What is academic research all about? This is a question that I keep asking myself, frequently so. From whatever research experience I have, I have come to realise that there are three major components that determine the quality of research one gets to do (or atleast the one I get to do): working, networking and not-working. Working: Because if you are a researcher, you have got to do research. Networking: Because you need collaborators, mentors and reveiwers to do good research. Not-working: Because you are a human, and you need rest no matter how much you think you don’t.
All of us possess different working styles. A particular working style might suit some, and turn out to be completely ridiculous for others. What I present in this blog post is from my personal experience of being a researcher. Within each of the major components that I mention above, I list and shortly describe the sub-components that fall under them. The whole post is intentionally designed to be modular to (hopefully) get the message straight.
As a researcher, a big chunk of your time is going to be naturally invested in working on your research problem(s). Working comprises of: Planning, reading, thinking, writing, researching and talking.
Plan your days, your weeks, your months and your years. Set long and short term goals and work towards meeting them. Be specific and detailed when it comes to setting goals. Assess your goals frequently. You should appropriately allocate time for each of the components (and sub-components) mentioned in this post. Pour your tasks out in a daily diary (online or offline). Once you have everything out, you would be easily able to navigate through tasks. Then you can assign times on your calender for each of the tasks. Planning also gives you some ‘me time’ to introspect and evaluate anything and everything.
Read, read a lot. Read things that are related to your work, read things that aren’t. Spend at least 45 min everyday to read non-work related stuff, like a blog or a book or a paper from a perpendicular field. Try to draw connections to your work. Reading opens your mind to new ideas for your research. I spend my time reading things on Twitter
I believe to be able to just sit and think is a luxury. And if you can afford to do it, do it. Thinking is a virtue. Spend a good one hour or more to think about your work related ideas. Spend at least 30 mins thinking about ideas, abstract or otherwise, related to your work or not. Just think. Thinking can be done anywhere and costs nothing. Thinking helps you in planning, choosing what to read and write next, and whom to go talk to next. Thinking is the backbone of the whole research process.
Write down your thoughts, ideas, experiments, anything and everything. Keep a handy diary, digital or otherwise. Create mind maps of your reserach ideas or the literature for your work. Write to plan. Write to communicate your ideas. The more you do it, the better you would become at it. You don’t have to allocate time to writing on a daily basis (except planning), however, make it a point to write often.
Researching: coding, writing math, ideating, logging
Spend at least five hours everyday to do one or more of: coding, writing math, ideating and/or logging results. This would ensure you are moving forward on a daily basis, no matter how small the improvement looks. Do something. Do and fail, but do. Take breaks while you do these. Follow Pomodoro technique or anything that fits you. Get up every half an hour from your desk and stretch.
Talk to your pears and advisors. Become good at verbally communicating your ideas and concerns. Find some go-to people to ask doubts. Talk in an elavator, talk while walking for lunch. Talk whenever you ‘can’.
As a researcher, it is extremely important to think independently, and to generate ideas without biases. But, what is also important is to share your ideas. Sharing your ideas and products can be of tremendous help to you, and others. It can help you obtain clarity on your ideas. It can also help you spot potential pit-falls early on.
Attend conferences and workshops. Listen to talks and tutorials. Meet and talk to some A+ people you can’t get to talk to on a daily basis. Make a note of ideas and methods. Find people you can work with. Good collaborators are an amazing way to grow professionally.
Internships are an amazing way to get acquainted with the state-of-the art in science and technology. Do both academic and industrial internships.
As important as it is to work, it is to not-work. Not-working comprises of: sleeping, eating, exercising, meditating and spending time with your family and friends. What I want to emphasise through this component is that unwinding is important, as important as working proably. It is better to realize that sooner than later.
Find out what is the optimal number of hours you need to sleep to go about your day efficiently. For me it is seven hours. It can be different for you, do try to find out and stick to those many hours of sleep.
Eat helthy, eat well. Eat fruits, fresh and dry. Again optimize for the times and the quantity you need to eat. I go crazy in empty stomach. So, I need to eat probably 4 times a day, you can try to find what works best for you.
Exercising and Meditating
Exercising keeps both your body and mind healthy. Run, swim, play badminton or do anything. Try to incorporate exercising in your daily routine. Exercising keeps me active. Additionally, do meditation. Even if it is for 10 minutes per day, do it. I can not list all the benifits of meditation here, but it has helped me become more calm and level-headed.
Spend time with family and friends
Love your work, love your family and friends as well. These are the people you can fall back to, no matter what. And trust me there will be times in your research career where you would need people, and need them badly. So, it is important to have a healthy niche group of ‘your’ people.
Being pedantic and following each of the sub-components listed above can be tough. It is tough for me as well. However, I try my best to find balance between working, networking and not-working.