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Werner Karl Heisenberg

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10 Tips to Plan Your Research Well and Beat the Stress

My first research project was during the final year of my undergraduate degree. Before the start of my project, I was afloat in a cloud of dichotomous thoughts. I was very excited about finally being able to work at a new laboratory, apply my three years of studies in a practical setting and meet new people. Simultaneously, I was experiencing my worst state of imposter syndrome. Due to the pandemic, I was temporarily out of touch with my wet lab skills. I was lacking self-confidence and was so anxious about creating a negative impression on my new colleagues. This paradoxical state of mind might be relatable to you if you are just starting a new research project, especially at a new laboratory. In fact, feelings of self-doubt are normal. What matters is that you drive your focus away from the negativity and focus on the bigger question: What excites you about research? The answer to this question helps us silence the noise that is holding us back from realizing our full potential. 

Curiosity is a natural characteristic of humans. Ever since we were children we exhibit the desire to know more about the things around us. Curiosity is cultivated through learning. Hence, the first step of any research is literature surveying. During my undergraduate project, I took two months to study my research topic before beginning my laboratory work. Literature surveying was a vital requirement for me to compare research methodologies, understand the advantages and disadvantages of each and later come up with effective troubleshooting strategies in the face of a setback. Furthermore, a good literature survey helps you come up with an idea that is both novel and achievable within the time and financial boundaries of your project. You will be able to identify knowledge gaps and shortcomings in existing discoveries and challenge these concepts through quality hypotheses to improve the field. 

Curiosity alone cannot carry you through your research. Research projects often require high amounts of time and perseverance. Being a good researcher is synonymous with being a good project manager. This means that you approach your research question in a structured manner instead of doing haphazard experiments. With good planning, the workload of a research project can be made manageable as it aids in maintaining consistency and resilience to overcome challenges and complete the project successfully. Thereby, good planning acts as the foundation for a thriving research project. Every research project has time and financial constraints. Here are 10 pointers to improve your planning habits and make maximum use of the funds and time available to you. 

  1. Identify relevant experiments from previous literature

There are many techniques available to fulfil a single objective. The experiment differs in the materials used or the principle of the technique. For example, many PCR techniques are available for amplifying DNA. The correct technique should be chosen to fulfil the objective at hand, effectively. That is, the technique may differ based on the required quality of amplification and the nature of the region to be amplified. A table that details the principle, pros and cons of the technique can help you isolate the most appropriate experiment for your research and plan out ways of compensating for the disadvantages posed by the chosen technique. 

  1. List the required materials and training resources

Being mindful of the budget is an important aspect of research. Therefore, it is essential to record the cost of consumables and the amounts required. Make a checklist of the items required to be purchased and those already available in the laboratory inventory along with protocols and training guides that may be useful for your research. Information regarding such resources could be obtained by talking to mentors, peers, and experts in the department and the field. Contact the sellers and jot down the time it takes for purchases to arrive so that the orders for purchases can be made punctually, to prevent bottlenecks and holdups during your research. 

  1. Prepare a research timeline

A research timeline is a mandatory section of any project proposal. Be realistic with the timeframes set for each project stage. A useful feature of the timeline I designed for my undergraduate research was the two-week buffer time I set close to the end of the project. This allowed me to complete the deadlines for theses and presentations in due time despite facing major mishaps that prolonged the proposed time frame. 

  1. Be meticulous with note-taking

Since my research occurred at a new laboratory, I took two complete days to learn how to use each machine and instrument. Though I was familiar with handling such machines, minor changes and laboratory practices of maintenance required my attention. It is important to adapt to the lab rules and norms, especially when working at an outsider’s lab so that you do not impede the others who use the lab. It is hard to be familiarized with a new set of practices but note-taking can help you remember them better. In the initial stages of my research, I drew rough sketches of the lab and jotted down where each piece of equipment and instrument was so that I could work at ease. I had a colleague who took notes during her research using a voice recorder since she was not as comfortable with writing. Assess which method best suits your working style.

  1. Schedule experiments both monthly and weekly

To keep up with the timeline you drew out, it is important to plan your monthly calendar of experiments and as the weeks go by, plan your weekly calendar. I find Google calendars to be most effective since I am able to receive reminders on my phone. Furthermore, it allowed me to simultaneously draw out a to-do list for the day to stay on top of my schedule and allows me to access it on multiple devices. I prepared new calendars for each project or module that were colour coded. 

  1. Incorporate tasks from more than one mini-project into your day

I used to allocate an entire day for a single task, assuming I’d work for about 12h at a stretch and complete a large proportion of it. Later, I realised that this method was the least productive. Despite allocating 12h of my day for the project, I was able to effectively work for a third of the day due to being easily demotivated and lethargic. Splitting up my day into 3h chunks and allocating tasks from multiple projects helped me to maintain a steady pace. Furthermore, being involved in multiple mini projects will allow you to have backup data in cases where one does not work out. However, be wary in doing so. Scheduling too many tasks for a day may cause you to be overly stressed out and result in an overall unproductive day. Furthermore, you may find yourself hurrying through a task and completing it ineffectively. Most importantly, don’t forget to take breaks in between!

  1. Be consistent in maintaining your lab book

At the end of the day, all your hard work in the laboratory will turn out to be meaningless if you do not have quality data to prove your work. In order to manage the huge amounts of data that are generated daily in the laboratory, you need to be consistent in record keeping. Allocate a time each day after your working hours to log all that you did in the laboratory and the results obtained from the experiments you did. During my research, I utilized Google sheets for this purpose. I used a sheet each for my log and each experimental result. The advantage of using Google sheets was that I was able to share my results with my supervisors and instructors and also add images of the gel electrophoresis results obtained. Most people find photo or video journals to be useful since it requires far less time to update. However, make sure you store them in folders that are correctly labelled to not confuse them in between several experimental results.  

  1. Mentally prepare for the day

Each night, go through your schedule for the next day and see if you have all the resources to complete them. A little note with a detailed list of tasks could provide additional help. Furthermore, as you go through your day you may feel a sense of accomplishment as you cross off things from your list of tasks. 

  1. Use a task manager

When handling multiple projects, it may become overwhelming to identify what requires the most priority and which could be postponed by a week. Many phone applications help sort out priority tasks and allow the grouping of tasks according to the project. Furthermore, some applications such as the Reminders app on iPhones allow for sharing project tasks with multiple people and assigning members to each task. This eases communication and allows the entire team to stay on top of their schedule. 

  1.  Note down deadlines for papers and talks

It is easy to miss deadlines for papers and talks when immersed in laboratory work. Hence, have a desk calendar or a calendar up your wall that has important dates marked in red. Google calendar allows notifications to be set for scheduled events a day prior or an hour prior, depending on your convenience. There were many occasions where an hour-prior notification allowed me to attend an important lecture that I had previously forgotten! 

It is very rare for a project to move according to our expectations. During my research project, the rate of negative results that I obtained outweighed the positives. I asked for advice from specialists in the field for alternative methods that could improve the success rate of my project and was able to improve my results modestly. Some samples were prone to six different techniques of PCR and still provided bands that were not up to sequencing standards. At that point, I knew I had to move on to the next. Sometimes, when we are overly fixated on receiving perfect results, we get stuck in a loop that results in time, effort and resource wastage. Therefore, a major part of success is knowing when to ask for help and when to quit. Always remember that negative results are just as valuable as positive results.

Every type of research is different but the mental prowess is pretty much the same. Doing research requires more than intelligence. It requires good planning and communication skills. Be resilient and do not give up! Follow us for more articles on being a successful researcher. 

Writer: Akshayaa Dinesh

Editor: Esther Swamidason


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