6 Tips for Junior Researchers

Research:

  1. Research is hard and involves a tremendous amount of failure. It’s totally normal to feel like you didn’t progress in the past week, month, or year. When you read a paper, the finding is frequently presented as an obvious step that was the result of a seemingly short exploration, but when you actually do research you realize that good results never just fall into your hands. They’re the results of many months if not years of failed expeditions and many experiments that did not work. Failure seems extremely demoralizing at first but experienced researchers will attest that failure isn’t that bad- you learn a lot from failing (you learn what not to do, or what doesn’t work) and after enough failure, you achieve enough understanding to have a good enough idea for something that will work. Even as a senior Ph.D. candidate, I will still sometimes “fail” for months on end, running experiments and exploring ideas that lead to nothing interesting. It’s still tough for me to go through this and while I’m in that zone of trying things and constantly failing it feels depressing. But at some point things start working and it makes all that failure worthwhile.
  2. Don’t ever lie, make up results or sweep negative findings under the rug. These things might help you in the short term but in the long term they never will, and good research is all about the long term. For example, if you run your new model with 4 different random seeds, and in one of those runs the improvement is 10%, and in the other three runs the improvements are -2%, 1% and -9%, that means that the 10% run was a fluke. If you wanted to, you could submit a paper where you don’t mention the other runs, but that would be deceitful. Sure, that paper might get accepted, but eventually someone will try your idea, and they’ll probably run it with a few different random seeds, and notice that your improvement is not statistically significant. Not only will they then not use your method, they’ll also be wary of your future papers. Junior researchers are anxious to get an initial publishable result and might put aside annoying things like statistical significance, but in the long run that will hurt them. There’s no rush- good research takes time, and it’s better to take two years to write a solid paper than it is to write four low-quality papers that each took half a year to write.

Working with a mentor:

  1. It’s ok (and even recommended) to say “I don’t understand you”. When we start doing research we usually do it with an advisor who is much more senior than us, a professor if you’re in grad school or a PhD student if you’re an undergrad. Sometimes the advisor will say something super complicated that is totally incomprehensible to the junior person. When this happened to me as a junior researcher I sometimes was too afraid to say “I don’t understand”, since I thought that the advisor would think that I’m dumb. Now I know that we all think in different ways and something that’s obvious to us might be hard to explain to a different person. Good researchers understand this and are very open to explaining and re-explaining and re-re-explaining their thoughts. Good senior researchers also know that explaining new ideas to different people helps us to better frame our thoughts and understand how to write them in a paper.
  2. It’s ok (and even recommended) to say “I don’t know”. We’re all doing research since we don’t know a lot of things and we’re trying to figure them out together. Saying “I don’t know” when you don’t know something doesn’t make you seem stupid – it makes you seem honest. If you just start pretending to know things you don’t and have answers for the topics you don’t have answers to, it’s not going to be very constructive.
  3. It’s ok (and even recommended) to say “I don’t agree with you”. Progress in research is partially driven by disagreements. At any given moment there are many different paths being explored to solve each issue, and that’s how we progress towards the solution. If everyone worked on the same ideas that would be horrible. So disagreement (even within the same research group or mentor-mentee pair, or even with yourself, over time) is totally acceptable in the research world. Just be nice about it! Never say something like “that’s a dumb idea” or anything even close to that. But if you disagree with a certain direction or idea, find a respectful way to voice your concern. Doing this will let the other person try to convince you why they believe their idea is good, which is helpful for both you (now you understand what they want to do and why they believe in it) and them (you might have uncovered a potential weakness which they can now try to remedy).
  4. Your advisor doesn’t have all the answers. Doing research is a multi-faceted endeavor, with many different questions to answer: What problems are currently relevant and exciting to the community? Which of these is the best fit for me? What is the high-level plan for solving this problem? How can I best execute that plan (implementing the model, figuring out what/where to find hardware, and so on…)? Once I’ve found a solution, what is the best framing for it? How can I best market my paper? Your advisor is going to help you with some of these questions, but might not be able to give you all the answers. Some of them will have to come from you- but one thing that might significantly help is finding another senior collaborator. If you look at papers coming out of the UW NLP (and many other ML/NLP/Vision) groups you’ll notice that a lot of them have both a professor co-author and a co-author who is a postdoc or research scientist (in addition to the main author, who is usually a PhD student). I’ve found this advising style to be incredibly useful: the professor provides high-level feedback on the story and framing, while the postdoc/research scientist can provide more low-level feedback about code and other implementation details.

After reading an earlier draft of this post one of my friends said that I didn’t mention the most important part of succeeding in research- being lucky enough to find good mentors to work with. I’m incredibly fortunate to have been able to work with some of the nicest and smartest people in the world and unfortunately not everyone is this lucky. Some mentors won’t let you say “I don’t know”, won’t respect your opinions when brainstorming, won’t give you the freedom to work on things that interest and spark joy in you and will pressure you to meet made-up deadlines. I hope that anyone with a toxic mentor can read this post, realize that there are better alternatives, and try to seek one that would work better for them.

Thank you Noah A. Smith, Gregory Axler, Gabriel Ilharco, Mitchell Wortsman, Samuel Ainsworth, Ori Press, and Gabriel Stanovsky for comments on previous drafts of this post.

Written on November 1, 2022