Each field such as arts or science has its own specialist skills. In addition, there are a handful of key skills which are crucial to success. I have cherry-picked five skills you need to become a researcher for those of us who are aspiring to step into the field of academic research.
Every research project requires a degree of project management. This is a term you have probably heard being used. But what exactly do we mean by project management?
Project management means high-quality planning. You make a step by step plan on how you intend to reach your final objective. You set achievable aims, realistic milestones and identify other necessary resources (manpower and finances).
As a researcher, you need to complete thorough research to receive external funding and to get your project off the ground. If you are currently working on someone else’s project, make sure that you observe, ask questions and learn as much as possible.
Another key skill is learning how to effectively manage a budget. It might be a task which you have not done in any great depth for your PhD. If so, do gain some further experience of handling budgets. You will need this skill in order to lead your own research project.
As an academic, you might have administrative support to help you hold the purse strings whilst the final decision-making and responsibility will come down to you. As with your own domestic budget, keeping a regular check on monies in and out is vital. Do not bury your head in the sand if things appear to be going wrong. Make sure you match your research goals to the money you have been awarded. Do not overcommit yourself in the hiring of other staff or running collaborative workshops (both of which can cost a lot of money). Remember that the money is there to be spent so do not hoard it! And finally, make sure you keep good records of your income and spending. Your university, funding body or the taxman may want to see your records at any time.
Working successfully with others could be difficult in the academic world (we are used to working with a large degree of autonomy). However, a research project often requires the support of others: colleagues at your institution and elsewhere, administrative staff and at times people in the private sector.
If you are managing the project, you need to know two main things: how to get the best out of each of your workers and how to make their working experience positive. Asking each person to play their part is vital, as well as listening to them, asking for their feedback on decisions or exploring any issues if they are not happy. Being able to assess each colleague’s needs and vulnerabilities is essential if you want to successfully lead them as a team.
Depending on your field, the results you gain from your project could include lab experiments, statistical evidence, interview materials or research in an archive. Whatever results you get, you need to be able to successfully handle large amounts of data. Without effective data skills, you will never get to the exciting stage of analysing your results.
So how do you manage data successfully? By being focused, structured and planning ahead. Start with organising an electronic or paper-based data storage system. Design and set up your database. Organise storage for hard copies of raw materials and catalogue them clearly. Make sure you keep records of who is collecting what as you go along. You must not lose any work because of incompetence or disorganisation. When it comes to writing up your research later, you will have all the answers you need at your fingertips.
Closely linked with data management is the necessity of developing IT skills. Although you might consider yourself a confident user of IT, you will need to learn new packages, online platforms and programmes all the time. Take every opportunity to refresh and update your IT skills.
Take a few minutes to think about any data collection or storage packages that could help your research. Are there any IT methods which could greatly support your work? What about analytical tools for working with large amounts of data? Could you build your own website? Perhaps you need something bespoke and experimental for your project that you could help to design. A new bibliographical tool could be invaluable to help you write up your research. Developing new IT skills could help you to present your work in a more innovative, convincing and refreshing way. IT never stands still.
The pace of technological change is unlikely to slow down any time soon. If you would like to work as an academic researcher, you will need to keep on developing your skills.
Take a close look at the above five skills you need to become a researcher and select one area which you would like to build on in the next few weeks. Best of luck!