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9 handy hints on how to become a successful researcher

26 April 2012

Picture this: After having successfully completed your Master’s, you decide you are ready for your academic career. Your student days are over; you are a researcher now! Everyone seems to know how to go about making the transition from student to researcher, but what about you?

Dr. Jennifer Spenader
Dr. Jennifer Spenader

The alarm clock wakes you up and a whole new day lies ahead of you. A day in which you will be able to work on your PhD for eight hours at a stretch! High-spirited you get started, a fresh pot of coffee at hand. But then you break into a sweat, asking yourself ’Where and how do I begin?’ Even worse, you suddenly start doubting whether you can actually write at all! And working from home, it is all too easy to let yourself get distracted by that bathroom that desperately needs cleaning. Result: by the end of the day you have accomplished nothing. Does this sound familiar?

Jennifer Spenader, assistant professor at Artificial Intelligence, is a true experience expert. She has read all about how to work more effectively, efficiently and therefore, more successfully. Getting your PhD within five years’ time? If you apply the tips below, this will be easily achievable.

Tip 1: Create a support group

Why not make your daily coffee break with your colleagues into a support group moment by not only discussing your plans for the weekend, but by also sharing your thoughts on your research.
Jennifer: “Regular contact with your voluntary support group allows you to further your research. Discussing the progress you are making means that you prioritize your research more, which, in turn, increases productivity.”

Bit by bit
Bit by bit

Tip 2: How to eat a chocolate elephant?

Exactly; one bite at a time.
Jennifer: “The same applies to writing. Writing is a process of one step at a time, but also of starting over and over again – the famous shitty first draft or draft zero. Dividing long pieces into small doable components is an enormous help. Consistently write for twenty-five minutes a day, and you will see that by the end of the month you will have eaten a large portion of your elephant! Another advantage of this way of working is that it is very effective. Because you keep on top of things, you need less warm-up time.”

Tip 3: Increase your clarity of thoughts

One of the pitfalls of working from home is that you easily get distracted by your surroundings. Jennifer: “This is certainly the case when you are completing a difficult and mentally demanding task. Suddenly it seems vital that you tidy your room, clean your bathroom or answer your emails. Yet, don’t do it! What you should do, is write these thoughts down on a notepad, every time you get distracted. You will find that you will have made good progress by the end of the day, and that what you have written down on your notepad no longer seems important.”

Tip 4: Increase your clarity of thoughts, part two

To optimize your concentration levels, it is important that you create an atmosphere that suits you. Jennifer: “Make use of everything that helps you to get into the writing mood; coffee, ginseng, special music – personally, I benefit from listening to Simeon ten Holt – or aromatherapy, it doesn’t matter. You could, for example, create your own CD with background music to work to. There’s one condition, however; don’t use it as a way to postpone sitting down to work.”

Let the pomodoro give you a hand in achieving your goals.
The Pomodoro Technique®

Tip 5: The pomodoro technique

Work with a timer at hand. Jennifer: “I’m a competitive person and I especially like competing with myself. Therefore, when I sit down to write, I set myself a time limit. In twenty-five minutes I must write as many words as I can. After a five minute break, I write for another twenty-five minutes, in which I aim to write even more words than before. This technique, which is called the pomodoro technique (handy apps are available!), is all about dividing your workload in manageable time slots, with five minute breaks in between.”

Tip 6: Enhance your relationship

Your relationship with your colleagues, that is. Once you have established a bond with your colleagues, you can read each other’s work and exchange feedback. Jennifer: “I have learned a lot from reading the work of others. And every day, to practice writing, you can write about what you have read. Even if these are only short pieces, you will find that you will get better at it.”

Tip 7: You can do better!

You can indeed do better, and the good thing is, it all comes from within yourself! Jennifer: “Before becoming a PhD-student, I worked in Sweden for a company called Telia, writing my Master’s thesis. At one point, I had the opportunity to vie for a trip abroad, all expenses covered, to attend an interesting talk. In order to win, I had to write an article. My first draft was rejected by my supervisor, as were my second and my third drafts. With each draft I handed in, my supervisor commented: “You can do better.” Finally, my fourth draft was accepted! Apparently, prompted by my supervisor’s comments that I could do better, I had found an inner strength to improve myself, which was a huge boost for my

Tip 8: Prioritize your research

Write it down in your diary, and stick to it! Jennifer: “Approach your research as if it were a teaching position; you can’t skip giving a lecture because there are students waiting for you, counting on you to be there. So no matter how busy you are, you will of course give that lecture. Apply the same rule to your research. Just do it.”

Tip 9: Adopt a realistic view on time

Jennifer: “Many people don’t have a clue how long it will take them to complete a certain task. Yet, working on schedule and planning ahead only succeeds if you are aware of exactly that, and of how you can use your time effectively. So be realistic about time!”

Jennifer recommends

Belcher, Wendy.
Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success
'This is currently my favorite book on the article writing process! Highly recommended.'

Sylvia, Paul J.
How to Write a Lot
'Short and sweet! Very good motivational manual, advice about writing, productivity, etcetera.'

Last modified:07 August 2018 2.46 p.m.

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