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Five Best Practices for Getting Started with Research

A little while ago, I got this question from a reader as a comment to the Silver Linings introduction.

Also, could you write about starting with a research? I am actually afraid to start with it, to just do it and ask for some tasks at the professor…while I want to. I think it’s too difficult for me, and I don’t know where to begin in proving myself wrong.

Before burying the idea in my ever-growing list of blog post ideas, I had already quickly chipped in:

As for your question – I’ll make sure to write a post on that, but as for now, be sure to realize that research is a process that is built upon the lessons we learn from our failures. So, don’t be afraid to jump into the playground – you’ll get your knees chafed along the way, but that’s all part of growing up to become a fully fledged researcher 🙂

But let’s take a look at this question again. I wrote a post about getting started in a PhD course or in graduate school, but getting started with research is a different topic. You can start on a new research project as a post-doc as well, for exampled.

In my opinion, there are five essential pieces of knowledge to keep in mind when you get started on a research project:

1. Play with your papers

After reading a paper, don’t just simply archive it, but apply your new insights. You can try to carry out some calculations with the method that is proposed in a paper, check experimental results from another paper with the proposed method, explore the boundaries of the formula and the validity of its assumptions – the list of options goes on and on.

2. Learn a new skill

The beginning of your research is the moment to assess which skills you will need during the process and which parts of your knowledge need deepening. The early research months are a good time to learn programming in a new language, or study a book in a new subject that will be of use to your research. Don’t get too side-tracked by learning new things, try to implement them and connect them with your research question early on!

3. Become independent

Don’t wait for your supervisor to give you “homework”. Research does not work like that. You are expected to get your hands dirty and play around in the garden until you find your treasure. Whenever you find a glimmer of gold, you can go and show this to your supervisor, and he will give you some input and comments to that, and steer you when necessary.

4. Familiarize yourself with the campus and services

This point overlaps with my earlier post on starting a PhD – but once you are fully engrained in your research, you don’t want to go and spend a day figuring out how your library system works. Just figure out what services are at your disposition and how you can benefit most from these.

5. Document your journey

Your early scribblings most likely won’t make it into your final dissertation, but I’d encourage you to start writing early on. Explain why a certain paper is of particular interest to you, or outline the strategies you used to find the limits of a theory that you studied. These documents make discussions with your supervisor easier, and they help you practice writing.

What would you recommend for someone who is getting started on research?

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This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. Why thank you! I was the reader that asked you this a while ago. Coincidence or not, I just started my research project this week. So your advice will be used – and other recommendations are welcome as well!

  2. I would suggest you talk about (and maybe you have at some point, I would need to check the archive) how you archived early research – particularly the papers you read – and accessed it later on. I wish I had Evernote when I started my research. My early lit reviews were in Excel and they were cumbersome, disorganized and in the end, useless. It is difficult to just design and implement the perfect system of organization and documentation when you start out, but the nice thing about Evernote at least is that its always there if you need to go back, and its taggable and searchable.

  3. Hi Jeff,I've used Endnote, pretty much from the beginning of my PhD, and I've also started writing my literature review from the beginning, adding important information – and besides that, I have a great memory, I remember most of the important elements of the papers I read (>650 papers), so that most of the time, if I remember something and need the reference, I will remember either when it was published or by whom (or both, if the paper left a deep impression on me)

  4. Field work was not part of my research – I stayed in the lab for 2,5 years mostly, and only went to visit bridges every now and then (not enough to really call it field work). Would you like to share your experience in a guest post or interview?

  5. i want to start over research work on child labour, but i do not how i gather infomation and what is important and what is not, and to manage this information in proper way

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