Becoming a Successful Researcher

Becoming successful in research is an ongoing process in which certain values and practices play a crucial role.

Your undergraduate years are the perfect time to establish within yourself the values and practices that promote success in research. This guide is designed to start you off on the right path.


Keep Your Enthusiasm

The attributes of open-mindednessflexibilityself-discipline, and enthusiastic persistence are required to successfully perform research work. Maintaining those attributes takes purposeful effort. Because research involves a quest for new knowledge, you’re going to be working on projects that deal with questions which don’t necessarily have an answer—or we’re not sure yet of the answer, which is why we’re working on it in the first place. So you need to be prepared to work on open-ended projects. It’s entirely possible that you will go down some dead ends, but if so, don’t fret. That is part of the process of discovery that all researchers go through; remind yourself of this fact when the going gets tough.

Remember: You Are a Student First

You need to remember that being a student researcher is just that: you are a student and a researcher. The student part cannot be diminished—your advisor should expect you to be working hard on classes, earning good grades, and making steady progress toward obtaining your degree. These goals are vital to properly balancing a successful undergraduate research experience. What good would it do you to accumulate research experience at the cost of jeopardizing your obtainment of the academic degrees that are essential credentials for your future research career?

That being said, we have found that students working in an active research group sometimes show improvements in GPA, and sometimes decreases in GPA. There’s no one “right way” to balance your research activities with coursework. Keep in mind that balancing your priorities is part of the learning experience. In fact, the balancing act you will learn to accomplish is integral to the entire research profession at all of its stages.


Become Adept at Time Management

The importance of possessing superior time-management skills to leading a successful research career cannot be overstated—and as an undergraduate researcher, now is the time to start cultivating those skills. Research uniquely juxtaposes the open-ended with the time-sensitive. Scientific experiments have to be meticulously planned and prepared ahead of time, and then executed with efficient, dexterous, and undistracted precision. Multimillion dollar research grants are planned and proposed two to five years in advance and then faithfully carried out. How do researchers manage these impressive feats of time management? The answer is found in the mundane yet critical personal habits of periodic goal setting, daily task scheduling, routine task prioritization, and regular accountability for how one’s time is spent.

Maintain Excellent Records

To be useful, knowledge must be shared—and that means you will eventually have to convince other experts in your discipline that the discoveries you made and the methods you used during your research, scholarship, and creative activities are reliable. This implies the need to keep complete and accurate records of what you did, how you did it, and what you learned from doing it as you work on your research from day to day. So don’t try to reinvent the wheel on record-keeping. As soon as possible, find out from research experts who have gone before you what the best ways are to keep solid research records.