Six important skills to become a succesful researcher

Today, I will discuss how to become a good researcher and what are the most important skills that a researcher should have. This blog post is aimed at young Master degree students and Ph.D students, to provide some useful advice to them.

1) Being humble and open to criticism

An important skill to be a good researcher is to be humble and to be able to listen to others. Even when a researcher works very hard and think that his/her project is “perfect”, there are always some flaws or some possibilities for improvement.

A humble researcher will listen to the feedback and opinions of other researchers on their work, whether this feedback is positive or negative, and will think about how to use this feedback to improve their work. A researcher that works alone can do an excellent work. But by discussing research with others, it is possible to get some new ideas. Also, when a researcher present his/her work to others, it is possible to better understand how people will view your work. For example, it is possible that other people will misunderstand your work because something is unclear. Thus, the researcher may need to make adjustments to his research project.

2) Building a social network

A second important thing to work on for young researchers is to try to build a social network. If a researcher has opportunities to attend international conferences, s/he should try to meet other students/professors to establish contact with other researchers. Other ways of establishing contact with other researchers are to send e-mails to ask questions or discuss research, or it could also be at a regional or national level by attending seminars at other universities.


Building a social network is very important as it can create many opportunities for collaborations. Besides, it can be useful to obtain a Ph.D position at another university (or abroad), a post-doctoral research position or even a lecturer position or professor position in the future, or to obtain some other benefits such as being invited to give a talk at another university or being part of the program committee of conferences and workshops. A young researcher has to often work by herself/himself. But he should also try to connect with other researchers.

For example, during my Ph.D. in Canada, I established contact with some researchers in Taiwan, and I then applied there for doing my postdoc. Then, I used some other contacts recently to find a professor position in China, where I then applied and got the job. Also, I have done many collaborations with other researchers that I have met at conferences.

3) Working hard, working smart

To become a good researcher, another important skill is to spend enough time on your project. In other words, a successful researcher will work hard. For example, it is quite common that good researchers will work more than 10 hours a day. But of course, it is not just about working hard, but also about working “smart”, that is a researcher should spend each minute of his time to do something useful that will make him/her advance toward his goals. Thus, working hard should be done also with a good planning.


When I was a MSc and Ph.D. student, I could easily work more than 12 hours a day. Sometimes, I would only take a few days off during the whole year. Currently, I still work very hard every day but I have to take a little it more time off due to having a family. However, I have gained in efficiency. Thus, even by working a bit less, I can be much more productive than I was a few years ago.

4) Having clear goals / being organized / having a good research plan

A researcher should also have clear goals. For a Ph.D or MSc student, this includes having a general goal of completing the thesis, but also some subgoals or milestones to attain his main goal. One should also try to set dates for achieving these goals. In particular, a student should also think about planning their work in terms of deadlines for conferences. It is not always easy to plan well. But it is a skill that one should try to develop.  Finally, one should also choose his research topic(s) well to work on meaningful topics that will lead to making a good research contribution.

5) Stepping out of the comfort zone

A young researcher should not be afraid to step out of his comfort zone. This includes trying to meet other researchers, trying to establish collaborations with other researchers, trying to learn new ideas or explore new and difficult topics, and also to study abroad.


For example, after finishing my Ph.D. in Canada, which was mostly related to e-learning, I decided to work on the design of fundamental data mining algorithms for my post-doctoral studies and to do this in Taiwan in a data mining lab. This was a major change both in terms of research area but also in terms of country. This has helped me to build some new connections and also to work in a more popular research area, to have more chance of obtaining a professor position, thereafter. This was risky, but I successfully made the transition. Then, after my postdoc I got a professor job in Canada in a university far away from my hometown. This was a compromise that I had to make to be able to get a professor position since there are very few professor positions available in Canada (maybe only 5 that I could apply for every year). Then, after working as a professor for 4 years in Canada, I decided to take another major step out of my comfort zone by selling my house and accepting a professor job at a top 9 university in China. This last move was very risky as I quit my good job in Canada where I was going to become permanent. Moreover, I did that before I actually signed the papers for my job in China. And also from a financial perspective I lost more than 20,000 $ by selling my house quickly to move out. However, the move to China has paid off, as in the next months, I  got selected by a national program for young talents in China. Thus, I now receive about 10 times the funding that I had in Canada for my research, and my salary is more than twice my salary as a professor in Canada, thus covering all the money that I had lost by selling my house. Besides, I have been promoted to full professor and will lead a research center. This is an example of how one can create opportunities in his career by taking risks.

6) Having good writing skills

A young researcher should also try to improve his writing skills. This is very important for all researchers, because a researcher will have to write many publications during his career. Every minute that one spends on improving writing skills will pay off sooner or later.

In terms of writing skills, there are two types of skills.

  • First, one should be good at writing in English without grammar and spelling errors.
  • Second, one should be able to organize his ideas clearly and write a well-organized paper (no matter if it is written in English or another language). For a student, is important to work to improve these two skills during their MSc and Ph.D studies.

These skills are acquired by writing and reading papers, and spending the time to improve yourself when writing (for example by reading the grammar rules when unsure about grammar).

Personally, I am not a native English speaker. I have thus worked hard during my graduate studies to improve my English writing skills.


In this brief blog post, I gave some general advice about important skills for becoming a successful researcher. I you think that I have forgotten something, please post it as a comment below.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor  and the founder of the open-source data mining software SPMF, offering more than 110 data mining algorithms. If you like this blog, you can tweet about it and/or subscribe to my twitter account @philfv to get notified about new posts.

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11 Responses to Six important skills to become a succesful researcher

  1. siri says:

    i want to start my phd in datamining.I dont know what topic i should select in this.please guide me .

  2. bindhia k f says:

    a good article which answers the questions in mind

  3. Tekinzang says:

    Good evening.

    I am a PhD student in Computer Science. I work on the systems of decision support. For the formal representation of knowledge, I use the logic of description. I read your article I would like to know if you can not recommend other articles as detailed as yours that will help me to better understand.

    Thank you

    • Hello,

      Glad that my article about description logics is useful. I have not been working on this topic for about 10 years. I am now working mostly on data mining algorithms. So I don’t know the latest papers related to description logics. But I know that it is not an easy topic to understand. When I was working on that topic, I learned a lot from the first two chapters of the “Description logics handbook”. Ten years ago, this was in my opinion one of the best introduction to description logics. Maybe there are some better papers now.

      Bon courage!


  4. Mehboob Hussain says:

    Hello Sir,
    I am going to start my Master in the area of could computing (task scheduling). I have no experience before about any research. Can you give me any advice or topic how to start from initial and carry it out?

    • Hello,
      The first step of research is to read recent papers in your field of research from top journals and conferences, and find some interesting research problem. For example, you could find some recent paper that you think you can improve. Then, after you have found a problem, you need to develop a solution, do some experiments, and finally you typically have to write some paper(s) and/or thesis about your research. This is the main idea. But actually, you should have a supervisor to support you in your research. Typically, you should not just do that by yourself. Someone should guide you at your university during all these steps.
      Best regards,

  5. lawrence forkwa says:

    hello sir
    I am a geography student. what can i do to become one of the top ranking researcher in my field of study, considering the competitive world we are in today.

    • Hi, thanks for reading the blog. I will not give you advice related to geography because I am working in computer science, but I will give you general advices that should apply to all fields.
      1) Work hard. To be a top ranking researcher, you need to work all the time for many years. Personally, during my graduate studies, I would take only a few days of rest every year (I am not kidding) and work maybe 10 to 12 hours a day for months. By working hard during graduate studies, I got good scholarships, published good papers. These papers then helped me to get a good post-doctoral researcher position, which help me to get a professor position, and then I continue working hard and moved to a better university and so on. Thus, you should always try to work more, an do more, not just pass the PhD or be satisfied with the minimum to pass. You should always try to do better.
      2) You should work on improving your writing style for writing papers, and improving your English if English is not your native language because writing papers is a key activity for researchers. In top journal or conferences, it is sometimes the way that you write that will make the difference between two excellent papers, and that your paper will be accepted instead of that of someone else.
      3) You should try to work with some top professors and find a research area that is important right now or promising. If you work on some research topic that nobody care about it will be hard to become very famous, or even to find a professor position. If you work with a famous professor, he can help you to get some good opportunities, and you may use his network of collaborators to introduce you to other good researchers, join committees, etc.
      4) As I said above, choosing a good topic is very important. You should choose a topic where you can write papers and be productive. Some topics are very hard and it is difficult to write papers, while other topics it is easier to write a paper more quickly. If you want to write many papers, you may choose a topic that is suitable for that.
      5 …

      This is just a few advices that I can think of quickly! Good luck 😉

  6. Abubakr says:

    Hello, I’m doing my Master Degree in China I don’t have any background in research and my field is in Information security, please give me some advice how to start?

    Thanks in advance. 谢谢你!

    • Hello, my field of research is not information security so I cannot give you any specific advices about that. But generally, the first step of research is to read papers from top conferences and journals to find a problem or define a new problem to solve. Normally your research advisor should help you in that step. Then after defining the problem, the next step is to find a solution and then to implement the solution (do some programming), and then do some experiments and write a paper about it 😉

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