How to be a productive researcher

We are taught a lot of research skills in grad school. But a lot of these are specific technical skills. Little attention is devoted to the question of how to be a productive researcher. This “meta-skill” is usually learned the hard way through trial and error or, in the best-case scenario, through others’ advice. Here are my two cents on what works.

  1. Treat the research process as a skill you have to learn and maintain. No one is born knowing how to take a project from an idea to a published paper; some people just figure it out more quickly than others. And the more you practice, the easier it gets. Having the right attitude about this process can help you calibrate expectations and muster willingness to persevere.
  2. Protect your research time. Figure out when you work best (e.g., mornings or evenings) and minimize other commitments during those times. In my calendar, 8am-11am is marked as “research time” every single weekday. That reminds me not to schedule other things during that time. To avoid having to respond to requests with “I’m sorry, that time doesn’t work for me, I’ll be sitting in my office doing research,” I will often take the first step in suggesting an afternoon meeting time. This doesn’t always work – for example, I taught 9:30-11am Tue/Thu last semester and some morning meetings are unavoidable – but it greatly improves my productivity overall. Remember, the fact that your plan to do research at a particular time does not involve another person does not mean that it is not a “real” commitment. In fact, your job (mostly) depends on it.
  3. Invest in your writing skills. Writing used to be difficult, and I would dread it. Nevertheless, I persevered and now writing is much easier and more enjoyable. Here are some specific suggestions.
    • Make an effort to write every day, during the time when your brain and body are at their best. For me, this is the morning.
    • Allow yourself to write “s&*^ty first drafts.” Do not try to spit out the perfect word/sentence/paragraph on the first try. Write freely, edit later.
    • Do not start out trying to write for hours at a time. If you are not used to writing regularly, aim for 30 minutes or even just 10 minutes. If you write for 10 minutes a day, that is almost an hour of writing per week. If you do 30 minutes a day, that adds up to 2.5 hours! The Pomodoro technique can be very helpful here.
    • Join a writing group. For about two years, I did Academic Writing Club, an online group where professors or grad students from related disciplines are joined by a “coach”, create weekly goals for themselves, and check in daily with their progress. It is not free, but in my opinion worth it (and you can probably use your research budget). If you are looking for a free writing group, look for people around your university who are willing to get together and write!
  4. Prioritize projects based on how close they are to publication. (Obviously your coauthors’ preferences and constraints matter here, so this is a general guideline). Specifically, this should be the order of your priorities, if not on a daily, then at least on a weekly level:
    • Proofs of accepted papers that need to be turned around to the publisher. [When I first heard this suggestion, my reaction was, “I don’t have any proofs!” If that is the case, don’t worry, you will get there.]
    • Revise-and-resubmits.
    • Working papers that are closest to submission, whether these are brand new ones or rejected ones looking for a new home.
    • Projects that are closest to becoming working papers (e.g., ones where the analysis is complete).
    • Projects where you are analyzing the data (working with a model, if you’re a theorist).
    • Projects that are newer than everything above.

5. Try to avoid being the bottleneck. If someone is waiting for you to do something on a project before she or he can work on it, try to prioritize that task. Obviously, one reason for this is that your coauthors may be annoyed if you take too long to do something you promised to do. But another (possibly more important) reason is that by not being the bottleneck, you can boost your annual productivity by having your coauthors (or research assistants) do their work faster.