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This question could also be read as : As a professional researcher, you wish you would have done some things differently than you did when starting your research career. Things that would have benefit you more in being a successful researcher. By successful, I mean having the most impactful contributions in your field.

I am not concerned about others being better than me but rather want to know how to become a better researcher and make better decisions that will contribute to that end. What are the things that you as a professional researcher would tell the younger you to do differently to be a better researcher.

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    The title and body of this post seem inconsistent. – Buffy Apr 10 at 12:38
  • Buffy, yes and no. No because the best way to deal with that is to become better researcher yourself. Yes, because it is somehow inverted, the body is more general subject than the title, and it should be the inverse. – user3147619 Apr 10 at 12:40
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My first, and maybe best, advice would be to do more collaborations. Collaborations with local and remote colleagues. Collaborations with students. Build yourself a circle of people willing to work with you so that you learn from each other. Start with your own advisor and try to get to be a part of their circle.

Go to conferences and use them to expand your circle. Talk to a lot of people. Share a lot of ideas. Take a student or two along when you go to conferences. Introduce them around. Talk about ideas between sessions.

Write a lot of joint papers and be generous about such things as "first" authorship. Work with people who you treat as equals and who treat you the same way. Give a lot of help to students and include them in your circle. Keep the relationship alive after they finish their degrees. Try to assure that they learn everything they need to build a good career.

Build a critical mass so that better work gets done by the ever expanding circle of contributors.

Do this even if you are an introvert at heart, as I am.

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    This is gold. Perhaps this was implied, but I found collaborations with people from other disciplines to significantly improve the quality of my work. – kjacks21 Apr 12 at 18:27
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    This is borderline. Collaboration is of course key. But you make it sound like the goal is over-collaborating for the purpose of over-publishing. Expanding circle => more publications, not necessarily better work. – user122119 Apr 13 at 11:44
  • @DoctorNuu: Unfortunately, it's very easy to under-publish without being involved in a bunch of collaborations. :-( – einpoklum Apr 13 at 16:30
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The other answers are right about building friendly networks of collaborators, but I think there are caveats to that. Here are the things I wish I had known sooner. Warning: I'm not sure how generally these suggestions will apply or how much they are specific to my own personality flaws.

  1. Collaborations are good, but don't say yes to everything. While others may think that you can contribute to their research, you are best qualified to know how suitable your expertise is for a given problem. Do not try to hammer the methods you know into problems for which they are not well suited. You will spend a lot of time and, in the best case, produce mediocre results. It's okay to say "I'd be happy to collaborate with you, but I don't think I have the right skills to solve this problem. Maybe you should talk to someone who does X." Find the right collaborators who have methods that complement yours and visions that overlap with yours. Then be loyal, helpful, friendly, and prompt with them.

  2. Learn about funding agencies and how funding works early. Talk to your advisors, talk to program officers, and get practice submitting applications as soon as you can. Submit early and get feedback from reviewers. You might learn that a particular solicitation is not a good fit for your research. Even if program officers encourage you to submit, you may find out that the pool of reviewers (for the US, this could be an NIH study section or the usual pool for an NSF program) do not look favorably on your research ideas or methods. Find the reviewers that do.

  3. Be ready to give up on things that don't work. It might not be worth your effort to make something publishable (in a peer-reviewed journal) for a project that isn't working out as you hoped. Hammering away at things that are not working will cause poor motivation and procrastination (and even maybe the temptation to compromise your ethics). Since it's bad science to not publish even partial results, quickly throw your results together and publish on a pre-print server (arXiv or bioRxiv). Move on. Spend your efforts on projects that are working: you will be more motivated and the results will be higher quality.

  4. Manage your time, willpower and brainspace carefully. They are finite. Being an academic researcher (or maybe other kinds too) means you need to be self-motivated. You have to learn your own psychology and find ways to optimize your productivity under the constraints of your compulsions and fatigue. Be aware that most people have a tendency to assume that their future selves will have more time and willpower than their current selves.

  5. Don't be too hard on yourself. You won't succeed in many things you try and you will spend time on a lot of things that go nowhere. You are trying to do things no one has done before, so a lot of failure is be expected. Just keeping moving on.

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    As a variation on #3, have a backlog notebook of research ideas so that when you get stuck on one you can hit pause and move to something else. But rather than "give up", just put it on the back burner to simmer while you pay more attention to other ideas. That "research notebook" of ideas can keep you moving. It also help you with #4, actually. – Buffy Apr 11 at 17:48
  • Or, another way to think about it is to always have at least two projects "cooking", one under active development and the others on "simmer". – Buffy Apr 11 at 17:59
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    @Buffy I think I usually have 2 or 3 projects cooking and another 2 or 3 on simmer. You can see that I don't take my own advice. 2 projects cooking + 1 on simmer is probably optimal. – WaterMolecule Apr 11 at 18:10
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    @lucidbrot, it might depend on the nature of the projects. Routine work is quite a lot different from research at the edge where you don't have answers (or even questions, sometimes). So, getting stuck may require a break. Working on another project may provide that break, though there are other ways as well. – Buffy Apr 12 at 12:50
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    I should have engraved that into my brain about 10 years ago. – einpoklum Apr 13 at 16:31
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Think about the research professionals that you know, who are already at the level you wish to reach in the future.

Ask them for advice.

In the early stages of an academic career, there is so much that you don't even realize that you don't know. The quicker you understand this, the fewer mistakes you'll make by trying to do things your own way rather than asking advice from people who are "above the glass ceiling".

Try to attend conferences as early as you can, meet many people and learn from them. Even if you have to pay for your own conference fees, it can be a very worthwhile investment (if it's not too difficult for you to afford it). This will help you get a wider view of the research field. Without this wider view, you might never find out if you're working on the wrong things.

Be social. Be nice and likeable to everyone. Make lots of friends (which is one reason why I recommend to attend conferences). You might need data from someone one day, and the more friends you have the better chances that you'll get it. An opportunity to work on a huge, high-impact, once-in-a-lifetime paper might become available, and the more people that like you, the more of a chance you'll have at being invited to work on it.

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If you are introverted, or traveling to conferences can be expensive or out of reach for you:

You should read and read as much as possible articles and published manuscripts. That is the only way. Plus seminars.

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    But note that even an introvert can "play the role" of an extrovert in public. There are several famous people in my CS circle that do this very effectively. You wouldn't guess that they are introverted (i.e. mostly take strength from personal reflection) unless they tell you. Some are actually fairly far out on the autism spectrum as well. But they are effective communicators and brilliant speakers. But it is a practiced act that others can master. I'm not comfortable naming people, but you would recognize them if you are in the field. – Buffy Apr 10 at 15:48
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    But, yes, read a lot of papers and take a lot of notes when you do. Plus writing to the authors in some cases. – Buffy Apr 10 at 16:00
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    @buffy yes you are right. Read read read. Notes notes notes. Questions,but genuine one, and suggestions, but the one made in good deeds. – SSimon Apr 11 at 4:17
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    @SSimon I still don't understand the sentence even if you add a comma somewhere. Can you add the comma so I can understand what you mean? – 6005 Apr 11 at 15:33
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    Colon works too. Fixed – 6005 Apr 12 at 4:09
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I'm not a very experienced scientist, but these are few lessons that I have accumulated over the course of my PhD:

  • Embrace challenges: the tough parts of your research, where you are stuck, are the parts where you can truly learn and grow from
  • Try simple solutions first, instead of trying to show off with how sophisticated you can be (e.g. if you need to solve an equation numerically, you generally don't need to be on top of the most recent papers in numerical mathematics)
  • Sometimes it is good to slow down, you will lose less time than having to redo everything many times to eliminate all mistakes
  • Related to this, it's always good to build in some redundancies (for example, if you do lengthy simulations on a cluster, you don't want to rely on a single 'save' command, which makes all the computations useless if it contains a stupid syntax error)
  • It's good to be independent, but often, the most efficient thing to do is just listen to your advisor's advice
  • Good scientific research is (supposed to be) hard, and you can't rely on intelligence alone. It's important to be mentally strong and persistent.
  • In order to facilitate the latter, it's good to ensure you're a well-rounded individual, practice sports (for the stamina and to empty the mind), go out with friends ( also for the social skills that are indispensable) ...
  • Never lose the curiosity that brought you there.
  • Try to be a role model for the younger generation with an interest for science

Hope this helps :)

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