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I'm an undergraduate about to finish my first year of undergraduate research in CS. This past year has been mostly engineering-based as I learned how things worked in terms of implementation.

I'm looking to move from engineering / implementation of others' ideas into creating my own novel ideas and research, but I'm not sure how to best bridge this gap. I'm going to be attending a conference in my field soon, but I'm sure there are other things that I can do to help me along this transition.

I'd imagine its beneficial to read papers, but one of the issues that I am facing is that I'm not really sure what problems I want to work on, and thus don't know what area of research publications to focus on. Additionally, I'm finding it difficult to find the "core papers" of a problem, e.g. papers that present significant advances and are quite important. How would you make the transition between a more research engineer role to that of a research scientist?

  • Sounds like you could use a chat with a faculty mentor. (You do have a mentor, right?) – Mad Jack May 3 '16 at 18:21
  • yup i do, i talked to him and he recommended that I go to a conference, but I wanted to hear some other opinions as well if possible. – user53541 May 3 '16 at 19:41
  • Is it just me or is this question just too broad with too many good answers? I didn't flag it yet, but just curious. – Ébe Isaac May 4 '16 at 12:49
  • Yeah, I agree it's a bit broad, but I'm not too sure on how to narrow it down. Could you give me some suggestions? – user53541 May 4 '16 at 16:32
  • The "how to find core papers" part of your question has been answered here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/51283/… – mhwombat May 12 '16 at 13:00
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You make it sound like engineering and research are two contradicting things, but I think this view is falling short. Of course there are shallow implementation and verification jobs, but there are also plenty of engineering jobs about R&D fiddling and finding clever designs and solutions, and then there are also (purely) academic jobs in engineering fields. Note that the boundaries between all of these are very much blurred and there is a variety of people in engineering ranging from hands-on tinkerers to purist mathematicians with completely different mindsets. Therefore, people in engineering hardly ever agree on whether some job or result is just derivative craft lacking conceptual contribution, useful high-level research, or disconnected theoretical work with pretentious notation but possibly useless and not much behind it. Also, implementation jobs can require a lot of clever thinking too, e.g. in analog electronics or large system integration.

Since you're at the undergraduate level still, I'd say it's totally normal to learn and follow preexisting ideas before engaging in great abstraction and developing your own branches. It's hard to make strong and novel conceptual contributions to your field if you don't know its basics. Do not underestimate the work put in by many, many very intelligent people before you (one tends to forget about this at times, e.g. when reading a bad introductory book) and rather try to gather their insights and grow from them.

About your problem at hand: I guess the best thing you could do, as far as that is possible in your environment, is trying to steer your next career choices in the direction of institutions and companies that value conceptual thinking and smart solutions and not only dull implementation workforce. Aim for courses, texts, project topics, internships, and contacts that push you more and more in this direction.

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I think the most important thing is to ask for help.

Which, I guess by asking this question, you did.

However, ask people for help that know about your field and know about YOU. They will be the the most helpful.

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