Challenging but possible solutions for graduating researchers (Non-scientific viewpoints for scientific career)

Go to the profile of Dharmesh Hansora
Oct 10, 2019
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Scope of this Blog:

My viewpoints will include discussions on “How to fulfill publications expectations of your Ph.D. advisor”, by developing positive and optimistic mindsets to overcome daily hurdles and practicing good time management. I will share my own experiences of publishing articles, book chapters and books for scientific communities. Suggestions and opinions on the framework for scientific career advancement will be covered and how publications can be useful for securing jobs and furthering scientific careers. I will also discuss “How scientific careers can be nurtured by attending international conferences and workshops, and by linking to the scientific communities using social media”. It is also necessary to discuss requirements of general evaluation systems for graduating students regardless of discipline. Focus will be on measuring publications, technical skills, instrument expertise, conferences, presentation skills, scientific communities etc. I will also cover the importance of doing research for society and people, i.e. “How research is important for social life other than academia and industry”.

The importance of scientific research activities:

My main aim in life has always been to work for product and process oriented research activities. Other than in published scientific papers, research activities must be useful for the development of society and industries. Many early-stage researchers hope that their work makes a difference to people and has lasting impact on society, whether that’s helping to build a better environment, curing disease, developing systems for fulfilling energy demands, making new technological products etc. My hardcore mindset is always (i) to solve the problems being faced by people in real life; (ii) to save nature and environment around us; and (iii) to create product and process technologies for industries.

There have been lots of challenges and motivation factors in my life, but I focus on only motivations and learn from challenges to move ahead continuously. With these reasons, I decided to pursue my doctoral graduation from a top institute: Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST). My first breakthrough in science, I consider, is the initiation of my Ph.D. journey by migrating from India to South Korea.  Prior to joining the programme, I had more than two years’ research experience. However, as a graduate student, I did not choose a research subject out of interest, but instead chose research that solves problems for society. Today, I am privileged to be working in a high impact, emerging and demanding research field: ­­­ solar fuels by artificial photosynthesis.

The role of an early-stage researcher is important, whether working independently or as a team member in research group. Here, it is an honor for me to discuss the challenging situations faced by graduate researchers. I maintain my personal-professional work life balance during the graduate study, have always remained positive in the lab, and keep optimistic mindsets to overcome hurdles. More importantly, I also handle time management through the publication process while publishing articles, book chapters and books. Hopefully, this discussion will be helpful to young graduate students.

Expectation of Ph.D. publications & Challenges before and during the publications:

There is always publication pressure and expectation from senior post-docs and Ph.D. advisors. Graduate students always have several challenges during their experiments, data compilations, confidentiality and final publications. Also, there is workload pressure, stress and long working hours often at the weekend. “I will work on it this evening or this weekend” has become a common thought process among early- and mid-career researchers. There are several factors, on which graduate researchers should work, such as work-life balance, tenure-track requirements and other administrative workloads [1]. Graduate researchers who always have to work s according to expectation of Ph.D. advisor, with very clear and well calibrated plans. Several surveys have shown that researchers generally work quantitatively (long hours or working more) rather than qualitatively (focused hours or working better) [2, 3, 4]. Graduate research students always have the stress of publication as authorship is a kind of rewarding currency in the field of science and a measure of a scientist’s success [3, 5].

Niamh Brennan, Professor at University College Dublin, Ireland, smartly discusses the “100 rules for publishing in top journals”, and draws attention to her early-career research experience. Most researchers don’t take care basic things while writing and publishing in top journals, which includes spelling and grammatical errors, too many references and reference style, the publishing processes of journals, deep study of research topic, lack of strong and original ideas along with the big picture, thought process and micromanagement of work. It’s all about your mental health (concentration, focused mind) and how you tackle the daily situations and mental strength during publication time in graduate days [6, 7].

Positive and optimistic mindsets:

My viewpoints will help graduate students keep their positive attitude and achievable mindset in a competitive scientific environment. I always use several scientific platforms to remain active and updated about new research activities. Apart from professional life, enjoyment of our personal lives can also boost our moral and motivations for daily research activities. Here, I would like to suggest my tactics for graduate researchers.

Image from Pixabay 

Ethics                                                                                                         

There are several research ethics which must be followed to maintain a healthy environment in the laboratory, for example: (i) respecting and trusting all lab members; (ii) interacting and maintaining relationships with all lab members; (iii) encouraging the team and lab members; (iv) speaking up for good and bad things and highlighting complaints to resolve unavoidable situations; (v) peer interaction and asking questions to lab members; (vi) creating a supportive mental health environment, recognizing the challenge, taking action for it and empowering other members; (vii) avoiding lab annoyances, annoying habits and maintaining lay of the lab [8]; and (viii) pointing out priorities according to different situations [1].

Get involved in your surroundings and consider things around you like laboratory equipment and how they operate. Learn the equipment and instrument calibrations and their maintenance before using them. Don’t blindly trust the data obtained, but be an analyst. This will build enormous confidence during research activities and writing articles.

Just note down

I have always had the habit of writing things down in notebooks. Many graduate research students and early-career scientists are always excited when a new idea strikes in their mind. But, due to regular activities, it does not last long in the mind, so note it down quickly in small pocket diary. This kind of activity makes the mind clear for new thoughts, and connects the technical things while writing articles.

Timing                                                  

It is better to know when to stop research activities, how to hold your judgement related to experiments and how to stick to your decision. It’s crucial to train yourself in these situations when you are junior scientist. Most of graduate researchers try to work it out by themselves before asking for any kind of help. Handling time management will surely enhance individual efforts without losing time. It also helps in identifying the things that work and those that do not. We only have so many working hours in a day, and if we don’t control our time then something else will. These habits make us independent researches [9].

I always make a plan with timelines and pre-define the targets with specific outputs while writing a paper or making a presentation. I prefer to give priorities according to urgency of tasks and when they need to be completed by. It is necessary to focus on only one item at a time [8]. Being fully focused boosts achievement of the timeline. Time management, while chasing article deadlines and preparing presentations for conferences, is important for graduate researchers. Take full benefits of early mornings to write research articles and your thesis. Proper work-life balance is key to maintaining a daily routine [1, 8, 10, 11]. Avoid overtime working habits and practice fully utilizing working academic hours, which will enforce you to complete daily tasks and goals [4].

Deep study as meditation     

One should know how to study deep before writing articles and making presentations. Work with concentration and without distraction to push cognitive ability to its limiting boundary. Exercise and train your brain to form regular habits. That first attempt might not be the most productive, but continuous practice and deep study makes the mind habitual, similarly to meditation. Continuous effort and practice really matters for better productivity and success. Make deep study a regular routine in daily life.

Management of research activities

It is always advised to have regular appointments with professors and senior postdocs to work on pre-defined research topics for graduate students. If one has a written research proposal defined with timelines, then it will have a greater chance of success. Researchers should learn how to write tentative research plans and activities to perform, recognizing that research activities sometimes change from the original proposal and early or partial results that can be improved at a later stage. Regular discussions (weekly meetings and monthly reports) with professors will help in compiling data and manuscript writing. Give importance to meeting agendas and have a list of talking points for meetings with supervisor [9, 10, 12, 13, 14]. I always emphasize the scope and goals of a research project. I carefully review the progress each mid-semester, which helps me to prioritize and move forward with better margins into the next semester. Scientific endeavor favors effort put into small steps and discoveries.

Self-assessment                                                                                         

Self-feedback is improving oneself. By judging ourselves, we can find answers to several questions such as further improvement, direction of next steps, any deadlines or missing timelines. Identifying strengths and weaknesses is a powerful tool to develop oneself. Graduate students must review his/her research work activities on a weekly basis. Instead of focusing on the number of publications, ask yourself and list out, “what are my research challenges? How can my research activities can get published and be useful for other people?” Concentrate on the value and impact of published work.

Get brakes, entertain yourself and get refreshed for better mental health

Many researchers struggle to take time off from research activities. Don’t forget to refresh yourself by enjoying your own hobbies and passions [15]. To maintain motivation and momentum at work, most researchers try a variety of activities. Productive research tasks are also linked to leisure activities which is measure of mental and physical well-being. Certain hobbies and activities are crucial to relaxing and give satisfaction in completing well defined tasks. The biggest benefit of having hobbies is that they give rest to the mind from research activities. Certain brakes at regular intervals can also help in propelling the mind and problem solving abilities in science. Exercise also can boost brain functions. Some scientists find that studying their passions can enhance performance and lead to new discoveries, opportunities and ideas. Researching and discovering any kind of science needs curiosity, passion, dedication and energy. Researchers need brakes in stressful environments. Don’t forget to make time for family and friends. Have cultural exchange and other religious considerations. Such activities ease tension and stress levels and also make us relaxed. Avoiding junk food, but having cup of coffee and piece of cake is the best for energizing yourself. Use scientific social media to entertain yourself but avoid unnecessary internet bad habits. Resetting your mind and bodies enhances daily performance. Enjoy sports and leisure activities which keep us excited and motivated [1, 9, 15, 16, 17, 18].

Image  from Pixabay 

Done vs perfectionism

Graduation requires publication, which means that at a certain point in time most of graduate researchers must learn when to stop doing research activities. Writing publications and a thesis will be only get done when you decide to stop doing research activities. Yes, it may not be accurate or complete, but “done is better than perfection”. Don’t consider publishing everything; focus on what can be published with good impact.

Tackling the scientific writing and publishing

Niamh Brennan explains research game rules for publishing in top journals. An important rule is juggling activities such as teaching, research and administrative tasks that are challenging during writing and publishing articles. Enjoy what you learn while doing your research activities but don’t take it as overburden [6]. For early-stage researchers, it may take 12 months to write a scientific article, for experienced researchers it may be more like 12 days. But, Wendy Belcher, discusses in her book “how to write a journal article in 12 weeks”, and nicely summarizes the challenges and misconceptions faced by research students due to their lack of mentoring. People are more productive when they take research notes every day, read and talk about their plan regularly, organize and frame it frequently [7].

Smart ways to tackle the challenges and overcoming the hurdles faced by graduate student are important. Time management, from research activities to publication, is key to achieving success. However, positive and optimistic mindsets can overcome many hurdles of early-stage and mid-stage researchers.  There will always be plenty of work including course work, research experiments, reading articles, teaching duties, proposal writing, administrative work, and maintain personal life-balance. Researchers should focus with a timely scheduled workload which must be reviewed often by him/her self.

Research for scientific career advancement:

There is always uncertainty for research students regarding their future career paths until securing the permanent position in academic or industry. However, considering the scientific community as an ecosystem, researchers also need another path and there are several career opportunities after completing a Ph.D.

A future head position requires a strong career record [20]. Publications are very useful for securing jobs and further roles in science. Similarly, scientific careers can be advanced by important roles at international conferences, discussions with others, sharing ideas and attending workshops to connect potential audiences. Linking to the scientific community on social media is also beneficial. Marketing research publications, attending conferences and being active on social media are good ingredients for securing jobs in scientific and academic fields [21].

Early-career researchers wanting impact out of their research should make contacts with different national and international industry partners for translational research. There are lots of companies who want to solve problems using innovation and smart minds.  Rather than stepping into an existing scientific sector, one can also create their own business or start-up [22, 23]. Beyond a research job, several science-related jobs can also be acquired by graduate students, such as role in publishing and editorial, or administration of research grants. Attending a research careers fair is a good way to search and grab opportunities. Here, I suggest several tactics to advance a scientific career.

Allow to discover yourself and create your achievements 

Early-stage and mid-stage graduate students should also discover scientific skills themselves. Graduates can write short perspectives, research highlights, commentary, news and viewpoints for high impact journals, which can strengthen your research ideas [21]. These activities help research graduates identify themselves at an international level and can also enhance future opportunities for leading roles in academic and scientific fields.

Socialize yourself and your research activities

Early-stage and mid-stage graduate students should also get involved in online scientific communication and database networking platforms such as ResearchGate, ResearcherID, ORCID, SCOPUS, PUBLONS, Loop, F1000, Academia.edu, Mendeley, GoogleScholar and LinkedIN. Here, students can discuss, interact and form a group to rate and market each other’s research work activities [5, 24, 25, 26, 27]. Graduating students can create their own profile and scholar pages, share papers, track views and opinions, make collaborations, download articles and interact with their research activities.

To connect your research to a larger audience, get closer to international scientific communities via social media. Papers are being published continuously and journal editorial teams use social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to share information quickly. Scientists generally share the titles, keywords and table of contents along with graphics to attract readers to their published research activities. Researchers and scientists also get quick feedback via online platforms. Most researchers use online pre-print servers to upload papers and use online blogging to debate their research activities e.g. ResearchGate. There are several online platforms such as Mendeley, CiteULike, Zotero, thirdreviewer, F1000 etc. On these sites, you can find regular blogs, comments, posts, views and suggestions based on your research keywords. Researchers and graduate students can follow specific accounts of funding agencies, universities, research groups, science news, bloggers, scientists and individual professors. Social media platforms have become a tool for scientific career development, fostering communication and collaboration regardless of geographical location. Even in the China, a leader in scientific output, people use their own online search engines and the social media platform “WeChat” to share new scientific discoveries. This can positively affect the daily activities of researchers to improve and strengthen scientific communication [25].

Get involved and market yourself at large-scale

Try to get involved with giving talks at conferences, seminars, symposiums, technical meetings. Download conference apps and attend the conference. Check the list of speakers, attendees and research favorite topics. Conferences are an opportunity to interact with esteemed scientists face-to-face and in real-time. Questioning at the end of talks and seminars also provides opportunity for interaction [28]. Also, one can join online webinars for reviewing and writing technical articles. Highly efficient students also get involved in editorial teams at the science citation index (SCI) journals. Becoming a student member of research and professional bodies is also a good way to get more involved. Not only attending the conference, but organizing the scientific conference can also help build networks and expand teamwork skills to boost career prospects [21, 30].

Upgrade yourselves on a daily basis

Keep upgrading yourself, not only by attending the above research activities, but also listing your research activities and achievements on your CV. This will give early-direction and an overview of your career growth. It will also allow tasks to be carried forward or not, and let you focus on past, current, and future scenarios. And reflection on your profile will boost and excite further research at mid-career level [21, 27].

Requirement of general evaluation systems regardless of discipline for graduating early career researchers and general students:

In some countries, Ph.D. graduates are in oversupply and some researchers are unable to secure jobs in academia and industry, while in some economically developing countries the quality of graduates is not consistent. In countries like Germany, the graduate education system is considered a form of career training for future high-level positions. In 2011, Nature magazine examined the health of graduate students in various countries [31, 34]. It is still necessary to revamp the Ph.D. education system with continuous transformations [32]. Universities need to access the requirements of general evaluation systems for graduating students regardless of discipline [33]. It is time to rethink the Ph.D., as institutions and research individuals are taking innovative steps to postgraduate science training. Developing as an independent researcher is a major step to becoming a cutting edge scientist and investigator. Giving certain early freedom to Ph.D. students can motivate them to write as first authors on research papers, which is great for their career development. However, poor post-graduate training and improper course structure could leave research students unprepared. Another main concern is doctoral graduation years which must be within time limit, e.g. 3-4 years as compared to 5-6 years [34].

Image from Pixabay 

General evaluation systems for graduating students must be as easy as possible. Universities must focus on research oriented activities, courses, and project management for graduate students rather than only the core attendance and final publications. Early-career students want their research to have wide societal impact through translational research in science. Universities must therefore run graduation programs with transferable skills and programs with strong practical levels of engagement with real-world and industry partners [23]. Earning a Ph.D. is also beneficial in today’s industry job market [22].

As discussed earlier, there is always pressure to publish and high expectations from senior post-docs and Ph.D. advisors for securing funding and earning the permanent positions. But academic and scientific people must understand the value of precious time for actual research output. Young graduate researchers feel the pressure and burden while doing experiments too. To improve well-being and research outcomes, students can get help from peer-support initiatives. But, university backing is required for developing peer-support workshops and teams across the university [35].

Publication standards must be maintained by the department and university, i.e. focusing on quality rather than the quantity. A minimum of two high quality publications is good for graduating research students, but they should be published in high impact SCI journals. This will also enhance the career growth of the best scientists. Universities must run Industry-academia projects to generate industry oriented Ph.D. graduates rather than patents and publications. Universities will have to create industrial oriented graduate programs to fulfill the aspirations of graduating students as well as to solve industry oriented problems [20, 34] . Still, Universities are lacking by not adjusting their policies, because universities want graduate students as teaching assistants and research assistants in laboratories. Responsible action such as reforming Ph.D. structure is required to focus the student’s future beyond the expertise of the course. Doctoral education must be designed to solve the practical problems of real life and the surrounding environment, e.g. use of clean water, the environment, and development of renewable energy resources etc. [36]. This strategy will also reduce the gap between outgoing graduate students with employment and those without. Not all students want to pursue academic careers after graduation [32].

The expectation of science from society is changing continuously and hence science must be changed with it. Academies and scientific leaders must realize that systems are lacking to prepare research graduates and postgraduates for meeting the wider requirements of society and people. Too many Ph.D. graduates cannot find full-time jobs [37]. We need to create the next-generation of scientists that can demonstrate the societal impact of their work, and fulfill the needs of people and industry demands.

Not only professors, scientists must also spend time looking into academia, industry and related policies for graduate researchers. Many universities run different types of Ph.D. programmes like industrial Ph.Ds, professional internships for Ph.D. students, doctoral training collaborations and partnerships with industries. A Ph.D. is often training for leadership in a professional way so more universities need to develop standards to measure and judge students’ skills and expertise other than publications and grants. For an impactful outcome, graduate researchers must be assessed and rewarded regularly to boost their moral and motivations [3, 5, 21, 34].

As per a science job satisfaction survey, the major trend is towards industry followed by government and then academia [38]. Industry and academia should develop policies that have impact on research as well contribute to the development of a researchers’ career. Working with technological companies and through their funding, researchers and scientists can enable practical application of their new product designs and also open up potential career pathways for the future. With industrial projects, early-career graduates get projects off the ground and generate data to support large-scale research proposals [39]. Ph.D. programs based on industrial problems would be beneficiary to graduate researchers for securing future jobs. Similarly, exchange of students, research ideas and continuous interaction has a positive impact on collaborative research output. Such schemes are necessary and can motivate and encourage curious research students, and break down the barrier between academia, industry and scientist roles in government sectors [4, 34].

Overall, I focus on solving the challenges during graduation of early-stage researchers and these viewpoints will enhance the positive attitudes of students and make them ready with an achievable mindset in a competitive scientific environment.

Some effective daily activities can also lead researchers into future leading roles and related jobs. In parallel, revamping general evaluation systems for graduate students must fulfill the requirements set by academic and industrial jobs. Above all, clearing your mind and being present will benefit productivity and deep focus. Every student works hard but one must use precious time to show smart efforts.

Recommended References:                       

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Go to the profile of Dharmesh Hansora

Dharmesh Hansora

Doctoral Researcher, UNIST

Dharmesh Hansora is a Ph.D. graduate student in ECOCAT laboratory at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), South Korea. He has contributed scientifically in publishing important research articles, review articles, book chapters and a book. He has also attended conferences and several research workshops. He has been active on scientific social media platforms including ResearchGate, ResearcherID, ORCID, SCOPUS, PUBLONS, Academia.edu, GoogleScholar, LinkedIN, Facebook and Twitter.

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