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 DOT edu.

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 support financially.
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.
Graduate Admissions
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 students?
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 collaboration.
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 policies.

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
  • Probability, Random Processes
  • Detection and Estimation
  • Linear Systems
  • Communication Systems (Digital, Wireless, Networks...)
  • Information Theory
  • Digital Signal Processing
as well as the Mathematics Department
  • Real Analysis
  • Algebra
  • Measure Theory
  • Optimization
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.
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:
  • 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
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.
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


J. Nicholas Laneman
Last modified: 02/19/09
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