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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Conclusion

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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27 Responses to Six important skills to become a succesful researcher

  1. siri says:

    hello,
    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 http://www.philippe-fournier-viger.com/description_logics/introduction_logiques_de_description.html. 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!

      Philippe

  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 😉

  7. Abdulrahman kamara says:

    Please I want to be a good researcher can you please guide me on how I should achieve it

    • Hi,
      1) Work hard everyday. And spend your time on what is important.
      2) Learn to read and write well in English. And learn how to write a research paper by looking at the structure of top papers. Writing is a very IMPORTANT skill for a researcher.
      3) If possible, work with a good supervisor.
      4) Find a good research project that has something novel, and is not too difficult and can allow you to publish papers.
      5) To become a good researchers, you will need to write many papers and do research for several years.
      6) Try to publish papers in good conferences and journal. Do not publish in the unknown conferences or journals. If you are in computer science, try to only publish in Springer, ACM, Elsevier and IEEE journals and conferences, or similar good publishers. Other unknown conferences and journals have almost no value when your CV will be evaluated by international researchers. Thus, only focus on the good publishers and try to aim at good publications
      7) Try to collaborate with other researchers and students to write more papers by collaborating with other people.

      This is my basic suggestions.

      Best regards,

  8. Jhalak Jain says:

    Hello Sir,
    Your article is really very insightful for would-be researchers.
    But , kindly guide me how I can develop my Writing skills along with Research skills?

    • Hello,
      Great that you like the article and thanks for commenting on the blog.
      To improve you writing skills, you need to write papers and also to spend time to do it well. When you write a paper, if you are not sure about how to write something in terms of English, you should always look up for the grammar rules or check online for the proper way to use the words. You should also check the dictionary if needed and look up for synonyms to avoid always reusing the same words. Basically, you need to spend time to think about how you write, rather than just writing a paper quickly to finish it as fast as possible. This is very important for improving yourself because when you look up a grammar rule, then you will remember it. You can also check a word co-location dictionary to see which word should be used with a given word. Or if you are not sure if a part of sentence is correct, you can search some part of the sentence in Google Books or Google Scholar to see if other people are also writing it in the same way as you or if another way is more common.
      Also, after you finish writing you can ask someone else with more experience to read your paper and check what modifications he makes to your paper to learn from it. Besides, the more you will read papers, the more you will know how a research paper is typically written. There are some sentences structure that always appear in research papers. The more you read, the better you will know how to write.
      You could also take a course or read about technical writing on the internet of from some book. There are some books that explain how to write a paper. I cannot remember the names of these books. But when I was a master degree student, I bought such a book… It was more or less useful but it contained many rules about how NOT to write a paper and how to write a paper.
      Hope this comment is useful 😉 To summarize, you need to spend the time to focus on improving your skill.

  9. Atiq ur rahman says:

    Sir I am student of economic and finance
    Sir I want to be a good researcher but I don’t how I can achieve my goal

    • Hi, The first important thing is to work in a good team and with good people. Try to collaborate. Then, you need to find a good topic and work hard, and spend the time on what is really important, and don’t waste time on things that are not important. Just some advices.

  10. ansam says:

    Sir,
    Iam biologist and i want to be a good research assistant ,but i don’t know how can i do it?!

    • Hello, generally, a good advice is to surround you with people who are successful and ask the good people around you for advices related to how to perform in your field (biology). Then, after that, you need to work hard and manage your time well to work on what is important for your career. Each day has 24 hours, and maybe you can only work 10 hours in a day, so managing time is key. Then also work on building relationships.

  11. Stella says:

    Hi Sir, thanks for your very helpful article. I am a PhD in Economics. My native language is Chinese and I really want to translate your article as well as some of your replies into Chinese, for I think it would benefit more researchers in China. I will post the translated article with the link to your article in my blog and this is totally free for readers. However, before that, I need to have your agreement.
    Thanks anyway, for the illuminating article.

    • Hi, Sure. I agree that you translate that article and replies to that article by providing a link to the original article. 😉 However, if you want to translate more than one article, then please let me know 😉 Glad to know you are from China. I am working at HIT in Shenzhen.

      Best regards,
      Philippe

  12. Gud evening Sir, am an undergraduate student of Department of Library and information Science. Sir my question is; please sir is there any database that was design specifically for Library Science collection? if not, Why? if Yes how where can I locate it? thankk you Sir.

    Yoursfaithful site follower.

  13. OBOI DEO says:

    Sir, I recently graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Development Studies and am so much interested in becoming a good researcher. But I have no finance to pursue degree of masters, how will I keep my hope of becoming a researcher a live. Am Oboi Deo from Uganda.

    • Yes, I understand, money is a constraint. You could always try to work for a few years to accumulate some money. Another possibility is that some people work part-time during their studies but it is not so easy. There also exists some part-time master degree programs or online master degree programs but you would have to check the price. So I think it is a matter of finding a cheap master program, and making some plan to save money or work if you want to do the further studies. Hope everything goes well.

      best regards

  14. Elvis says:

    Hello Sir, I want to become a researcher but I have no educational background, how can I become a good researcher?

    • Hello, Thanks for reading the blog. Normally, a researcher is trained by going to university and doing a bachelor degree and then a master degree and a PhD. Why? Typically, during the bachelor degree, one will learn the fundamental knowledge from a field. Then during a master degree and PhD, the student will join a team of researchers and will be mentored by a senior researcher who will guide him about how to do research properly and how to write research papers. During the master degree and PHD, one learns how to read state-of-the-art research papers and contribute with new research ideas. Doing this is not trivial, and typically, it requires at least 4 years after the undergraduate degree. Being a researcher requires to develop multiple skills : (1) how to find good research topics, (2) how to write well technical papers describing research, (3) how to conduct research, etc.
      Usually, all researchers go to university. There are a few exceptions. I know some mathematicians for example that have made contributions to mathematics but have never attended university. But this is an exception and I think that few people can do it. Actually, when doing a master degree or PHD one should choose a good research team to learn from excellent researchers and collaborate with other researchers. In that way, one can learn much more quickly and avoid doing some basic mistakes. Best regards,

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