To be successful in research or PhD, anyone can apply these 50 proven tips that are applicable for all types of research activities and PhD studies.
The tips are based on successful researchers and PhDs as well as from my own experiences involving in research activities in different fields and different countries.
The tips cover those related to both technical (science-related) and non-technical (non-science-related) aspects.
The tips (not in a particular order) are:
1. Learn writing and reading skills
Writing and reading skills are the fundamental and the most important tools for research. These two skills are the “fishing rods for fisherman”, meaning, the skills are the necessary and essential elements to search and learn new knowledge and communicate (publish) new results or findings to other people.
Writing and reading skills are more important than any other technical research skills, for example, experiment, programming and data analysis skills.
With good reading skills, we can read articles fast and capture the main ideas and results of the articles, find and connect information from various sources rapidly and follow all state-of-the-art developments in research fields.
With good writing skills, we can effectively and efficiently communicate our new research findings or results in journals, conferences, scientific magazines or other types of publishing media. Also, we can stay ahead in our research field by publishing our results faster than others.
Overall, our research productivity will be high by mastering these two skills. Many PhDs or researchers that publish many articles master these two reading and writing skills.
2. Learn practical experiment skills and safety
Especially for science and engineering research, experiments in a lab or field need to be carried out to verify a model or simulation. Experiments are a hands-on activities that require some practical skills.
We need to learn and have hands-on experiences in, for example, assembling a setup for experiment, mounting sensors on a surface, using data acquisition method (such as national instrument data acquisition), connecting cables and electronic circuits, soldering cables, tightening bolts and nuts, handling liquid, handling samples, using pipette to transfer and measure small quantities of liquid, and putting gloves on our hand.
Some of these skills seems trivial, but believe me, they are not! For those who have never done a bolt tightening before, this trivial task can take some time to get it right, and then cause experiment setup time to be longer than it should be.
Also, we need to always prioritise safety in any experiments. For example, in some laboratories, we need to use safety shoes, helmet, goggle eye protection (commonly involve laser light) and masker. If we get sick, we cannot do any work and research!
3. Reproduce results from papers you read
It is very common that we will need to re-read articles several times to understand the method presented in the articles.
The best way to understand methods from articles is by reproducing the results presented in the articles.
Reproducing results mean that we repeat experiments, simulations or calculations presented in articles. This activity takes a quite good amount of our time. But, the advantages gained from the results reproduction are worth it.
The trick is that we need to re-produce results from articles that are fundamental and very important with respect to our field. For example, to understand a very important algorithm, we need to re-code the algorithm to have similar results to the algorithm we replicate. By doing this, we will understand deeply the algorithm and will remember it for a quite long time.
4. (Do not afraid to) Try ideas that you think of
Research is like exploring a forest or new area where we do not have a map. Instead, we have only previous knowledge and skills to explore the forest or area to find or observe new things.
While exploring, we need to try several different ways that we think will lead us to the results or observations that we want. It is very normal that we have some elements of hesitation or afraid to start exploring the ways.
It is normal and just keeps going!
When we think that we can try new material mixtures, try new components, try new methods, try new algorithms and try other new things that never been done before, just do it (of course, with a plan) and observe the results.
When we get unexpected results, we can learn and improve from there. All results (expected or not expected) are important! We also develop new skill and knowledge when we try new ideas or new things.
This exploration process during a research period is one of the most joyful aspect in the activity.
5. Be patient! And keep developing skills and knowledge
Research is a marathon. We need to target far, maintain our energy and have a good time management. Meanwhile, we need to keep learning relevant skills and knowledge by, for example, reading books and articles, trying new methods, testing algorithms and other things that we can do.
Patient is key!
Very often, when doing experiments, we need to stay in the lab for many hours waiting for instruments producing data or results. Very often, we need to repeat experiments to confirm results are acceptable. When we write an article draft, we need to revise many times before we submit the article. When we received feedback from journal reviewers, we will have (almost always) a long list of revisions to do to address comments and satisfy the reviewer.
All of these activities above require patient to be able to keep working and achieve our target or goal.
6. Attention to details
A good research requires high attention to details. Remember the saying “The devil is in the details”! Meaning, many problems do not appear on surfaces and buried in the details.
For examples, in experiment, many problems can be caused by a slight misalignment between two components during the experiment setup. In writing, incorrect use of comas can cause a reviewer misunderstand what we are saying in the article, in programming, very often, numerical algorithms do not work due to rounding problems or incorrect data type, etc.
7. Develop daily writing habit
To develop writing skills, we need to consistently practice writing. We need to develop a daily writing habit. It is difficult in the beginning, but if we can do it in daily basis, everything will become easy.
We need to block a certain period of time in a day for only writing. At least, one hour we need to put a side for the writing.
We can write anything from topics related to our research, such as literature review, to topics unrelated to our research, such as daily blogging or hobbies.
Writing here means in a wider sense. It is not only typing a document, but also writing by hand or recording your voice. The main point is how we train our brain to systemically convey message to others.
8. Read article very often
Reading every day is very important and a must activity for researcher (and everybody as well). Especially, to keep us always at the state-of-the-art level in our fields, we need to always read published articles about new developments in our field.
The published articles can be in journal, conferences, scientific magazine and other media. These new articles are almost updated every day (considering all media).
Also, we need to read other non-journal articles to increase our knowledge, for example textbooks and laboratory instrument manuals.
Remember, the amount of information that we need to read always exceed our available time to read them! So, we need to best use our time to read.
9. Try to read article outside or around your research topic
Nowadays, many research require interdisciplinary approaches. That is, many research problems need to be addressed from many different sciences.
We need to read articles outside or around our specific research topic. By doing this, we will add or enlarge our view and perspective toward the problem we are trying to solve.
Many times, ideas and solutions are obtained when we look at our problem from a slightly different perspective. Not only that, bringing methods or perspectives from other fields to our problem may create a new innovative method or model with respect to our problem.
For example, there are researchers that are a pharmacist by training, now they are working in manufacturing filed, especially additive manufacturing, to create a new drug delivery system. Another example, there is a researcher that is originally a chemist by training is now carrying research on metal machining using chemical process.
From those examples, bringing expertise from other fields can create new innovative methods in another field.
10. Write by hand of what you have read
This writing by hand method is very effective to learn new knowledge or prepare a presentation. When we read articles, instead of highlighting important sentences, re-writing the sentences in our own way will be more effective than that the highlighting method.
The re-writing activities are not only writing words, but also can be a drawing of a, for example, method, model or diagram. When we are writing a sentence on a paper, basically, we also “writing” the sentence into our brain.
This re-writing method can last longer in our memory than the method of highlighting sentences.
11. Do writing in parallel with research activities
Many people think that writing is the last part after all other research activities have been done. This is wrong.
Writing is part of a research activity and should be given at least 25% of the total of a research period. Writing is an integral part of a research.
In addition, writing should be carried out in parallel when we are doing research. By writing in parallel with our research activity, we can systematically plan our research and prepare our brain to expect results and analyse them.
Remember, if you have, for example, one year time of research schedule, then you have to put aside at least three months for writing and nine months of other research activities, for example, experiments and data analyses.
12. Conduct and write literature reviews
Literature review is the first thing to do in any research activities. This review is where we identify the state-of-the-art research and results and find gaps that need to be filled in our research.
Literature review is not easy. We need to collect all articles (journals, conferences, scientific magazines and others) up to ten years backward, read hundreds of articles, connect and link all the articles’ methods and results, represent the articles like a story and finally provide future directions to fill gaps in the reviewed topic.
please visit this blogs for a good practical tips for literature review.
13. Conduct deep work on reading and writing
Deep work is where we focus our brain in doing something without any distractions. After deep work, we will learn new knowledge or skills or finish a work target. Deep work is when our brain in alpha conditions where our brain is in their maximum work conditions.
Gaining new skills or understanding is one of the signs that we have done a deep work.
Deep work can be applied to any activities, such as reading, writing, experiment, sport, cooking and many others.
Especially reading and writing, we need to block a time at least one hour to deeply read and write without any distractions, such as from our mobile notifications and other distraction sources.
14. Conduct deep work on experiment
When doing experiment, we need to focus with what we are doing as planned. Deeply focus in doing experiments will make our experiment becomes effective and efficient.
Effective experiments are when we get reliable or validated results and efficient experiments are when we do not spend much time repeating experiments due to some mistakes.
Experiments require our brain to focus, for example, to follow all experiment procedures, to correctly setup instruments, to correctly record data and to obey all safety procedures.
15. Conduct deep work on data analyses
Data analysis is a heavy mental (brain) activity. This activity requires us to process numerical data and interpret their results.
Of course, in doing such things, we need to deeply concentrate to make our brain focus processing all information. We need to really be disconnected to any other distractions.
In many real situations, it is better to switch of our mobile to be able to deeply conduct data analyses.
16. Make target and to-do lists
To-do list is a classic tip, but this tip is proven to be effective. We need to list all priority activities everyday before we do anything else in our workplace.
Most of the time, we do not finish all the to-do list, but at least we finish some good chunk of priority activities. By doing this, we can keep our research moving forward.
It is better to put experiments and data analyses on the top of the list. Very often, when we come to our workplace very early in the morning when nobody or very few people are there, we can easily perform deep work for experiments and data analyses.
17. Master statistical analysis methods
In any research fields, from science and engineering to economics and psychology, statistical methods are very important tools to analyse the data. By using statistics, we can extract important and meaningful information from data that we have.
We need to understand at least fundamental aspects of statistical data analyses. To test our understanding of some fundamental concepts of statistics, try to answer these questions:
- What is a Gaussian distribution, confidence interval and its four moments?
- What are random variables, bias and variance?
- What is the meaning of central limit theorem?
- What is the difference between probability density function and cumulative density function?
- What is the different between continuous and discrete probability density function?
- What is regression analysis? How can we differentiate between linear and non-linear regression?
- What is repeatability and reproducibility?
- What is the difference between standard deviation and standard error?
- What is analysis of variance method?
- What is the meaning of replication, randomisation and blocking in design of experiment?
- And others …
18. Develop programming skills
Nowadays, programming skills are required in all fields. Advanced research in all fields will require customised or specific quantitative data analyses that require us to make a specific program for the analyses.
At least, we know one of these programming languages: MATLAB, Python and R. MATLAB is not free and will require an expensive license to use it (although almost all universities have MATLAB licenses), but the other Python and R are free to be used.
These programming languages have statistical toolbox that we can use to perform simple and complex statistical analyses.
19. Have discussion with people from different backgrounds
We need to broaden our perspective in viewing a problem. To broaden our perspective, one way is that we need to have discussions with many people from different backgrounds.
Very often, great ideas or solutions come from viewing a problem from slightly different perspectives.
A way to explain the different perspective idea is that by taking an established or well-known solution in a specific field and apply it to another new field.
For example, in manufacturing, when we want to smoothen a metal surface without the need of machining, we can implement solutions from chemistry, that is chemical machining to smoothen the metal surface.
20. Part time as teaching assistant
If possible or when there is an opportunity, we can apply to be a teaching assistant. Teaching is a rewarding activity. By teaching, we can consolidate our knowledge as well as learning many skills, such as communication and presentation skills.
Communication and presentation are some common activities in research, for example, presenting our results in an international conference.
In addition, teaching can benefit our CV if we want to pursue career in academia and can provide us with some additional income.
21. Collaborate with people
To make an impact in research, we need to collaborate with people. With collaboration, we can implement new innovative solutions and improve the quality of our research.
For example, we are doing research in material science to analyse some properties to predict the behaviour of a material. We can collaborate with a computer scientist to implement machine learning to learn a model and improve the prediction accuracy from the properties.
From this collaboration, some fruitful results can be a join paper and more articles presenting different aspects of the research (from material science to machine learning aspects).
However, be careful to select a collaboration. If not managed well, a collaboration can be contradictive. If we have only insignificant contributions to the collaboration and only get small added values to our research, the collaboration will negatively affect our research in the sense that time spent for the collaboration will have minimal results.
We must select our own battle. We cannot have too many collaborations as we have also limited time.
22. Build relation with supervisor
In some situations, we can get a nice research supervisor or professor in the sense that the professor is supportive in many aspects of research, from technical and non-technical. However, also in some situations we must accept that our professor is not relatively supportive as we expect.
Both types of supervisors or professors are very common. They are the same human being as other normal people that have different personalities. We must embrace them and go on with our research.
Remember, we are independent and have full control to drive our own research and our supervisor is only as a supporter and may provide suggestions in due course.
Whatever types of supervisors or professor we have, we need to build a good professional relationship. There are some ways to build a good relationship.
We need to work hard and smart toward our research and produce good results in time. Also, we need to propose interesting new ideas to start discussion with our supervisor. By doing a good work, our supervisor will value and acknowledge our contribution to our group.
23. Become a team player in our research group
In a research group, we will have colleagues with different expertise. We have a strong skill set in one aspect and other colleagues will have strong skill sets in other aspects.
When one of our team members need some help with our expertise, within reason, we must help them, for example, by discussions, suggest solutions, helping experiment setups until debugging a program.
By helping our team member, we will become a valued team member. Becoming a team player will have a long-term reward since we have built a strong relation and networking with our team member and have impact to the team.
This team player habit can drive success in every work environment.
24. Give credits when its due to someone
When our team members have achievements for, for example, outstanding experiment results, paper accepted in good journals or wining an award, we have to congratulate them.
When we compliment other people success, these people will appreciate our compliment and will do the same for us when we have some achievements.
Also, by giving compliment, we are building a good relationship with our team member and create a good research environment in the team.
25. Avoid politics!
Politics is everywhere. However, we must avoid bad politics!
Very often in coffee breaks when people from the same or different research group meet together, people talk about bad politics, for example, this professor has done something not pleasant, that person has done this bad things and other bad talks.
Do not do this, does not matter if the talks are true or not, the talks are not our business. We must focus on our research and discuss topics that are beneficial for everybody.
For example, it is better to discuss about new ideas, some possible methods to try and other useful things.
26. Convey your opinion
It is important that we “show” our voice in discussion forums, for example in group meetings, scientific forums or conferences. We need to contribute in term of giving suggestions, opinions or even questions that can trigger new discussions or lead to new solutions.
By conveying our voices, we give value to any discussions and also train ourselves to have a confident presenting ideas.
Remember, we need to promote our research or ideas to others so that our research or ideas can be accepted and hopefully adapted or used by other people.
Only with the adoption of our research or ideas by others, we can make impact from our research.
27. Develop a “competition” and “benchmarking” habit
Research is a “competition”. This competition here is in the sense that we will grow and advance together and everyone is the “winner”.
To gauge our progress and to motivate us, we need to benchmark our self to others that have similar research with us.
Benchmarking is very important for us to see how we grow and progress as well as measure (and hopefully) improve our research performances.
28. DO NOT go over the limit
In research, we need to compete (in a positive way) with other researchers around the world to be the first to identify problems and provide new solutions for the problem. Hence, we need to push hard to progress our research (But, keep finding an element of fun in it!).
However, do not go over limit in the sense that the research will have negative effects to our self or other people. For example, we push too hard until we have lack of sleep or we do not take care ourselves or family or exaggerating research results so that the results seems very good or perfect or conduct illegitimate activities that negatively affect people.
Push hard but follow the ethics and rules! When we go over the limit, everyone (including ourselves) will get damaged.
29. Follow the rule in your research group
It is important to follow rules in our group since different groups will have different rules. Of course, there are general basics rule that are applicable to any research group.
Some rules in a research group, for example, the arrangement of the authors in articles, the process to review papers before submission, the procedure to access labs, the specific safety protocol in a laboratory, the responsibility between the first and second supervisors and group meeting presentations.
30. Follow the rule in the lab
Following the rule in the lab is essential and strictly needed to be followed. The rules mainly to protect safety of people, instruments and environment.
Some common rules are, for example:
- always use your safety equipment (according to specific lab requirements) to protect yourselves and others
- Always follow established procedures to use instruments or conduct experiments.
- Always clean and rearrange instruments, samples and consumables after experiments
- Always dispose dangerous materials according to approved procedures
31. Ask Colleague opinions
It is important that we ask our team member opinions or feedback to improve our work. For example, when we have some unexpected results, we can discuss with our colleagues to find the cause. When we finish the draft of an article, we can ask our peer to review the draft from the grammar to content of the draft. When we plan to setup an experiment, we can ask opinion from other people that are expert or have experiences with the experiment.
Asking opinions are very useful so that we can prevent potential problems during research and, at the and, we will become efficient in conducting research (minimising mistakes).
Of course, when the time our colleagues ask our feedback, we will give our best feedback to them.
32. Attend trainings provided by our institute
Very often, there are a lot of training related to research and academic writing provided by universities or research institutes for free. These free training are very valuable.
However, many researchers they are too focus on their research and forget to upgrade themselves via training.
Take a sort time to check available trainings that we can follow and pick some of the trainings that are relevant to us. Our time invested for the training will payback in term of, for example, more efficient research experiments and good data analyses results.
33. Attend seminar and conference
Nowadays, attending conferences are very common for any researcher and PhD students.
Conferences are very important for us to showcase our research and get noticed by other people in the community.
Also, in conference we can build networking with different researchers around the world, we can discuss our research, we can meet expert opinions, we can see the latest advancement in our field and many other beneficial things.
It is really recommended to attend conferences and not only focus on journal articles.
34. Meet renowned researchers in your field
Meeting a well-known researcher in our field can boost our motivation in doing research. When we meet an expert in our field, we can get their direct advices on how to be a good researcher, conduct good experiments and how to fill research gaps in our field.
35. Have a good sleep
Yes, we need enough sleep to do research. Research is a demanding mental and physical activities.
To be able to get ideas, we need to have a fresh mind and energy. Enough sleep is one of key factors that can support our health and mind.
Yes, we need to push hard in research. But, we need to take care of our body and mind in order to carry a good research.
36. Take a break for a while
It is very common that at some point, we will get bored, stuck and exhausted with our research. The best way to get out from this situation is not by keep pushing and doing research.
Sometime, we need to “switch off” from research to refresh our mind.
We can take a short vacation or doing something (including reading or learning) that Is not related to our research. This method has been well known to be effective to get rid of those problems (bored, stuck and exhausted).
37. Do not compare yourself with others
Yes, we need benchmarking ourselves with other people. But, we need to benchmark in a correct way.
We need to benchmark to understand our progress and where we are at with our research.
But, do not compare about, for example, how many number of papers we have published compared to others. How fast and how many papers someone can publish within he/she research period cannot be compared directly with another people.
Because, each research topic is specific. Sometime, we need to wait for a piece of equipment that is delayed for a long period of time and delayed our experiment. Another example is when we need to conduct a long run experiment until we can write a paper.
So, be careful in selecting what aspect we can and cannot compare to other researchers.
38. Learn to be yourself and have confidence
A PhD is a training ground for us to be an independent researcher. Independent researcher is the ones who can drive, schedule and manage research by themselves.
During PhD, we need to develop an ability to work with minimal supervision and to be confidenttrying new things. We need to be confident with our ability.
Independency and confidence are some of the most useful skills from a PhD process.
39. Build research independence
Many people still think that the most important prove as an independent researcher is to have a single author paper. This is not completely true.
A true independent researcher is the one that can find an idea and becomes self-driven to realise the idea. The researcher can drive and manage research progresses independently.
40. Embrace critics from others
During research, there will be critics to our selves from, for example, our peer team member or supervisor. We need to embrace, instead of being defensive, those critics to improve ourselves.
Those critics are very valuable because without critics, we will think that we are always in a good position which is most of the time we are not. We need critics to keep us on a correct track and to keep improving our capacity.
41. Embrace rejections from journals
When submitting a paper to a journal, most of the time the paper will be returned with major revisions and many “harsh” or “intimidating” comments from reviewers. Also, sometimes we will get rejection from a journal we submit our paper to.
These major revisions or rejections are very normal in paper publishing world. Especially, rejection or major revision are very common if we submit a paper to a premier journal in our field.
Do not feel hopeless when we received major revisions with many comments or rejections. Instead, think positively. Imagine, we can get free very valuable feedback for our research from renown researchers in our field that review our paper. The reviews are very important to improve our work and hence our paper to be resubmitted to the same or other journals.
42. Learn to write research proposal
Writing a research proposal is totally different with writing a journal paper. In writing a proposal, we do not have results yet. But, what we have is a vision and idea to do a research in a certain topic.
When writing a research proposal, we learn how to identify needs and new methods to solve current or future important problems, how to systematically design a methodology to carry a research, how to identify and mitigate potential barriers or problems during the research and how to manage resource and schedule of the research.
Writing a proposal is challenging. Because we need to write in a scientific way, but can also be understood by readers who are not expert in our field. We need to find a good balance between using a scientific term and easy to understand term in writing a proposal.
43. Help your team members
We need to help our team members when they need us and we have the capability, either skills or knowledge, to help.
However, we need to help them within reason. For example, we can help in giving suggestions for a method or algorithm or demonstrating how to use an instrument or helping to debug a program or experiment. But, we cannot go further to do the experiment or programming for them. They need to do by themselves as they need to learn by doing themselves.
44. Select correct friends
We are what our friends are. This word shows how important our friend will affect our research.
We need to avoid people that always complain about their research, professor, and other things. Instead, we need to make friend with people who love to discuss ideas, brainstorm solutions, and other positive things.
45. Embrace and respect different cultures
In current global society and interdisciplinary research, we will have peer team member from different countries with different cultural backgrounds.
These different cultures are a very important asset in a research group. We need to embrace these multicultural identities.
Any discussions will be exciting when many different people from different cultures give their perspective. Also, chatting about our different cultures in a coffee break is always a pleasure thing to do in workplaces!
46. Take care of your physical health
Research requires a good physical health so that we can have energy to do experiment and to use our brain in analysing data.
We need to eat good food (not expensive food). A good food can be very cheap if we know how to make it.
Learning how to cook is a very important skills to have. Not only we can make healthy foods but also we can significantly reduce monthly expenses.
Also, we need to exercise to keep our body stay healthy. A trick is that we can always walk from and to our workplace every time. By doing this, we can do exercise without putting a special time in a day (where many people may do not have many spare time to exercise).
47. Take care of your mental health
Do not underestimate the importance of our mental health. To keep our mental health good, we need, sometime, to break from research and do something totally different, such as taking a vacation, doing a light travelling, playing sport and making friends with good people.
Very often, recovering from mental breakdown is more difficult than recovering from an illness. With a good mental health, we can keep our motivation and focus on our research.
48. Take care of your family
For those who have a family, we need to take care our family as well. We cannot always think of our research all day long, 27/7.
We need to, for example, bring our family for vacation, play with our children and visit family friends. We also need also spent time to contribute to our community.
That is why we need to really have a good research schedule and stick with it. We need to balance between our life and our research.
49. Take care your physical appearance
It is important to take care our appearance in front of people. Because, with a good appearance we can increase our confident and respect people around us.
Good appearance is not about buying expensive clothes and shoes. It is about how we dress politely and respect the culture around us with people having different cultural backgrounds.
We can make a good appearance with the cheapest clothes and shoes that we can buy.
We need to appear tidy, cut our hair, when necessary, etc so that we can feel good about ourselves and also make a good perception from other people (in a positive way).
We do not make good appearance for showing off our self, this is strictly not recommended.
50. Pray to God
Finally, we must pray to God to make all our research activity easy. Praying to God will increase our moral and mental health and give us peace.
Remember, do our best and God will do the rest!
Research and PhD activities are demanding tasks that require both mental (brain) and physical strength. These activities are a marathon.
With the presented 50 practical tips, the tips can help keeping us in track and focus during the research and PhD period. And hopefully, we will reach meaningful results as expected.
We need to make small targets that are relatively easy to achieve. By achieving these small targets every time, we will always be motivated during our research period.
A finale note: in every intense research work, there will be an element of fun that we need to find. When we find this element of fun, all work will be enjoyable and automatically productive.
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