Sunday, February 9, 2014

Learning from my Research Experience


Today I have the pleasure of hosting Vijay Thamarai who discusses his research journey, and what he learned to be crucial for carrying out research. Vijay is an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering department in SRM University, Chennai, India with research and design-professional interests in Finite Element Analysis, blast engineering, underground infrastructure and translucent concrete. He obtained his Master’s in Structural Engineering from SRM University, Chennai (2013) and Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering from Anna University, Chennai (2010). His research in blast analysis and design received recognition from Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) in March 2011. Besides receiving a ‘Best Performance Award’ for academics in M.Tech program, he also received many awards for national level service in scouting. He has published journals on blast resistant design, outrigger frames and pushover analysis and a book titled ‘Modern Heliport Design'. He runs his own structural consultancy firm ‘Trustus Structural Consultancy’ and started an educational foundation for helping the needy and empowering poor people.


My experience in carrying out research began when I was consistently tried to explore different projects in which I can learn more about structural engineering (I decided to choose Structural engineering as my specialization in the second year of my undergraduate studies) and that fire my imagination. During my second year of undergrad I got a chance to watch a movie with my family members and there was a scene in which the heroine dies in a bomb blast. That triggered my desire to design the structures that are resistant against blast load. The very next day, I started collecting journals, books and other articles related to the blast resistant design of structures. I was so excited and started learning with a good level of confidence. My undergrad project and postgraduate thesis are on the analysis and design of blast resistant structures. These research experiences have strengthened my intellectual ability and leadership qualities. I have published several articles, few journals and a book as a postgraduate , which taught me how to effectively convey my thoughts and research to the community.

The topics of my research have varied in structural analysis and design, nonlinear static procedures, strengthening of reinforced concrete members and Translucent Concrete , and the breadth of these topics will facilitate my future research. The common objective I have with my research is to produce a positive impact in society. Before joining the postgraduate course I was working as an Assistant Engineer for Design in an architect firm at Chennai, India. The learning process during the postgraduate pulled my mind out from returning to a corporate office after the course and pushed me in the direction of research. I am currently working as an Assistant Professor in the department of Civil Engineering at SRM University, India (Sri Ramasamy Memorial). Still I am learning and working towards joining a Ph.D program. My thoughts are widespread with different problem statements, selection of universities and funding. So, I am now in a stage of exploring various Ph.D opportunities. Let me share something I learned during my past years of research.

First of all, there is no recipe for good research. Some students expect or hope to be provided with step-by-step instructions or guidelines on how to find or tackle problems. Research is all about thinking, thinking and thinking again. Never hesitate to throw your mind at anything. Before looking up a book or paper, before asking anyone, think. Never be lazy about thinking. That's how you build up understanding and develop a bag of useful techniques. Thinking is fun.

In a second step, you will work on the idea that functions as a benchmark for your research. You pick up how research is done by seeing examples and extrapolating. Attending conferences, reading journal papers, and discussions with your advisor or peers are great sources of research material. Learn how to write a paper by looking at other papers. Make analogies. When you see a new problem, ask yourself which questions were asked previously and use that to ask questions about your new problem. Don't be narrow or concentrate only on your particular problem. Learn things from all over your field, and beyond. The facts, methods, and insights from elsewhere will be much more useful than you might realize, possibly in your thesis, and most definitely afterwards. Being broad is a good way of learning to develop interesting questions.

The third point is understanding your research question. It is more important to understand deeply what you know than to know a lot. Successful research comes from having a good understanding, especially of the basics. When you read a research paper, ask yourself questions. Understanding means the ability to go beyond the immediate. It means knowing not just what the item in question is, but how it fits into a larger context, what are its variants, and what happens if you perturb it one way or another. I follow the quote, “Know something about everything and everything about something. Knowing everything about something will empower you on the research part you have chosen and will lead you to reach milestones.

The fourth and most important point is ‘Time’. How people allocate research time varies enormously, not only from person to person, but, for a given person, from week to week or quarter to quarter. Some people work on an inspiration or deadline basis, sometimes putting in long hours, then doing nothing for a few days. Others maintain a steady schedule, coming to the lab at a certain time in the morning and leaving a certain time in the evening. Neither is right or wrong or better or worse; it is a question of finding what works best for you.
I always look for long-term productivity. A successful researcher should display some degree of productivity and progress over the course of a reasonably long period, like a summer, a quarter, or more typically, a year. This would include signs of increased understanding, confidence and maturity, and some visible output or deliverable, like a complete paper.

Self-confidence
comes next to time as an important asset as a fifth element. Self-confidence affects our performance and success in all walks of life, from sports to socializing to dating. It plays a role in research too. Lack of self-confidence leads to disinclination of work. Fear of failure leads to inactivity. People freeze up because they are so worried they aren't good enough. If this sounds familiar, at least you know you are not alone. Increasing your self-confidence is very much a personal issue, but here are some reflections from my experience. You can find confidence only within yourself. Don't expect to get it from others. Someone telling you that you did well is useful to boost morale, but in the end you must believe in yourself.

If you are afraid of failure you will have a hard time succeeding. You have to fall a few times to learn to skate or ride a bicycle. Research is worse. Once you learn to ride a bicycle you don't fall again, but in research you never stop failing. Failures increase your understanding and maturity. If you find the process of research fun, failure to solve a problem is not daunting. In fact, it leads to all kinds of discoveries. You should feel proud, because you are a problem-solver. One nice thing about research is that nobody needs to know when you failed. You write papers only about your successes. But that is also deceptive, because you don't see the failures of others. But they are there. Even the top people don't always succeed. Gauss failed sometimes, as did Einstein.

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