Markus Strohmaier
The bits and bytes of doing research with me
inspired by (and in part modified from) Thomas A. Alspaugh's "The nuts and bolts of doing research with me"

"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"
attributed to Thomas Alva Edison

This guide provides information for current and prospective students of my research group. Its purpose is two-fold: First, it makes my expectations regarding the way I would like to collaborate with you during your time in my group explicit. Second, it aims to provide you with guidance and a list of basic resources that (hopefully!) help you to get your research started quickly and successfully. Some of these resources might also be helpful later on, e.g. when you write up your results or when you face difficult problems or decisions in your research.

Here's a brief summary:

Research Log

You should maintain a research log throughout your research in my group. Your log could either be a physical book or an electronic repository although a physical binder seems more useful for these purposes, as you can bring it to meetings and write or look up things independent from access to computers. Use the log to chronologically jot down challenges you may face, ideas you generate, new understandings you develop, questions you run across or (unusual or surprising) observations you make while working on your problem. Write them down at the moment they emerge. The reason for doing that is a process called elaborative encoding. Wired has an article on elaborative encoding and how it can improve your ability to memorize things.

If you have never written a research log before, you might want to use this template as a starting point, or use pen and paper, or a weblog. If you go with pen and paper, I'd suggest paperblanks (beautiful and inspiring but not always handy) or moleskine (more practical, i.e. thinner and lighter). Always carry your research log with you - you never know when interesting thoughts hit you. Maintaining a research log will help you to identify common themes in your work, conceptualizing your contribution and it will ultimately help you when you start writing up your results. Time stamp your entries so that you can put them in context later. While I am not sure whether the physical form of a "Zettelkasten" is a particularly good way to stay organized, the concept seems to be helpful. Bring your research log to each meeting.


We hold lab meetings, where we discuss papers or have a presentation on current work given by members of the group. Meetings in which we discuss papers are intended to provide you with an opportunity to reflect on and deeply understand the work of other, related research groups. I expect you to prepare for these meetings (reading the paper and prepare questions), enter into conversations, raise questions, make comments or critize the paper at hand. Meetings in which a member of the group is presenting his/her research are intended to provide the presenter with an opportunity to receive feedback and to provide all members of the lab with an opportunity to learn about the progress of others. I expect you to actively participate, raise questions and provide detailed and constructive feedback.

For personal meetings with me, bring your research log, be on time and be prepared. I expect you to present your progress and intermediary results in a clear and precise way - use this occasion to develop your ability to present your work to others; this a talent that you need to nurture throughout your PhD process. Prepare a list of questions that you need to discuss in order to proceed with your research. These meetings are an opportunity to have my undivided attention and receive detailed feedback for your work, make effective use of it.

When you get stuck with your research between meetings (if there are any questions or obstacles that prevent your progress), if you find it hard to work on your problems or when it is difficult to motivate yourself it is your responsibility to contact me immediately. We will meet and try to find a way out. I do not want you to waste time because you are stuck on something.

Finding Papers

You should be familiar with these sources.

General sources:

Periodic updates:

You should subscribe to relevant mailing lists, get an RSS-Reader (such as Google Reader or Omea) and subscribe to RSS feeds that are relevant to your research. This should include:

Conferences and Lectures:

Certainly another very effective way of finding relevant literature is by chasing references.

Reading Papers

Reading styles differ. However, close reading (in a broad sense) offers a series of techniques that might help you to grasp and deeply understand the contents of the papers you read. Read with a pen in your hand, annotate (both highlight and comment) the text. If you prefer to read on-screen, make sure you use adequate PDF annotation tools (I use Adobe Acrobat Professional, PDF-XChange is a free alternative). Reading on-screen also allows you to use tools such as Babylon (discounted TU Graz licences available, integrates e.g. WordNet and other resources) to look up words, definitions, etc without the need to interrupt your reading flow.

When reading, provide context for the contents of the paper (asking "what other work would benefit from the contributions of this paper?"), and look for patterns (asking "how does the work relate to others' work?, "how does it differ?"). Examine the research setup of the paper - What research approach did the authors take to advance the state of knowledge? Enter into a conversation with the text you read: Are the conclusions supported by the evidence? What is the research impact of the paper? Does it lack detail or clarity at any point? What are its key strengths and weaknesses? How has the paper influenced subsequent work? Reading papers at this level is a skill you need to acquire in order to succeed at writing compelling articles yourself. Some more helpful tips on reading can be found in A Letter to Research Students by Duane A. Bailey.

Annotated Bibliography

Set up an account at (for example, this is my account) and send me your account name via e-mail (so that I can subscribe to it). When you write up your results, bibsonomy will help you to compile a list of references. Use your account to keep an annotated bibliography of all the papers you read. Your annotations should focus on what are the most important aspects / contributions of the paper, what is most useful, what is your criticism. Your annotations are critical - they allow you to easily grasp the contents of the paper when you need to go back re-reading it 6 months later. Your annotations may include:

If you continue to do research, you will likely be using your annotations for years to come, so make sure to annotate your papers properly.


Make sure that you keep your research log up to date with ideas, questions and results. This will help you when you start writing your research report, your paper or your thesis. Start writing as early as possible - " writing down the results" usually takes longer than expected. Before you start, read "The Science of Writing" and watch "How to get your stuff published ", which helps you to understand some fundamental principles of writing scientific articles. Don't forget that in many cases good writing is bad writing rewritten. If you suffer from Writer's Block, I suggest watching "Dealing with Writer's Block". It might not eliminate your problem immediately, but you'll be better able to identify potential root causes. Again, A Letter to Research Students by Duane A. Bailey covers some aspects of writing as well. When writing software engineering papers (but not only then), "Writing good software engineering research papers" is a useful resource.

Also have a look at the TU Graz guideline for good scientific practice (.pdf / german only).

Referring each other to papers

I will point you to papers I think you should read. I expect you to do that the same for me, and for your colleagues in our lab. This will help to expand our knowledge of the relevant literature.

Enthusiasm, Rigor and Diligence

You should be deeply excited about your research. Without enthusiasm for your work it is hard to get through the disappointments that may come with doing research. As a starter, I strongly recommend that you read Hamming's You and your research and Cargo cult science. While it is probably hard for you to obey Dijkstra's Three Golden Rules for Successful Scientific Research right from the beginning of your academic life (especially the third rule), view those rules as an ideal. Dijkstra's "Separation of Concerns" is a fundamental concept for achieving the kind of rigor that characterizes scientific progress. If you are doing your PhD with me, you should also take a more detailed look at the following section.

Some further resources that you might find useful for your work:

Working on your PhD (also see The PhD Experience)

Working on your PhD should instill traits of critical thinking and reflection in you. It should make you unwilling to accept common knowledge, willing to explore new challenges and techniques and enable you to constructively critize related research in your field of expertise. This should be reflected in your interactions with me as well: You are not only free to disagree with me in our meetings, but encouraged to do so. Developing independent thinking and defending your intellectual positions represents an inherent part of your PhD experience and a fundamental ingredient for scientific discourse.

On a general level, I like to think of your PhD as consisting of three phases: During the first phase, I will give you a well-defined problem, with clear goals and tasks on which you can work on under my close guidance. This gives you a chance to establish an understanding of what constitutes scientific progress and how to go about achieving it. Much is already prepared in this phase: You do not need to motivate the problem yourself and argue for its relevance. However, you will learn how to approach and discuss a research problem, design and perform rigid evaluations and reason about the validity of your results. If you succeed in working on this problem, it is likely that you will get a reasonable publication out of it. In a second phase, I will continue to suggest problems to you, but I expect you to take increasing charge of the process, and come up with ideas and solutions yourself. In the last phase, you should be able to carve out a reasonably sized research problem yourself, motivate it, work on it independently and defend its contribution.

To get started, I highly recommend taking a look at Steve Easterbrook's cool tips on how theses get written (webcast) and Daniel Barry's Advice for finishing that damn PhD.

Some links that should help you to get organized:

Make sure to maintain good humor throughout the process, as it might help you to get over the occasional disappointments. On a larger note, you might get inspiration from Randy Pausch's last lecture on Really Achieving your Childhood Dreams.

Links for Research / Travel Funding:

As you progress in your career, knowing where to get funding for your research becomes increasingly important. Here is a small collection of relevant funding programs on different [Provincial/National/European/other] levels.


last update: 01-Jun-2009