JNL Research Group
University of Notre Dame
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
The questions and answers below have been put together to
preemptively address common concerns and outline relevant aspects of
our philosophy on and approach to teaching and research.
To suggest additional topics to cover here, email jnl-students AT nd
Questions & Answers
- Are there openings for undergraduate students/graduate
students/post-docs in your research group?
- The short answer is: usually. As long as we are generating good
ideas and obtaining funding to support the research, and current
members continue to make steady progress toward their degrees, we
expect to take on around one graduate student and several
undergraduate students every year, on average. Post-docs are very
special cases that may be workable every few years.
- Is funding/a stipend available?
- Research and Departmental funds are available to cover tuition and
a stipend for graduate students and salary for post-docs. I often
say, if you are a full-time graduate student in engineering in the US
and you are not being paid, you are not doing it right. Undergraduate
students can work for pay, or they can earn undergraduate research
credit. I make every effort not take on students whom I cannot
- Do you respond to email queries?
- Largely no, for perhaps obvious reasons. The bulk of the emails I
receive all look essentially the same and therefore carry little
useful information for me to be able to differentiate students. It is
more useful to establish meaningful interactions with me or current
group members via a class, meeting at a conference, or recommendations
from people we know and trust.
- How are graduate student admissions handled in Electrical
Engineering at Notre Dame?
- The Department currently has a hybrid admission system facilitated
by the Graduate Admissions Committee (GAC). Individual faculty can
play a significant role in the process if they are willing to
immediately fund students as Research Assistants upon arrival to
campus. Otherwise, the GAC admits a pool of students who are largely
supported by Department funds (Fellowships and Teaching
Assistantships) in their first academic year while they are taking
classes and pairing up with advisors. Each faculty member chooses
their preferred strategy within this system.
- What is your strategy for recruiting and retaining graduate
- At a high level, the key to joining my research group is to get my
attention, or a current group member's attention. To someone applying
from outside Notre Dame, this means contacting us with thoughtful
feedback about our research publications, or
obtaining a strong recommendation letter from someone we know and
trust. To someone at Notre Dame but looking for an advisor, this
means doing exceptionally well in one of my classes or initiating
meaningful interactions with us about our research. Persistence
counts. Once someone has our attention, I tend to implement a "trial"
period of at least one semester during which we develop a research
project and see how things progress. At the end of that period, we
make a decision about group membership, and its associated policies
for essentially the remainder of the student's graduate studies.
Given the above, I frequently volunteer and work hard on the GAC to
help the Department recruit the best pool of students. Then I work
hard in the classroom to interact with first-semester students to see
who would be the best fit for the group, in terms of raw capabilities,
creativity, and personality. In some rare cases, I have admitted a
student directly as a Research Assistant, but that student had a
recommendation letter from someone I knew and trusted.
Research Topics and Style
- What kinds of problems are you interested in?
- I am mainly
interested in analysis and design of communication systems and
networks, spanning fundamental analysis using information theory to
practical implementations in wireless testbeds using software-defined
radio. Lately, I have tended to focus on communications and network
architecture, i.e., the components of the system and the ways
in which they interact, and use information theory and its powerful
abstractions for the components themselves.
- How do you interact with your research students?
- With graduate students, I try to have weekly meetings of about an
hour each. This tends to be very regular with M.S. students, and more
sporadic with Ph.D. students as they near graduation. The first few
meetings focus on learning your interests, skills, and weaknesses, and
posing a few problems based upon questions in the back of our minds. I
often have an intuition about the question, but rarely have what I
consider to be a firm answer. As things evolve, the meetings converge to
first an update of the previous week's progress and second
brainstorming for how to proceed. After a semester or two, we start
editing drafts of papers and other documents. I actively encourage
students to discuss their work with the others students in the group,
because the topics end up being sufficiently far apart that there
is little room for competition, but plenty of room for
- Will you suggest a good problem for me to work on?
- That depends. For a Master's degree, I have no concerns about
suggesting a particular problem, because in the M.S. degree you solve
a non-textbook problem, write it up, and (hopefully) present it. For a
Ph.D. degree, an important step in your development is in learning to
ask and reformulate the right questions, so I intentionally step back
along the way. In some cases, I honestly can claim little
intellectual ownership of a student's Ph.D. work; I prefer it that
way, because I get to learn a lot from the student.
Every Ph.D. program has its share of requirements, and the program
at Notre Dame is no exception. Rather than viewing these items as
boxed to check off, I encourage students to treat them as
opportunities to push on various aspects of the Ph.D. research and
develop as a researcher. The guidelines I suggest below all have this
main theme in mind. Note that these include some aspects of the
requirements themselves, but mostly my suggested guidelines for
students. Other advisors may have dramatically different views and
- There are a number of graduate courses that are important for students
pursuing research in our group. These include courses in the
EE Department, such as
as well as the Mathematics Department
- Probability, Random Processes
- Detection and Estimation
- Linear Systems
- Communication Systems (Digital, Wireless, Networks...)
- Information Theory
- Digital Signal Processing
- Real Analysis
- Measure Theory
- Qualifying Exam
- The Qualifying Exam now consists of three components: classroom
performance, score on a comprehensive written exam, and a research
report and presentation. The comprehensive written exam occurs in May
of the first academic year. The research report and presentation
occurs in August of the first academic year, with the project largely
started in mid-to-late Spring. The opportunity here is to focus on
the fundamentals, clean up any holes in your undergraduate background,
and take perhaps a first stab at a real research project and the
technical writing associated with reporting and presenting your
results. These latter skills are invaluable, whether you seek
a career in industry or academics, so it is worth practicing them
frequently throughout your studies.
- Once a student has completed the M.S. degree, passed the
Qualifying Exam, and found an advisor, their next goal should be to
begin surveying literature in a given area, formulating a problem, and
obtaining some preliminary results. Good technical writing is often
not taught in undergraduate curriculum, and English may not be one's
native language, so it is very important to start addresses these
weaknesses early by writing early and often. A reasonable goal is to
first develop a conference paper in the first semester or two, and
flesh that into a journal paper within another semester. The work
required to accomplish this goals lays the groundwork for the
- Candidacy Exam
- Expectations for the Candidacy Exam vary dramatically among
faculty and students alike. In my own view, the material for
evaluation by the Committee should consist of two parts: a proposal
writeup and a presentation of approximately 45 minutes. Both should
include the following three elements that demonstrate three
corresponding advances in your studies:
The Candidacy Exam marks a useful opportunity to think about the
high-level vision for the thesis as it might expand from the
preliminary results. It also represents a great opportunity to engage
faculty aside from your Advisor in your research, by getting their
feedback on the writeup and presentation. I strongly encourage
students to meet for at least a half hour with each committee member
well before the exam itself to summarize their work and be sure they
know what each committee member expects for a successful exam. If you
hope to obtain meaningful feedback on the writeup and presentation
from the committee, then I recommend you give them reasonably clean
drafts at least three weeks before the exam. There is absolutely no
harm in being over-prepared for this exam, because the writeup and
presentation can serve as first drafts of key parts of your
dissertation and defense, respectively.
- Critical review of the relevant literature
- Preliminary results worthy of submission to at least a conference,
but preferably a journal
- Thoughtful plan for the evaluation of the research and
completion of the dissertation
- Assuming the above steps have been taken seriously and proceeded
in reasonable fashion, the defense should largely be a formality.
Nevertheless, it represents yet another opportunity to iterate on the
big picture of your research and obtain feedback from a committed of
faculty and an audience of other students and researchers. The
defense talk can be good practice for job talks in both industry and
academics. It also represents the end of an era for you, both
professionally and personally.
- Recommendation Letters
- I am happy to write recommendation letters for group members and
students. Remember, each November I
routinely have 5-6 students each applying to 6-10 graduate
schools and fellowships. You want to be a student who makes
it as convenient as possible for me to write and submit your
letters. To help me do a good job, I require that you give me
the following with your request:
- Up-to-date resume or curriculum vitae.
- Three to five bullets about you that you think it would sense for
me to emphasize in the letter.
- Sufficient materials for me to submit the letter and forms in
hard copy. Many places are moving to electronic
submission, but this needlessly takes a lot of time.
- For each letter to be sent, either an email address or an envelope with all addresses
(including my return address) and a stamp.
- For each letter to be sent, if there is a
form to be filled out, please fill out everything
(including my name, title, affiliation, and adress) so
that all I have to do is check a few boxes, sign, attach
my letter, and mail.
- A cover sheet with all the due dates.
The above should be given to me at least a month before the deadline, in
order to be sure that I can work writing the letter into my schedule.
- Draft: JNL, January 25, 2007