Research advice

    • Here is a link to my presentation on "Hints on doing research" that includes how to read a paper and give a talk.
  • Research advice: talk at Pasargad Summer School, Teheran, August 2018. PDF Video

Research advice from others

  • From Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Laureate and former President of the Royal Society: "Have goals that are ambitious and do not be seduced by what is easy but trivial. Try to surround yourself with people at least as bright as you are, give them independence and a feeling of ownership of their work, and never be afraid to show ignorance or ask for help."
  • Michael Nielsen has an excellent essay on the "Principles of Effective Research".
  • Strunk and White’s Rule 17 is superb and reads, in entirety, "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."-Strunk and White, ‘’’The Elements of Style‘’’
  • William Stallings, a prolific author of widely-used textbooks in OS and networking has an excellent set of student resources
  • Here is a nice description by my colleague Tim Brecht on writing a thesis.
  • Simon Peyton Jones has an excellent Research Skills site that includes sections on how to give good research talks, how to write papers, as well as pointers to some other excellent advice, including a long article on mathematical writing by Don Knuth.
  • Here is a brilliant article on what is important when doing research by Nobel Laureate John C. Polanyi. An excerpt: "Scientists do not go to meetings to applaud one another's ideas, but to tear them apart."
  • "Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency." Ibn Al-Haytham circa 1000 AD.
  • Here is a speech by Richard Hamming on his perspective on research. It's well worth reading. An excerpt: "Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance."
  • In memory of John Backus, a quote from him: "You need the willingness to fail all the time. You have to generate many ideas and then you have to work very hard only to discover that they don't work. And you keep doing that over and over until you find one that does work."
  • From Prof. Deborah Estrin: "Question: What advice would you offer a younger colleague just starting out in the field? Answer: George Bekey was the Department of Computer Science chair at University of Southern California and hired me straight out of graduate school. His advice is what I give others who want to work at the boundary or intersection of disciplines: namely, that you should keep one foot firmly grounded within a discipline and explore with the other. I can see him standing and tapping around with his leg as if it was yesterday...but it was 1986! I would also add to that the recommendation to do things that you deeply believe to be important and significant, not just expedient, while still being pragmatic in their pursuit."

Do you really want to do a Ph.D. ?

  • And probably not even worth it, according to the Economist

Advice on other matters

  • So, you want to do a startup? Read this first!


Inspired by the class I took with Prof. David Patterson in 1987, I always teach my classes in 20-minute chunks, with breaks in between. For the last several years, I have been doing a roll-call in the first break, which helps me learn students' names, and in the second break, I either juggle or tell a story. Many students tell me that they remember the stories better than the technical material, and asked me to put them on my site. So, here are some of the parables. I heard many of them from my grandfather, S. Rangaswmi, who instructed by parables.

Life advice

Here is some advice on life and living that I have collected over the years. As you read, remember that Swami Vivekanada said, "If you want to become an astronomer and sit down and cry "Astronomy! Astronomy!" it will never come to you.". Or as my favorite Sanskrit aphorism goes "Deeds are accomplished by effort alone. Deer do not enter the mouth of the sleeping lion".

So, just reading these rules will not help you. You have to live them. That is the hard part.

Advice from Einstein

“A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.”

Advice from Anna Quindlan

Get a life. A real life, ...

"... Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion as it ought to be lived ..."

Advice from Thirukkural

yātaṉiṉ yātaṉiṉ nīṅkiyāṉ nōtal ataṉiṉ ataṉiṉ ilaṉ. (Transliteration)

'Whatever thing of whatever kind' a man relinquishes, Suffering therefrom he has none.

Essence of Buddhism by Vaddhaka Linn in “Does Self-Help Help?”

Actions conditioned by greed, hatred, and delusion bring a heavy burden of suffering. On the other hand, actions conditioned by generosity, lovingkindness, and wisdom lead to a light and happy sense of well-being. Simple as that.

Advice from Kabir

Kaal Kare So Aaj Kar, Aaj Kare So Ab || Pal Mein Pralaya Hoyegi, Bahuri Karoge Kub

Do tomorrow's work today, and today's work now || The world may end this moment, when will you complete?

Advice from my uncle S.V. Nathan

Happiness = Achievement - Expectation

The only things you need to know in life

From my former Tai Chi instructor, Martin Lee I learned that you only need to know four things:

  • Relax
  • Breathe
  • Feel the Earth
  • Do nothing extra

I read an article about a very successful life coach (I forget his name) who taught his clients three lessons:

  • Life is good
  • Be happy now
  • Let it go

My cousin, Shyam Chari, sent me the following advice that he gives young people:

  • Be fearless in your conviction
  • Have compassion towards the less fortunate
  • Give selfless service to those in need

What to do when you don't know anything

In research, as in life, I am often lost. Here are three rules I have found useful in doing anything new:

  • Start simple
  • Learn as you go
  • Prepare to change

Crazy Wisdom

These should explode your mind!

  • If you are a lifelong learner, you will know the most the minute you die.
  • The trees around you are built, in part, from the breath you exhale.
  • The atoms that constitute you were part of the Big Bang.
  • The goal of research is to increase ignorance: if you discover something new, then, by definition, no one else knows it, so you just increased their ignorance.
  • You are not the same person you were when you started reading this sentence.
  • You see light from stars years after it was emitted, and the light from objects in your immediate surroundings nanoseconds after. But in either case, you only see the past, not the present. When you think about it, the present is an illusion.
  • A daily miracle: the water you sip was "not you" a second before you drank it and became "you" the second you did.
  • Professors are neurosurgeons: they restructure their students' brains by changing the weights in wetware neural networks.

Clarity and wisdom

  • Clarity is seeing the beginning in the beginning and the end in the end
  • Wisdom is seeing the beginning in the end and the end in the beginning
  • Equanimity is to accept both insights