How to Get on the Road to Research

So you’ve made up your mind, you’re going to start a graduate research project! You’ve secured a supervisor doing amazing work in a particular field, met your group members, settled down in your exciting new environment. Now the real fun begins, in which you try to make your mark in academia. But where do you begin? Entering the world of research for the first time can be a daunting process, with challenging problems that need to be solved in spite of time and resource constraints. It’s definitely not for everyone, but it is definitely a rewarding and beneficial experience.

This article was written in collaboration with Tsai Yu-Lin, a Taiwanese PhD candidate at the Kyoto University in Japan. His greatest wish is to turn chemistry into common sense! Contact him via email or Facebook if you would like to get in touch. We are delighted to welcome him as part of our ongoing effort to engage collaborators to share their thoughts and ideas, as that’s what science is all about!

Author’s Note: As I approached the completion of my undergraduate degree, I was definitely unsure of how research worked and the expectations that were required of me going forward. This resulted in a bit of confusion as I learned the ropes and how to handle my newfound freedom as I set out to do some proper research. Looking back, I think what would have benefited me greatly was some simple guidance as I transitioned from routine, scheduled lectures to the erratic and unpredictable world of research. Guidance and advice that this article aims to provide!

The World of Research

Within the intense, fast-paced world of research, time is an extremely precious commodity (as cliche as that may sound). We are expected to hit the ground running as fast as possible, diving headfirst into a complex endeavor that is a research project, all while remaining efficient with our time and resources. For someone just starting out, being thrust into such a daunting environment may seem like a very difficult proposition. Compared with their professors or supervisors, they may feel that they are lacking in experience or knowledge.

However, this knowledge, while beneficial, is not exactly essential to effective research. Engaging in successful scientific research requires having a true direction of your research topic, coupled with a good method to comply in order to have the highest efficiency results. By utilizing a methodical and well-planned approach to problem-solving, we can achieve our goals in the shortest time possible. We will introduce to the reader some research methods and techniques, in the hopes that it will help those who are interested in academic research.

An Ancient Chinese proverb translates into, ‘half the work, twice the effect’. It means that we can choose to focus our resources in order to maximize cost-effectiveness. However, we’re not research-robots, but human beings with real needs and emotions. At some point during our research program, our motivation and inspiration levels are bound to take a hit. This article aims to provide an overview of what to expect when undertaking a research project, along with some useful advice – both academic and personal.

Motivation – The Driving Force

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No matter what you do, there is always a driving force behind what you want to achieve – that’s motivation. No matter what the source of your motivation is, be sure to understand from the very beginning that having a purpose to your research is paramount. A research program is a marathon, with challenges around every corner. It is therefore important to keep your purpose in mind, to prevent you from being discouraged or distracted. If you don’t have an end-goal in mind, graduate research might not be for you.

Sources of Motivation

Some individuals who engage in research work can go to the point of neglecting sleep and forgetting about food. These people are immersed in their research, so much so that their commitment to research surpasses any other need. Though this is an extreme (and unhealthy) example, it goes without saying that these individuals were born to pursue research. If you believe that the pursuit of knowledge can cultivate such a strong level of interest in yourself, then you will find that your research will yield more results over a sustained period of time!

Companies the pharmaceutical, semiconductor, and engineering industries usually hire staff to conduct commercial research. This is the goal of many graduate students, to have the security and benefits of working for a company while fulfilling their love of science and study. Such companies generally pay well, while allowing individuals to practice skills picked up over the course of a research program. However, it is important to remember that whether developing new products or new technologies, the main goal of companies is solely the commercialization of research results for the company’s business benefits.

When Not to Engage in Graduate Research

Many students first get a taste of research in undergraduate research or Honors programs, which usually last for a few months to a year. While it may be shorter than a Masters or Ph.D. program, it is a decent representation of what lies in store if they do choose to go down that route. If an individual feels disenchanted by the prospect of research after completion of the short stint, it is extremely unlikely that he/she will enjoy joining a graduate research program.

It is important to understand that motivation is such a key factor in whether or not your research will succeed. Good career counselors generally advise students against joining graduate programs simply because ‘it’s the next logical step after graduation’ or ‘I want an advanced degree’. More often than not, academic life can be more stressful than working in the industry. Without the right motivational factors, the course of a graduate degree program can be a painful one.

Research – What You Can Expect

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There are several types of research work, such as to verify the exactness of a theory, realizing the value of scientific theory through real-world applications, or solving purely fundamental problems. Regardless of what your research type is, you should have the spirit of a scientist – that is, creating value for humanity and future generations. That being said, research can be broken down into several components.

Preparation and Review

Preparation is key to any project. If, for example, we would like to develop a new drug, we must first determine the precursor chemicals, how to obtain them, whether these chemicals are allowed to be brought into the country, the cost of said chemicals, the required instruments, how ‘green’ the reaction is, any by-products that could be produced, the list goes on…

Another key factor is to confirm if this new product, method or idea will positively impact the scientific community, compared to existing schemes. Comprehensive literature reviews must be performed to prevent publishing something that has already been studied in the past, which would be a major setback if a significant amount of time was already spent. Of course, there are many other factors that are not mentioned, but this is enough to show that starting a research project requires fulfilling many conditions.

Realization

The realization of a research goal will take up the majority of your time and energy in a graduate research program. Sometimes progress will be smooth, but challenges and hurdles will present themselves all too often. It is important not to be bogged down with achieving the final goal, but take every small success as encouragement that progress is being made. Even when things don’t go right, or a mistake is made, it is all part of the learning process.

Most research carried out by academia is funded as long-term investments into improving current processes or products. Though more freedom is generally afforded in academia when compared to industry research, the success of a project is still measured in terms of realizing a ‘real-world’ goal. This might be the optimization of the manufacturing process, a more effective drug, a new technique to image cells. Even so-called ‘basic’ or ‘blue sky’ theoretical research is performed in the hope that it will one day have real-world applications.

Communication

In general, learning how to conduct research as well as communicating findings through written reports are necessary for all graduate programs. It is equally important to be competent at communication as it is the research itself; it is necessary to get the public interested in research, as they are the ones who provide the majority of funding. Nowadays, many universities have dedicated science communication teams that ‘translate’ their research papers and ideas to share with the general public through news websites and social media.

Communication is important in the search for potential collaborators with new ideas, who may try to apply your findings to other conditions or circumstances. For example, in the field of pharmaceuticals, if we manage to synthesize a new drug for some disease, another may then try to apply the treatment to another disease, discovering new medicinal properties. Collaboration is key to the improvement of science!

Essentials – The Small Stuff

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There are a lot of tips to make research work, but we have compressed the bulk of it into the following three points. Keep them in the back of your mind as you go about your work, they are bound to help!

Focus

When watching someone’s presentation or reading a journal paper, it is important to be able to zone in on the emphasis and research information that the speaker or author wants to convey. As such, we can learn from existing research situations and summarize the methods and effects that have been put forward from the relevant references. In a world of countless seminars and papers (too many for a single lifetime!), a clear mind free from distractions will help with quickly understanding your field of research.

If you work in a laboratory or even at your desk, it can be easy to be distracted by external factors. One way to prevent this is to ensure a clean and neat workspace that is conducive to being productive, while also ensuring that whatever you need isn’t hidden under mountains of rubbish. Others like to maintain an area that is dedicated to working, such that the brain learns to tune out noises and other distractions when you’re in the zone. Do whatever works to keep yourself focused!

Keep it Simple

We can see from the papers published in well-known journals, such as Nature, Science, Cell, etc., that many of them contain a relatively simple experimental method and precise experimental design. The best ideas are usually the simplest ones. While publishing in a top journal can be challenging, understanding your research should not be. It is important to be able to convey ideas clearly, with as little jargon as possible.

Additionally, one must always conduct honest research experiments with verifiable and reproducible results. Good research groups will insist on a second person verification before results are sent to a journal for review. Honesty is the cornerstone of research; there should be no compromising the integrity of your results or stretching the scientific truth. Your work matters and the science you publish will have consequences – good or bad.

Inspiration

Many people often complain that they have trouble formulating the next steps for their research – a common, but frustrating, situation. Go outside, take a walk, meet people. Cliche advice maybe, but you’ll be surprised how much research takes place away from your lab bench! Sometimes we simply need to take a step back to reset before we attack a problem, which often gives us a new perspective and new ideas for a potential solution. It’s never a bad idea to take a break and to give yourself some breathing space, especially when we start feeling overwhelmed. The road to research is undoubtedly a bumpy ride!

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