by Dr Catherine Armstrong
Following on from the previous article on skills required when working as a lecturer, this article will examine five of the most important skills you need to become an excellent academic researcher. Obviously each field, arts, science or social science, has its own specialist skills that you must acquire, but here are five generic research skills that will help you achieve your goals.
1. Project Management
Every research project requires some degree of project management; this is a term you often hear being used, but what does it mean?
Project management essentially means good planning. You will have to define your research in terms of achievable aims, the time and resources needed to do this. You will have to provide a step by step plan of how you intend to carry this out. This stage of your research must be completed in order to get external funding, so without this skill your research project will not even get off the ground. If you are currently working on someone else's project as an assistant, try to learn as much as possible from them about the details of planning and running a project. Set achievable aims and realistic estimates of time, manpower and money needed.
2. Handling Budgets
Another important skill is learning how to manage a budget effectively. Without this skill you will never be able to lead your own research project. It's something that you may not have done in any great depth for your PhD.
As an academic you might have administrative support to help you hold the purse strings, but the final decision-making and responsibility will come down to you. As with your own domestic budget, keeping a regular check on monies in and out is vital: do not bury your head in the sand if things appear to be going wrong. Make sure you match your research goals to the money you have been awarded. Do not over-commit yourself in the hiring of other staff, or running collaborative workshops, both of which can cost a lot of money. But equally remember that the money is there to be spent, do not hoard it! And finally, make sure you keep good records of your income and spending: your university, funding body or the ‘tax man' may want to see your records at any time.
3. Team leading/managing
Being good at working with others is a difficult skill to achieve especially in the academic world when we are used to working with a large degree of autonomy. However a research project often requires the assistance of others: colleagues at your institution and elsewhere, administrative staff and possibly people in the private sector as well.
If you are managing the project you need to know two main things: how to get the best out of each of your workers, and how to make their working experience a positive one. Without both of those factors, your team may fall apart. Being a good communicator is important. Asking each person to play their part is vital, but so is listening to them, asking for their feedback on decisions or asking what is wrong if they are not happy. Being able to assess each colleague's needs and vulnerabilities is essential if you are going to be able to lead them as a team.
4. Handling Data
Depending on your field the sorts of results you get from your project will vary widely. It could be results from experiments within a laboratory, statistical evidence gathered from work in the field or qualitative material gleaned from interviews or from research in an archive or library. Whatever sort of results you get, you need to be able to handle large amounts of data efficiently and effectively. Without this skill you will never get to the exciting stage of actually analysing your results.
So how do you handle data successfully? By being well organised and planning ahead. While you may not be exactly sure of what you will produce, you will know what sort of data storage you need, both electronically and on paper, so organise this immediately. You must not lose any work because of incompetence or disorganisation. So design and set up your database now; organise storage for hard copies of raw materials and catalogue them clearly. Make sure you keep records of who is collecting what as you go along, so that when it comes to writing up your research later, you have all the answers you need at your fingertips.
5. IT skills
Closely linked with point 4 is the necessity of developing IT skills. It is unlikely you will be running your own research project without being fairly IT literate, but there are always new methods or packages to learn about, so don't stop!
For example, are there any data collection or storage packages that would help your research that you are unfamiliar with? What about analytical tools for working with large amounts of data? Perhaps you need something bespoke and experimental for your project that you could help to design. It could be that a bibliographical tool might help you write up your research. Also think about ways that you can develop your IT skills to present your work in ever more exciting ways. Can you build your own website for example?
IT is a very important area for researchers. Like our own fields of interest, IT never stands still, there is always a way to improve your skills even further.