feels some moral duty to select projects with reasonable chances for success. An undergrad, on the other hand, benefits just from participating in research. Thus the advisor can take a chance on a project with higher reward/risk profile. How is the researcher at the primarily undergraduate institution to succeed? Via what he calls "guerilla" puzzling: Sometimes, small-school researchers can create a niche in their problem space by attacking a well-defined, focused problem, solving it, and then moving on to another. In some ways, computer science is more amenable to this straightforward approach. Unless you work in a "big iron" area of computing like supercomputing, the lab equipment that one needs is pretty simple and not beyond the financial means of anyone. And these days one can even do very interesting projects in parallel and distributed computing using clusters of commodity processors. So a CS researcher at an undergrad institution can compete on a focused problem nearly as well as someone at a larger school. The primary advantage of the large- school program is in numbers -- an army of grad students can deforest a problem area pretty quickly, and it can be agile, too. One thing is for certain: A scientist at a primarily undergrad school has to think consciously about how to build a research program, and mimicking one's Research I advisor isn't likely the most reliable path to success. -----