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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33 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. I am really so happy to read such an amazing article, your blog bost inspires me a lot. thank you so much.

  4. Elif says:

    M a beginner and I wanna go internationally present my research .. Please give me some suggestion to make myself best.Thanks

    • Hi, thanks for writing comments on the blog. There is a lot of things that I could say. But I think the most important is the following:
      (1) be patient and work hard… then success will eventually come if you never give up and keep working every day
      (2) keep learning and try to improve your weaknesseses (e.g. some people may want to improve their English, their writing skills, their Math, their programming skills, etc.). Always try to improve
      (3) surround yourself with people who have more experience and can guide and help you. As a researcher, that means to join a good university, research team, have a good supervisor, or having good collaborators.
      (4) try to manage your time well. Dont waste your time on what is not important. Focus on what is really important and calculate the time that you need to spend for what you choose to do versus what you will get from it.


      That is what comes to my mind

      Regards,

  5. Manyiel Majier Manyiel says:

    Hi, I am currently doing my undergraduate research and I’m finding it hard to do it on my own. Is there a way you can help me.

    • Hi thanks for reading the blog. I appreciate that you leave a comment. Unfortunately, I am very busy with even my own projects and students that I do not have much time to help other people outside of my students. But you will find a lot of articles on my blog that gives some good advices about research. You may read them to learn some things 😉

  6. Sherzod says:

    Why do you write about “Becoming a better Researcher” topic a lot, and why did you become a reseacher yourself? By this i wanna get your internal sight and your life’s passion…

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. There are several reasons why I choose to become a researcher in academia. First, it allows me to have a lot of freedom on the work that I want to do. I can choose to work on some topics that are quite theoretical and may not have a direct application in the industry. Second, working in academia allow me to not have a lot of pressure on my shoulders from other people compared to working in a business where your boss may tell you what to do and give you tight deadlines. I think that it is better for my personality type to be working in academia and to manage my time and be my own boss than to work in the industry. Third, being a researcher allow me to work on state-of-the-art technology and gives me the time to dive deeply into some difficult problems to find complex solutions… I satisfy my curiosity by learning complex things and I like the challenge of solving the hard problems… Of course, this is not for everyone. But I enjoy this. Fourth, there are some other benefits in academia like having a flexible schedule (even before the pandemic, I could spend a lot of time working from home), and travelling for conferences (which I enjoy a lot). … I think that’s it. But overall, I would say that being a researcher is not suitable for everyone. You need to really like doing this.

  7. FAHAD says:

    Thanks a lot for al information’s above and really I benefits a lot

  8. ROTSY says:

    Thanks for this interesting blog, how helpful it is in writing my personal statement and it gives me the willing to improve myself in what I do.

  9. Ng says:

    Thank you for your post.
    I am a PhD student but I have never published a paper. I have recently just picked an area of research but have yet to come up with a specific topic of research. I have attended a conference only once and feel quite inadequate.
    How do I build a social network when I am a bit out of my league?

    • Hi, thanks for reading the blog. To become a successful researcher, it takes time.. So don’t be discouraged. It takes quite some time to find a good topic in a research area and to get familiar with it to then make your own contributions. About building a social networks, a good thing is to first start by discussing with other students in your university to exchange ideas and know what they are doing. You may also talk with them about how they are doing their research, how they manage their time and so on. This can be helpful and you will see that you are not alone. Many students are in the same situation as you when doing the PhD… They may find it hard at the begining etc. About academic conferences, when attending academic conference, it is easy to feel overwhelmed as there are maybe many senior researchers that maybe seem to know so much more than you. But I would recommend to continue to attend conferences when you can to get familiar with how it works. At conference, may first make friends with some other students, and eventually maybe know some other researchers or professors (but this is a bit harder). For your PhD topic, you may also try to invite some external collaborators to your project. For example, you may invite some foreign professors to participate in your paper by sending e-mail to them to see if they can contribute (but of course you should talk with your supervisor about this first). You may also have a supervisor and a co-supervisor in another university. This will let you know more people. There are many things that you can do!

      Best regards,

  10. Pingback: The Hard Road to Success in Academia | The Data Mining Blog

  11. Lankarie Chamoda says:

    Wow…thank you so much for suchgreat ideas. I am going to start my undergraduate research. I want to be a good researcher. I am sure I will enjoy it.
    I am really happy to read this. I got a lot of ideas from this.

  12. Very good advice. Thank you Dr. Philippe Fournier-Viger
    I hope one day I can have a project with you!

  13. LJ says:

    Hi,
    Thank you so much for your great post. I am a MSc student and I’ve been working on my thesis (about signal processing) for about 1 year. But I haven’t found the most appropriate tool and method for my purpose yet and I still feel confused and a little lost in it. Is it normal?
    I’m trying my best to work hard and I put all my day long for researching, reading papers and studying about the subject but I think my output is not satisfying. I don’t know what’s wrong. Could you please help me with this?

    • Dear student,

      I am sorry to answer with some delay. I did not check the comments for a little while due to a very busy schedule recently.
      I will try to answer your question. First, I would like to say that many students feel lost at some point during their degree for the master or PhD degree. This is quite common and can happen for many reasons. The first one is that you are doing something new (research), and identifying something interesting that is new requires to have a good knowledge about the literature and also to be able to identify what is interesting which requires research experiene. This is not easy for a student that is starting, so the supervisor should play a role in guiding the student towards the right path. But in practice, supervisors are often very busy and do not have so much time to guide the student. Thus, a student may think that s/he is alone to do the research and may spent some time wandering on some things that maybe at not important or may not be very efficent (and he may not actually realize it).
      I think a good solution is to ask for a meeting with your supervisor… or even better to ask if there could be a short weekly meeting with your supervisor so that he can better track your progress and guide you in the right direction. That usually can help a student a lot. I know several famous professors who have a strict schedule like this of meeting each student for a short amount of time every week. But this works only if your supervisor is not very busy and he is interested to do that…

      Personally, for master degree students, I do not expect them to come up with something very innovative by themselves. That is why I try to supervise them closely. But during the PhD, a student should become more and more independent and at the end of the PhD, a person should be able to carry research by himself (all the steps from finding a good project, getting funding to carrying it if needed). So, I would not worry too much about not being so effective as a master degree students. At this stage of your career, there are still many things to learn… The good thing is that you are working hard. In the end if you are very motivated and work hard, you will definitely improve and become better and better.

      If your supervisor is not available, you may also try to discuss ideas with other students or researchers that you may know at your university and talk with them about your approach to research. Sometimes, you can learn something by seeing how other people are working or by getting advices from other people about your working methods!

      Best regards,

      Philippe

      • LJ says:

        Thank you so much. I appreciate the time you took to answer me.
        Yes, It is true, my supervisor is supper busy and I can’t expect him to help me with finding a good method. He also thinks highly of me and he always wants me to be the best. Thank you for giving me hope about getting better.
        I actually read some of your other posts on data mining. One of them was about pattern mining techniques, in which techniques to find the patterns in timeseries was helpful for me. I wonder if you have any other posts or information about finding a pattern between two related timeseries? I mean to find out how the changes in the values of one timeseries is affecting or relating to other timeseries?
        Thanks again.

        Best regards,
        LJ

        • Dear LJ,

          Nice to read your message. It is great that your supervisor thinks highly of you. Having a good relationship with the supervisor and feeling appreciated is important.

          Glad you liked the post about pattern mining techniques. There are many ways of dealing with time series.

          To find patterns in time series, a first solution is to apply some algorithm like SAX to transform the time series into a sequence of symbols like A,B,A,C,D,A… Then when the time series has this form, it is possible to apply the traditional pattern mining algorithms that can find patterns in sequences of symbols. For a single sequence of symbols like A,B,A,A,C,D it is possible to apply for example episode mining algorithm or others like periodic pattern mining algorithms etc. If you have multiple sequences (time series transformed into symbols), then you could sequential pattern mining where the goal is to find subsequences that are common to multiple sequences. There are also many other possibilities like contrast pattern mining to find patterns that are different between two types of sequences, etc.

          The second way is to try to extract patterns directly from the time series without first converting it to symbols. For example, some approach in recent years has been to use shapelet mining. A shapelet is a small shape that appears in a time series. By doing shapelet mining we can find some patterns that are shapes. Using this approach, it is not necessary to transform the time series into symbols before searching for patterns.

          Which approach is better ? I think it depends on your application…
          It is also possible to design a custom approach for your problem if you do not find exactly what you want.

          Best regards,

          Philippe

  14. Namanya Sandrah says:

    Thanks a lot Doctor for the good advice, though am new in this but my dream is to be a good and smart researcher. Have just started working on this journey of being a researcher.

  15. While traveling from home back to the institution where I am busy with my studies, I came across this article. I must say that I am am blessed, because now I know how much effort I must put to advance my research skills.

    Thank you.

  16. Krishna Hasanthi Wellappili says:

    I am doing a research on using community based leadership approach to create a demand driven cattle/buffalo vaccination programme in rural areas of Sri Lanka.I am a MSc student in Hiroshima University,Japan

  17. Grace kagemuro says:

    The post was amazing. But how can I get connected with abroad reseachers?

    • Hi, you may connect on LinkedIn or send e-mails to some researchers to ask them some questions or invite them to collaborate to your work. Also if you have a chance to participate to international conferences, you can try to talk with other researchers during such events.

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