Ten tips for research students

3 October 2007

Final year is the crunch time. And this is the time for me to remind myself of what I should be doing in order to graduate with a good thesis, moving in the right direction, and pass this list of tips on. These tips come from various sources – friends, books, colleagues, phorums.

Reading : a lot of it, of journals relevant to one’s field of research. Ideally I try to read on regular basis but more often than not, they’re only done when I’m trying to write something or when I’m looking into the project background before I get started. Connotea is an useful online reference storage system, but I also have my own journal filing system. I also use EndNote as my bibliography tool.

Writing : the only way to write well is to write often. Even when it’s not for publication, I have been advised to write things up in parts as projects go along. That way, when it comes to assembling the thesis half the work would have been done without realisation.

Lab notebooks : no way around it but to keep meticulous record. In bioinformatics, it’s so easy to just click away at data and programs, or put through certain commands. Without a good record, it may be tough to reproduce the work as it should. I learned this the hard way when I had to crank my brain in attempt to recall particular pipeline that I carried out but wasn’t properly documented.

Back-ups : think, final year, unexpected computer/server crash, or accidental fire. Lost of data. This will be enough to push me over the edge. It pays to have several copies just in case.

Discussions : be it just at lab meetings, or major conferences, it pays to talk to the other researchers. I never know where a good suggestion or feedback may come from next. Besides, picking other people’s brains is a free exercise and even when the topic may be irrelevant, I could still learn something new.

Little datelines : research timeline is always rather open-ended. I need to set myself little deadlines (hence task list) to remind myself of what I aim to achieve within particular time period. Or else, 10 years could have gone past and I’d still be a graduate student. (OK, it’ll be tough when funding runs out but technically this is possible.)

Self discipline : I must admit I’m still working on this. There are days I get distracted and ended up not having anything productive done at all. There is no one standing behind me telling what I must do and all, so it’s up to me to work hard for myself. If only I could cut down email checks and facebook to only once or twice a day… (shame on me)

Presentations : it will always be nerve wrecking but to be able to give presentation clearly of one’s work to a large group of people working on different topics is an important skill. Afterall what is the point of researching something but its result uncommunicable to the others? Presentations must be concise, using representative graphics, and given at a reasonable pace with clear pronounciation.

End points : know when enough is enough. A project could go on and on, especially in large fields of studies, where there’s a constant barge of new information coming in. One could even get a career out of following these updates and compiling them. Therefore, set a realistic target and see that that is achieved.

Social life : down time is as important. So it is always good to go out with friends to unwind after a long day of work. Graduate research may be hectic but there should always be time set aside for loved ones. Take up hobbies and enjoy some physical activities. Don’t drop everything for the sake of the thesis. There are benefits in balancing work and play. Afterall, as people says, healthy body, healthy mind.

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3 Responses to “Ten tips for research students”

  1. hank said

    Nice and useful tips. Great article.
    Would love it if you can share your own journal filing system.

  2. San said

    Brilliant tips there! Can totally relate to it from my own dissertation tortureexperience.

    I enjoy the reading bit…kinda amazed me how much more knowledge is out there.

    Where I failed miserably: self-discipline, end points and social life.

    Dont intend to brag or rub salt into your wound, but AM SO GLAD MINE IS OVER!!!

  3. Alexalynn said

    Hank, thank you. I will do that in due course. 🙂

    San, thanks and I’m going to be so glad too when mine is over. I have my own flaws and while I enjoy reading, I found myself often putting it till last when there’s other things demanding my attention, yikes!

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