The researcher’s backpack

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This is an article by me, David Gauntlett, which first appeared in Funding Insight, an online magazine for research professionals, on 25 April 2016. It is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional.

Today’s aspiring researcher needs a sharp mind and keen analytic skills. The ability to read, write, and do basic mathematics will also help enormously. But what else? What should the hopeful researcher be loading into their rucksack for the research journey?

I have made a list of ten things.

A jug of persistence, and a bottle of resilience

History is written by the winners, as is well known, and those winners typically grasp the opportunity to make it all seem as easy and natural as possible. They want the power of their ideas to shine – who doesn’t – and so they let you believe that trifles like funding, exploration and the final dazzling outcome all fell together quite naturally. Of course, that’s normally never the case. It’s not that the truth is anything to be ashamed of. Usually the reality involves toil, sweat, and persistence in the face of rejections. And, even more commendably, it requires the resilience to pick oneself up and to carry on. If you believe that your thing is worth doing, you have to hold onto that, and not be dissuaded by the mean, jealous or small-minded.

A nice website

If history is written by the winners, that only happens after they’ve won. In the meantime, they should take care to have a nice website, full of interesting stuff. How does anybody in the world know who you are? By stumbling across you in person or happening to see one of your journal articles? No, you have to take charge of this yourself by having a website heaving with valuable delights. Then you also need to get people to look at this site, using whatever means are at your disposal but probably by pointing to it via your useful existence on social media. I mean, on social media you’d be providing interesting comments, pointers and insight, not adverts for your website, but if people like your intelligent commentary then some of them will look you up.

Lemon drizzle cake

Research is about collaboration. It’s not especially likely that all the greatest ever ideas reside in your own head – I mean, what are the chances? – so combining your own skills and insights with those of others is likely to pay off. Even if you’re the world’s biggest brainbox, it is probably the case that you might be lacking in some other department. Therefore, you’ve got to get along with others. How do you get along with others? Cake. I suggest lemon drizzle cake, everybody likes that and M&S do a good one for £2.50. That’s cheaper than the one-person latte you just enjoyed, and that cake alone can launch a fruitful collaboration of up to six people.

A flaggon of reputation

Reputation goes up when you have made some valuable research contributions to your field. That’s straightforward. So does reputation go down when you haven’t? No. Then it merely remains the same. Reputation goes down when you are known to be someone who cancels things, hates students, or only ‘networks’ for selfish purposes. So the variables that actively drive your reputation upwards or downwards are not the same things. Of course you want to be doing the good stuff that makes it go up – but make sure you don’t do the different bad stuff which makes it go down. Am I saying you’ve got to do academic work of the highest quality, and be nice? Yes.

A copy of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn

In which we discover that the reason nobody likes your work is because you are incredibly cutting-edge, and therefore a painful thorn to the carefully-established status quo. You’re pushing the paradigms to breaking-point. Good news for patient practitioners: everybody hates you now, but in three short decades you’ll have the last laugh.

A copy of The Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl Popper

Usually considered the opposite of Kuhn, because people think Popper said that scientists just find out true facts and write them down. But he didn’t say that at all. We keep Popper in our backpack to remind ourselves that we don’t actually have to get stuff right – we only need to be making testable propositions. This can sometimes be quite comforting.

A thesaurus and a telephone

You need a thesaurus so that you can fill your work with really hard words that nobody can understand, in order to demonstrate your commitment to academia, right? Wrong. Precisely the opposite. Clarity of communication, so that non-specialists can understand what you are talking about, is absolutely essential. Even within your field, things that are nice to read are always going to make people happier than things that are horrible to read. This can hardly be a surprise. The clues are in the adjectives. If clear writing does not come naturally to you, use the thesaurus to turn the long and weird words in your writing into more normal ones. Then use the phone to call your friendliest non-academic relative, and see how much of your prose you can read to them before they hang up.


Because nobody said it was going to be easy.

Photo by Furele Ghomo on Flickr (see original), used under a Creative Commons zero licence.

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