By Lilian Pavani
Those who have done scientific research know how hard it is to explain what you do. Since your work is not an internship or a job, research is typically first done in the position of a student, as either an undergrad, masters, or doctoral student. Is there a researcher among us who has not heard the phrase “do you work too, or only study?” Contrary to common belief, yes, you work and work hard!
Mislead are those who think that work within science is a cinch. Research goes beyond reading articles and books, it involves the construction of new knowledge. On this ardent path, scientists are forced to learn many things that are valued in the “real world.”
When I was doing research I didn’t have any idea of the skills I had learned along the way, but when I started to work in the business world, I realized how many abilities I had due to my undergrad and masters studies in marine ecology. Regardless of the subject you research, you’ll likely find the following to be true for yourself:
1- You know how to use Word and Excel
You may need a bundle of complicated software to analyze specific aspects of your work, but there will never be a time you’ll forego the simplicity of making a datasheet and quick graph in Excel. One of the first skills we teach ourselves in data analysis is how to transform a pie chart to a bar graph and change the colors of data series’ until we find what best represents our results. And if you’re applying to a scholarship, presenting results, or formatting a thesis, you’ll – pardon me the pun – learn Word “write.” You insert tables, images and references without losing sight of the format of paragraphs, margins, or footers.
2- You know how to make nice presentations in PowerPoint
Who hasn’t made a poster to present in a conference? Or a presentation for a class in your undergrad or to defend your thesis? Research has helped you almost certainly develop a good aesthetic sense: knowing how to pick the best background color and font, and how to symmetrically distribute the elements of your slide. By now, we all know a picture is worth a thousand words, and wordy slides are the downfall of an otherwise good presentation. Powerpoint helps us master the art of presenting the important information in the available time, be it five, 20 or 50 minutes.
3- Project management is something natural
Your desire to do research likely started with a question you wanted to answer, a need you identify – the initiation step. To answer the question, you needed to write a research proposal, so you to gathered information, defined the necessary activities to your study, and estimated the necessary resources and deadlines – the planning step. With a research project approved, you developed the defined activities – the execution step. And while your project was being developed, from time to time some activities and processes were reviewed, adjusted and made better – the control and monitoring step. By project completion, you presented the final results in a report or article that went through a rigorous evaluation by your adviser and others – the finalization step. There you go, you may have never heard of a PMBOK or MS project, but you know all about project management!
4- Quality is mandatory
The level and rigor and requirements in the academic field can be stratospheric. I’ve seen people kicked out of graduate programs because their scores didn’t meet the level desired by the program. Even if your work is a good contribution to the field, an unsatisfactory abstract alone may prevent you from presenting your work at a conference. If your article is not well structured, it likely won’t be published in any journal. Peers evaluate everything and screen your work for any minor slip; therefore, it is imperative to always make sure the work is well done.
5 – You become judicious
Because of the obligation to quality, the more thoughtful you are in the development of your work, the greater the chance that it will be well done. This habit is acquired without notice.
6 – Knowing how to argue is a necessity
In order to discuss your results, apply for funding, or convince your advisor, you need to know how to defend, support, and prove your point of view.
7 - You learn how to deal with people
During your research, you need to deal with several different people in varying positions of power. At the very least, you have an advisor and maybe a co-advisor. If you are at masters or doctorate level, you will have collaborators alongside you and new students below you to train. There will also likely be the need to connect to other members of the your home department, especially professors. Those who even only minimally understand academia know that the academic field is an ego war, and you are caught in the crossfire. You must learn to do whatever is possible to keep things going without damaging the pace of your research.
8 – You understand deadlines are important and you abide by them
If you’re on a scholarship you’re always aware of the deadlines for filing reports and funding forms. If you don’t have a scholarship, you’ll be following program deadlines and keeping track of when to submit a new proposal. If you want to present your work at a conference, you have deadlines for abstract submission (sometimes organizers can extend the deadline date, but in general, people use that just to review the abstract sent).
9 – Financial management is part of it
In general, most scientific grants and scholarships have a technical reserve -- money that does not go to the researcher but towards the acquisition of equipment, books, field research, and other items needed to the development of the research project. This pool of money is often small, so you learn to manage the financial resources by looking for the best value. In some cases, you may learn to manage many different project funds, to buy common materials that will benefit multiple projects and other in the lab.
10 – You realize that your success is totally up to you
The academic field can be a hostile environment, demanding a lot of dedication. Because of that, people tend to qualify themselves as much as possible and are always in search of improvement. So, if you intend to leave the academic career and follow an alternate path, remember your own self value! You have a lot to offer! ;)
About Lilian Pavani:
Lilian is a biologist, with a masters in ecology and specialization in environmental engineering from the State University of Campinas. She is a lover of sponges and other marine invertebrates, especially the colorful ones. After sailing through sponges, amphipods and petroleum, the current and winds took her literally down other roads, where she worked studying run-over fauna, doing environmental management and supervision of railroad construction. She has many diverse interests, including education, writing, innovation, cooking, playing the flute in an amateur group of antique musicians, and bird watching. Anyway, she lives with her feet in the sand and kind of in the tides.