…excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”, Aristotle has said. Being an excellent researcher then amounts to habitually doing excellent research. A prerequisite of doing excellent research is to do research effectively. Even the famed, and idealized, eureka! moment scientists occasionally (are supposed to) have is based on sound foundations acquired through searching, reading, researching, thinking, testing, and integrating new scientific developments with extant knowledge already accumulated. But how to get there? I don’t know – I’m only studying to become an excellent scientist.
Besides the aforementioned list of activities, I occasionally browse the Internet and procrastinate by reading how to write a thesis, improve the English grammar and word use, plan activities to avoid unemployment, the PhD comic, and more of those type of suggestions that don’t help me with the topic itself (granularity) but these topics are about how to do things.
Serendipity, perhaps, it was that brought me to an essay by Michael Nielsen, entitled “Principles of effective research” . I summarise it here briefly, but it would be better if you read the 12 pages in full.
The first section is about integrating research into the rest of your life. So, unlike narratives and jokes that tell you its normal to not have a life as a PhD student or researcher, this would be the wrong direction to go or stage to be at. Be fit, have fun.
The principles of personal behaviour to achieve effective research are proactivity, vision, and self-discipline. Don’t abdicate responsibility, and be accountable to other people. Vision does not apply to where you think your research field will be in 20 years, but where do you want to be then, what sort of researcher do you want to be, which areas are you interested in (etc)? Have clear for yourself what you want to achieve, why, and how.
Regarding the research itself, self-development and the creative process are important. But focusing on self-development only is not ok, because then one fails to make a contribution to the community which viability and success depends on input from scientists (among others). On the other hand, keeping on organizing workshops, conferences, doing reviewing etc leaves little time for the self-development and creative process of doing research to make scientific contributions. That is, one should strive for a balance of the two.
Self-development includes developing research strengths, your ‘niche’ with a unique combination of abilities to get a comparative advantage. Emerging disciplines, mostly interdisciplinary, are a nice mess to sort out, for instance. Then, read the 10 seminal contributions in the other field as opposed to skimming several hundred mediocre articles that are fillers of the conferences or journals. (This doesn’t sound particularly friendly, but if I take bioinformatics or the ontologies hype as examples, there are quite a lot of articles that don’t add new ideas [but more descriptions of yet more software tools] and interdisciplinary articles are known to be not easy to review, hence more articles with confused content fall through the cracks and make it into archived publications.) A high-quality research environment helps.
Concerning the creative process, this depends on if you’re a problem-solver or a problem-creator, with each requiring specific skills. The former generally receives more attention, because there are so many things unknown and then figuring out how/what/why it works gives sought-for answers, technologies, or methodologies. Problem-creators, on the other hand, generate new work so to speak; by asking interesting questions, reformulating old nigh unsolvable problems in a new way, or showing connections nobody has thought of before. Read Nielsen’s article for details on the suggested skills set for each type.
Wishing you good luck with all this, then, is inappropriate, as luck does not seem to have much to do with becoming an effective researcher. So, go forth, improve your habits, and reap what you sow.
 Nielsen, M.A. Principles of effective research. July 27th , 2004.