Getting your research off to a good start

Fact sheet
Our fact sheets help you find resources beyond the British Geriatrics Society website
Alasdair MacLullich
Brian McGurn
Gordon Wilcock
Susie Shenkin
Date Published:
01 June 2012
Last updated: 
01 June 2017

So you have secured funding to do a research project (e.g. for a PhD) or you've dedicated time to spend on a project. Now we look at the kinds of challenges you'll be faced with and offer advice on how to get off to a good start.

You may be lucky and have a desk, computer, filing cabinet, email account, and so on, all set up when you arrive. But if not, ask. Supervisors' secretaries and even your supervisor will be happy to help you with the practical side of things, but probably won't come looking for you to tell you. The key here, as with research life in general, is that you need to be proactive.

At the beginning it can be tempting to plough straight into the practical setting up and data-gathering part of your project. However, in parallel with this it is also extremely important to spend time getting a full understanding of your project. This means ongoing reading around the field such that you are familiar with the main studies, the methods used (including advantages and disadvantages of each), the controversies and the unanswered questions. Although some of this will have been covered in writing the funding application (if there was one for your project), the depth required for the thesis is greater than this.

As part of this process it is quite common to do a detailed literature review. This can have several positive consequences: you write some of your introduction to a future paper or thesis, you inevitably develop a broad knowledge of the main papers in the field, and in many cases this work will lead to publication. If it makes sense to do a systematic review as part of this process, this should be strongly encouraged, as in many cases this can form a chapter in its own right and is highly likely to lead to publication.

A good test is being able to give a clear outline of your work to clinical and research colleagues. Having a firm understanding of the science will give you a platform of confidence on which to build your project.

When you start doing research you are going to need to develop several new skills and may need training. These can be divided into skills particular to your project, such as specialised patient assessments and laboratory procedures, and generic skills, such as giving talks and writing papers. Make a list of the skills you need in your toolbox and then decide on how you are going to learn these skills. Many will be learned on the job. Some of the more specific skills will be taught to you by local researchers or technical staff. For the generic skills, your university will run lots of free courses on topics like presentation skills, literature searching, reference management, IT skills (especially database management), statistics, and time and project management. Though your supervisor may advise a lot courses are recommended, it's mostly up to you to decide what you need to do and to organise it.

On the wards you have regular contact with your senior colleagues. However, life in research is very different. Research doesn't usually have the same kind of timetables that ward work has and this can be very difficult for a usually very busy clinician to adjust to. After the first few meetings you won't see your supervisor as much as you saw your consultants. Supervisors' schedules mostly do not incorporate formal slots to see all of their researchers frequently, and on the whole they will not monitor the week to week activities of all of the members of their group. Most supervisors have regular meetings with you, commonly monthly, during the project. But outwith any formal contact, remember that sometimes a quick call or email can save days of wasted time. It is very important to be proactive in seeking help from your supervisor or from others with specific skills and knowledge.

Working outside of the structured environment of the ward brings with it many freedoms. But this lack of structure also brings a high risk of wasting time, especially for the less organised amongst us. In a complex endeavour like a PhD it is essential to create a formal plan with goals and sub-goals, and timelines. This falls under the broad heading of project management – please see the other article in the series on this website.

Backing up your work

Your project will generate a large amount of information, including new research data, laboratory notes, references, papers in electronic format, emails, your presentations, posters, and your informal and formal writing. Frequently one hears of disasters in which a researcher has lost their data because of failure to back up. Don't be the subject of one of these spine-chilling stories. There are many simple ways to back up your work; consult with local IT colleagues about what’s available. Make sure that you comply with the law and ethics committee requirements regarding confidential data storage. Ensure you have written or electronic prompts to back up all your writing, emails and numerical data, and be ultra-scrupulous about doing this. It's your work!

You will inevitably encounter obstacles in your project, especially when setting up. This is normal, so don't worry too much if things stutter along or even stop for a bit. Sometimes you will be able to work out solutions on your own. But if you can't, then seek appropriate help promptly, from your peers or from your supervisor. Never be embarrassed about this, because sometimes a quick email or phone call can provide a quick solution.

If everything seems overwhelming and you feel like giving up (not that uncommon - it happens to most people at times), break big jobs down into manageable chunks. A to-do list updated at the beginning of everyday can really help to keep moving forward, even slowly, when you are not feeling great about your work. Managing to get a few simple things done (even one thing a day) can help rebuild your morale. However, if things get more serious and you really feel that you are struggling, then think about taking some time off or switching to a different activity for a while. Most of all, don't suffer alone. There are lots of sources of support, including your mentor (who should not be your supervisor), colleagues from your clinical work, confidential counselling services from your university and the NHS, and many others.

More generally, beyond the usual advice about having a good social life, using the flexibility in your day, and so on, make an effort to network with researchers in your field, locally or further out. Peer support is a tremendous buffer against stress. It's also worth going to conferences, not just to hear about the latest developments and to put names to faces, but also to enjoy the social side of being a scientist. This is also a great way of networking and meeting people you can discuss problems with via email etc. if you need to later.

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