Becoming a Successful Researcher

Your undergraduate years are the perfect time to establish in yourself the values and practices that promote success in research. This guide is designed to start you off on the right path.

Adopt the Right Mindset

Keep Your Enthusiasm

The attiutudes of open-mindendess, flexibility, self-discipline, and enthusiastic persistence are required to successfully perform research work. Maintaining those attitudes takes purposeful effort on your part. Because research involves a quest for knowledge, you’re going to be working on projects that deal with questions which don’t necessarily have answers—or we’re not sure yet what the answers are, which is why we’re conducting research in the first place. So you need to be prepared to work on open-ended projects. It’s entirely possible that you will go down some dead ends, but, if so, don’t worry. That is part of the process of discovery that all researchers go through; remind yourself of this fact when the going gets tough.

Remember: You Are a “Student First”

You need to remember that being a student researcher is just that: You are a student first, and a researcher second. The student part cannot be diminished—your advisor should expect you to be working hard on classes, earning good grades, and making steady progress toward obtaining your degree. These goals are vital to properly balancing a successful undergraduate research experience. What good would it do you to accumulate research experience at the cost of jeopardizing obtaining your academic degree? Degrees are typically essential credentials for your future research career, if that’s what you choose.

We have found that students involved in an active research group sometimes show improvements in the GPA, and sometimes decreases in GPA. There’s no one “right” way to balance your research activities with coursework, but keep in mind the balancing of your priorities is all part of the learning experience. In fact, finding a balance is integral to the entire research profession at all of its stages.

Adopt the Right Habits

Become Adept at Time Management

The importance to researchers of possessing superior time-management skills cannot be overstated—and as an undergraduate researcher, now is the time to start cultivating those. Research uniquely juxtaposes the open-ended with the time-sensitive. Scientific experiments have to be meticulously planned and prepared ahead of time, and then executed with efficient, dextrous, and undistracted precision. Multi-million-dollar research grants are planned and proposed two to five years in advance, and then faithfully carried out. How do researchers manage these impressive feats of time management? The answer is found in the mundane but critical personal habits of periodic goal setting, daily task scheduling, routine task prioritization, and regular accountability for how one’s time is spent.

Maintain Excellent Records

To be useful, knowledge must be shared, and that means you will eventually have to convince other experts in your discipline that the discoveries you have made and the methods you used during your research, scholarship, and creative activities are reliable. This implies the need to keep complete and accurate records of what you did, how you did it, and what you learned from doing it as you work on your research from day to day. So don’t try to reinvent the wheel on record-keeping—as soon as possible, find out from current, successful research experts what the best ways are to to keep solid research records.