The research process is about identifying important new problems. A huge part of the training comes from observing first hand how more experienced researchers go about doing it, like talking with the advisor or getting instructions from senior grad students. Reading papers surprisingly is also great training, especially when one does not have access to constant in-person training (as great researchers’ time are limited). This basic fact I didn’t internalize until a year into my program.

One big issue I’ve consistently had in my first year is the seeming inability to follow through. I was confused because I knew it wasn’t that I’m not smart enough (in that case I would be slow). It was fundamentally because of lack of experience formalizing a vague problem into a concrete one. Often times I would dismiss something as “easy” and move on to some exciting new vague idea, and not actually make any progress.

Reading papers could help with the ability to both verify the importance of any idea, and formalizing the problem space. This is especially relevant for more recent papers in one’s research area. This blog is mostly to motivate me to read papers in a more active manner and be able to internalize their formalizations.

More concretely, Prof. Eugene Wu has the following set of questions which I find useful to refer to when reading papers:

  • What is the problem in your own words?
  • Sketch a solution to your understanding of the problem based on the text in the intro.
  • Is this problem compelling or made up based on how it’s written? How could it be stronger?
  • What other ways could a solution to this problem be used (say in other applications)
  • Do you think the contribution is significant? Why?
  • If something was confusing or didn’t make sense, does a quick google search clarify? If not, it’s a good catch and note it down.