Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Weekly Group Papers

An interesting dilemma facing a new assistant professor is how to manage their fledgling research group. During my graduate work, I came from a fairly small group (3 or 4 students maximum) where we primarily had only individual meetings. The meetings with my adviser were largely informal (just drop in) rather than a specific time. Other groups at Iowa State had specific schedules for meetings.

From my experiences as an assistant professor, I have hopped between multiple management styles, group meetings, group and individual meetings, individual-only meetings, seminar meetings, etc. Currently, we have a weekly group meeting, weekly status reports (via e-mail and on the wiki), and at least one meeting (scheduled or not) outside of the group meeting. This seems to work alright for the students that are fairly well organized near as I can tell. I have been mulling making students include written summaries of individual meetings on the wiki but have held off on that. Cristina Nita-Rotaru of Purdue mentioned how she used that to help improve student writing skills.

One of the neat changes that I started in the spring was an outgrowth of the system seminar. Each week, each student in the group must read and write a quick summary of a current research paper (in area or out) and then discuss that paper briefly in the group meeting. The summaries are posted on our Repository wiki on the NetScale server for full public consumption. Each paper summary should have the appropriate citation info, an abstract, and the DOI link if possible. The students supplement the abstract with commentary regarding the novelty of the work, future papers to follow up on, and discussion related that work to our own. The specific paper topics are often left up to the student with occasional suggestions tendered by myself.

Out of all of the various management decisions, this has certainly been one of the most successful. At a minimum, it forces the students to continually keep up on research and build their bibliography for their upcoming thesis or dissertation. The broader effect is that everyone in the group (especially myself) benefits from getting a quick summary of current work going on in the field. For myself, that can be especially challenging to find time to simply read papers outside of my normal review duties. With networking as diversified as it is across so many conferences, I do not doubt for a moment that I am missing insightful work that occurs out of the top tier conferences. I find it to be quite intellectually stimulating to poke and prod at various works to see how it might relate or could be improved. In some sense, it resembles a conference setting but at a much more rapid pace (6 to 7 papers per week from a more diverse topic pool). Amusingly enough and perhaps others would agree, I find myself the most productive in terms of new ideas when attending conferences, in part from new views imparted by the speakers but often for simply having time to think in largely uninterrupted blocks (no e-mail, no meetings, no visitors).

In keeping with the spirit of our group discussions, I will try to add in weekly posts regarding the most interesting papers discussed that week with a small bit of personal commentary. If one or two readers (most likely my entire blog reading base, ha) pick up on a more obscure paper and help give that paper a bit of prominence, I will consider my endeavor a success.

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