When I started graduate school, I was prepared for the classwork. I was even prepared for being a teaching assistant. I had been doing this type of work since high school.
I thought that I was prepared for research as well. I thought that my graduate school research would be similar to the research I had done in undergrad. Unfortunately, starting my research in graduate school was a wake-up call.
For the first time, working hard did not mean more success. I couldn’t just complete a set of requirements to succeed in my research. I was stuck at a point where I was willing to work hard, but I had no idea what I was doing. My time felt wasted when my results were a dead end.
Moving forward five years, I have earned my Ph.D., completed dozens of research projects, worked as a postdoc and research specialist, and published and presented many different research projects.
Here is a secret though! I am not special. I’m not a genius or some natural-born researcher. I am a person just like you who struggled with research, learned, failed, and became successful through the process.
Research isn’t hard.
The biggest myth I believed was that research is innately hard. If saying research isn’t hard makes you angry or want to stop reading, hear me out.
The reality is research doesn’t need to be a struggle, but the majority of us are self-taught researchers. Especially if you learned research in academia, you have likely never had any training in how to conduct research. Of course, you have received training in how to collect data in your field, but what about how to learn your field, develop ideas, analyze your data, or publish and present your findings?
Think about when you learned a task you now find simple. In my case, I think about tying my shoes. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t tie my shoes that I wore velcro shoes way past when I should have. Now imagine that you were never taught how to tie your shoes. How much more difficult would it be to tie your shoes? How many more times would you fail? How much longer would it take you to be comfortable?
The reason this is so important to realize is that many of us will put up with things for much longer than we need to because we believe this is just how research is.
If I told you something wasn’t supposed to be hard, would you ask for help sooner? Would you find a way to make it easier? Would you stop overthinking what you are doing when it feels too easy? Would you spend more time living your life instead of trying to feel productive?
I know I would. I know because I did! My research journey changed when I stopped focusing on the struggle and found ways to make my research easier. This included reaching out to others for help, creating systems to complete my research, and accepting that I was in a learning process.
Therefore, if you believe your research is supposed to be a struggle, start challenging this idea. Ask for help and find mentors that can help you.
Now, I want to share 5 important tips for your research journey that I have learned through my own journey.
5 Tips to Become More Successful At Research
While you may be on board about becoming an efficient worker, you may still wonder how to become more efficient. So let’s go step-by-step through a system that I created for myself, which has made me more productive while decreasing burnout.
Stop Pursuing the Sexy Idea
We all want to be the scientist that has the research ideas that win Nobel Prizes and inspire movies. Therefore, we will dismiss novel, feasible ideas because they are too easy or don’t feel new enough. The reality is that the sexy ideas movies are created after likely weren’t how those ideas started.
Most projects are making a one or two step gain to the field. Then, once you complete a few projects, you have created a truly novel discovery that you likely would have not thought of at the beginning of the first project.
So instead, take the research idea that you know how to complete and you know is novel in some aspect and run with it! Don’t dismiss an idea because it doesn’t feel novel enough!
Research Success Happens in Indistinguishable Steps
TV and movies always show research success as a montage of hard work followed by one groundbreaking discovery that happened just as it was needed! Think about the Imitation game, The Big Bang Theory, or A Beautiful Mind.
While we may understand that it is being dramatized for the story, we may also think that the best way to have research success is through late nights, writing on a whiteboard, and insane amounts of coffee.
I would love to have my life turned into a movie one day, but all of my research success would break this notion. My success in research came from completing one step after another.
But looking back, what mattered weren’t the long nights or the time spent staring at data or reading papers. It was the time that I spent doing the little things like collecting one set of data at a time, creating one graph and a time, and testing one failed idea after another.
Take joy from the process of completing your research knowing that every step you are taking will lead you to success.
Stop Expecting Answers from Raw Data
When I first started performing data analysis, I wanted to look at spectra and be able to create clear conclusions about my data. Unfortunately, I was severely disappointed when I had no idea what my raw data was telling me.
For the majority of fields, raw data will only give you an understanding of the quality of your data.
Once you have examined your raw data, many of us will feel lost about what we do next. In my case, I knew that I needed to complete more analysis, but I didn’t know where to go because I was expecting my raw data to tell me.
I learned to create a system where I did specific data analysis steps to visualize my raw data. This means that I created many different figures to determine what the conclusions of my data were before I started planning my research papers.
This makes it easy because I do not even start looking for conclusions until I have my data visualized. It’s just a simple, emotionless process of data analysis until I can actually start creating conclusions from my data.
Don’t Personalize Your Results
One of my labmates in grad school was down on their research for years, they kept questioning whether they even deserved a Ph.D.
They were down on themselves and wondered if their research was worth publishing. They had completed a massive amount of research, but the research had not yielded the results the advisor was expecting.
I couldn’t believe that they were questioning whether they deserved a Ph.D. or if their research should be published.
Then I asked a single question, “Do you think that your results are a reflection on you or your capability as a researcher?”
“Well, yeah…”, they answered.
It is so common to think that if we are a good enough researcher we will have life-changing data. You can’t take personally how the universe works. Your research is about discovering how the world works and our capabilities to manipulate it.
Therefore, your capabilities as a researcher are reflected only in how well, accurately, and ethically you made your discoveries, not in the discoveries themselves!
All Good Research Communication Starts with a Story
So once you have collected and analyzed your data, most of us will jump into trying to write our papers. Then, we get frustrated because we don’t know what we are writing!
The first time I tried to write a research article, I sat in a Starbucks for 8 hours trying to figure out how to write an introduction. After a full day, I had completed 1 paragraph. I spent most of my time looking at other papers, writing a sentence and then deleting it, and questioning whether I could actually do this.
Two years later, I was writing papers in a matter of hours. Not only could I write papers, I enjoyed writing them.
There were two tricks to developing scientific writing skills: (1) always start with a story and (2) understand the purpose of each section of your paper.
Once I complete my data analysis, the next step is to create a figure outline. A figure outline is just your figures that will be in your paper in the order that you will present them.
The key to this figure outline is that you should be able to explain your research story to another person by just looking at your figures. Once you can do this, all you need to do is write your story down to complete your research paper!
You can be successful in research. No, I don’t have to know who you are or your credentials for this statement to be true. I know you can, because if you are interested enough in research to get through this blog, you are interested enough to be successful.
Now, you may need to help along your journey, which is completely normal. You will have challenging and frustrating times in your journey. But you should challenge the beliefs that you just have to struggle through your research to be successful. You can make your research journey easier with these tips: