When someone mentions research methods, what do you think of? Questionnaires? Interviews? Focus groups? Ways of doing research online? Do you only think of data gathering, or do you think of methods of planning research, analysing data, presenting and disseminating findings?
Research methods is a huge and growing field with many books and innumerable journal articles offering useful information. But nobody talks about methods for managing your own research. Perhaps you’re doing postgraduate research in academia or workplace research such as an evaluation. Even if you’re a fully funded full-time doctoral student, research is not all you do. Research has to fit in with the rest of your life and all its domestic work, family needs, other paid or voluntary work, hobbies, exercise, and so on.
Nobody talks about the methods for doing this kind of personal research management. Or, at least, not many people. I said quite a lot about it in my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners. Petra Boynton also addresses it in her book The Research Companion. But I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else (if you have, please let us know in the comments). So here are ten top tips:
- Plan everything. Lots of books will tell you how to plan your research project. What they don’t say is that you also need to plan for the changes to your life and work which will result from you taking on the research. How will your research affect your other commitments? What do you need to do to minimise the impact of your research on your other commitments and vice versa? Build in contingency time for unforeseen events.
- Manage your time carefully. Use your plan to help you. Break down the main tasks into monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists. Review these regularly.
- Learn to work productively in short bursts. It may seem counter-intuitive, but most people get more done this way than by setting aside whole days to work on a project.
- Use time when your mind is under-occupied, e.g. when you’re waiting in a queue or doing repetitive household tasks, to think about and solve problems related to your research.
- Seek support from your family. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance to you.
- Seek support from colleagues, managers, tutors etc, whether your work is paid or unpaid. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance in your life.
- Don’t cut corners in ways that could damage your health. Eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep and rest.
- Take breaks. At least three short breaks in each day, one day off in each week, and four weeks off in each year.
- Don’t beat yourself up if things go wrong. Be kind to yourself and learn what you can from the experience. Then re-group, re-plan, and set off again.
- Reward yourself appropriately for milestones reached and successes achieved.
In my view, these are as much research methods as questionnaires and interviews. Learning to use them involves acquiring tacit knowledge. I’ve been on a mission to convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge ever since I started writing for professionals. This blog post is part of that process. If you have other tips, please add them in the comments.
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Thanks for your top ten tips, Helen. From my experience, they are all good ones. What’s important for personal research management can vary from person to person. In reflecting on my research career, I identified several valuable skills: typing, efficient reading, note taking, priority setting, word processing and document management (https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/comments/1003practicalskills.html). To these I would add regular writing (https://comments.bmartin.cc/2018/09/05/write-write-write/) and developing the capacity to shut out distractions in order to focus on tasks (https://comments.bmartin.cc/2017/08/19/to-do-your-best-work-focus/). Regards, Brian Martin
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Thanks Brian for these helpful additions to the post. Much appreciated!
One of the hardest I find to follow is the one about taking breaks. I think I get so excited about being in the groove that I’m loathe to step away (in case the groove goes away…)!
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I know how you feel… also if I’m just loving it I don’t want to stop because I don’t want to stop! Often though I find the groove is even more groovy after a break 😉