Basic Research Skills in Computing Science

Chris Johnson

Glasgow Interactive Systems Group (GIST),
Department of Computer Science, Glasgow University,
Glasgow, G12 8QQ.

Tel: +44 141 330 6053
Fax: +44 141 330 4913

This paper provides a basic introduction to the research skills that are necessary to complete an advanced masters or PhD in Computing Science. It starts by identifying criteria for good research practice. It then goes on to propose guidelines for the written presentation. Finally, we provide criteria for oral presentation.

This material should be read in conjunction with What is Research in Computing Science. There is also a collection of papers and advice on research and writing at CMU.

Keywords: research skills, computing science.

1. Introduction

This paper provides an introduction to 'research skills'. It presents a series of guidelines and criteria that can be used to structure your enquiries and improve the presentation of your findings. Research is, however, a skilled activity. Like any skill, it must be practiced. The best way to improve your research method is, therefore, to continually assess your research practice against these objectives and guidelines.

2. Research Methods

There are a bewildering diversity of research methods being used within the field of Computing Science. These include but are not limited to:

The strengths and weaknesses of these approaches are discussed in What is Research in Computing Science. The key point here is that you must determine which research paradigm is best suited to the problem in-hand. Good research often borrows methods from a number of these traditions.

A number of factors affect the success or failure of research, irrespective of the method that is being used:

3. Presentation

It is impossible to do good research without good communications skills. Research is, after all, an argument between yourself and your peers to convince them of the validity of your hypothesis. If you cannot communicate effectively then you are unlikely to win the argument and you may fail to convince anyone. This section, therefore, provides guidelines to improve both written and oral presentations.

This introduction should be supported by a more complete course on communication skills.

3.1. Written Presentation

The key to successfully writing up research material is to find an appropriate level for the target audience. For example, formal methods researchers can assume a familiarity with the foundations of discrete mathematics. Software engineers can, typically, assume that their readers will have some familiarity with the concepts of iteration, selection and recursion. However, problems arise because researchers are often so familiar with their subject that they fail to explain new concepts which they consider to be `obvious'. It is, therefore, vital that you get somebody else to read your dissertation or thesis before it is submitted. This raises practical problems where the work is being examined. Giving your assessed work to another student on a taught MSc might well be viewed as encouraging plagiarism. At the very least, you must allow time for your supervisor to read your final draft before submission.

Even if you successfully establish the correct level of discussion for your audience, you must still determine which material is necessary for the reader's understanding of your argument. For example, in formal theses you must decide how far to go in the presentation of supporting lemmas and proofs. Some of this material can be included in the running text, some of it can be dropped to an appendix, some of it can simply be cited in other work. Similarly, in an implementation driven project it is seldom necessary to include the entire listing in the body of the dissertation. Key concepts can be illustrated by appropriate procedures and functions but most of the code can be relegated to an appendix.

It is possible to identify a number of further guidelines:

3.2 Oral Presentation

The guidelines for oral presentations are similar to those for written work. As before, the two critical concepts are level and relevance.

It is critical that researchers present their material at a level of detail that their audience can follow. The same level of detail is NOT appropriate for both written and oral presentations. A common mistake is simply to increase the point size of your dissertation and then attempt to use this as lecture material. This does not work because you will, typically, only have 20-30 minutes to present your findings. This means that you have to condense written material that may take several hours to read, into a format that can be effectively presented in a matter of minutes. You must apply Occam's razor: only present material that is essential to make your case. Do not attempt to increase the amount of material you can cover by talking fast or by glossing over more basic material that the audience will need to understand your findings. It is better to be convincing in a small subset of your work that to be glib and superficial about a larger body of work.

Relevance is also important in spoken presentations. It is good practice to prepare slides on background material and actually ask the audience whether or not they would need this introduction in order to place your work in context. For instance, in a presentation about graphical user interface design you might, typically assume that the audience understood the term `direct manipulation'. However, you should be prepared to offer a definition and an example if asked to do so. Similarly, it is good practice to pause after every key point and ask the audience whether they are have any questions about the concepts that you are introducing.

The following guidelines and check list are derived from the Committee of Vice Chancellor's and Principles' Guidance on Effective Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.


  1. Does your opening gain the group's attention?
  2. Does it establish rapport with the group?
  3. Does it indicate what you intend to explain?

The Key Points

  1. Are your key points clearly expressed?
  2. Are your examples apt and interesting?
  3. Are your qualifications of the key points clearly expressed?
  4. Is each key point summarised?
  5. Are the summaries clear?
  6. Are the beginnings and ends of the key points clearly indicated?

The Summary

  1. Does the summary bring together the main points?
  2. Are your conclusions clearly stated?
  3. Do you come to an effective stop?


  1. Can the group hear and see you?
  2. Do you use eye contact to involve but not threaten?
  3. Do you use audio/visual techniques effectively?
  4. Are you fluent verbally?
  5. Is your vocabulary appropriate for the group?
  6. Do you make use of pauses and silences?
  7. Do you vary your intonation?
  8. Is the organisation of your material clear?
  9. Do you avoid vagueness and ambiguities?
  10. Is the presentation as interesting as you can make it?

4. Conclusion

This paper has provided a basic introduction to the research skills that are necessary to complete an advanced masters or PhD in Computing Science. Pointers have been given to related resources on the web. Ultimately, however, research skills can only be gained through practice in the application of the guidelines that are presented in this paper.