We are taught many discipline-specific technical skills in graduate school. But little attention is devoted to the task of how to be a productive researcher. This “meta-skill” is usually learned the hard way through trial and error or, in the best-case scenario, through others’ advice.
In my eight post-PhD years, I have invested a lot of effort into figuring out how to maximize my research output while still having a life outside of work. Sure, there are academics who spend most of their waking hours working and, on top of that, do not sleep very much. If that’s your cup of tea, good news: these productivity suggestions can be paired with working many hours. But in my experience it is possible to be both very productive and not work 80+ hours a week.
1. Treat the research process as a skill you must learn and maintain.
No one is born knowing how to take a project from an idea to a published paper; some people just figure it out more quickly than others. Reading this article will not make you more productive overnight. You have to consistently exert effort to optimize your workflow. But the more you practice, the easier it gets, and some things become second-nature. Having the right attitude about the process of improving your productivity will help you calibrate expectations and muster willingness to persevere.
2. Experiment with productivity tools and discard ones that do not work.
I use Academic Sequitur (which I also created) to keep up with new research that’s relevant to me without wasting a lot of time sifting through journals’ tables of contents. I use Overleaf for easy LaTex-based collaboration with coauthors: it can track changes, saves the full history of the document for easy undos, and can handle simultaneous editing by multiple authors. Dropbox is excellent for collaborating more generally (as a bonus, it also keeps everything reliably backed up and easily accessible from my desktop and laptop). I use Google Scholar for quickly creating correctly-formatted references. Finally, I use Trello and good old Excel to manage my daily and weekly tasks, as well as longer-run goals.
But there were other tools I tried and discarded. For example, I tried Mendeley for managing references and found myself spending more time formatting my library than reading or referencing the papers themselves. I’ve tried Slack for discussing research and did not see a significant improvement over email. Your own experience will tell you which tools work for you and which do not (and this could change over time).
3. Protect your research time.
Figure out when you work best (mornings, afternoons, or evenings) and minimize non-research commitments during those times. In my calendar, 8am-11am is marked as “research time” every single weekday. That reminds me not to schedule other things during that time. To avoid having to respond to requests with “I’m sorry, that time doesn’t work for me, I’ll be sitting in my office doing research,” I will often take the first step in suggesting an afternoon meeting time.
Obviously, some morning meetings are unavoidable, but this practice greatly improves my productivity overall. Remember, the fact that your plan to do research at a particular time does not involve another person does not mean that it is not a “real” commitment. In fact, your job (mostly) depends on how well you meet this commitment.
4. Invest in your writing skills.
Writing can seem like a straightforward task after all the research is done, but it does not come easy for many people. At the same time, it is an essential component of being an academic: if you cannot explain your research in a compelling and clear way, you will have a hard time publishing it. Here are some specific suggestions for how to become a better writer.
- Make an effort to write every day, during the time when your brain and body are at their best (see above).
- Allow yourself to write “sh*^ty first drafts.” Do not try to spit out the perfect word/sentence/paragraph on the first try. Write freely, edit later.
- Do not start out trying to write for hours at a time. If you are not used to writing regularly, aim for 30 minutes or even just 10 minutes. If you write for 10 minutes a day, that is almost an hour of writing per week. If you do 30 minutes a day, that adds up to 2.5 hours! The Pomodoro technique can be very helpful here.
- Join a writing group. For about two years, I was a member of Academic Writing Club, an online group where professors or grad students from related disciplines are joined by a “coach”, create weekly goals for themselves, and check in daily with their progress. It is not free, but in my opinion worth it (and you can probably use your research budget). If you are looking for a free writing group, look for people around your university who are willing to get together and write!
5. Prioritize projects based on how close they are to publication.
This should be the order of your priorities, if not on a daily, then at least on a weekly level:
- Proofs of accepted papers that need to be turned around to the publisher.
- Working papers that are closest to submission, whether these are brand new ones or rejected ones looking for a new home.
- Projects that are closest to becoming working papers (e.g., ones where the analysis is complete).
- Projects in the data analysis/model-building/general research stage.
- Projects that are newer than everything above, a.k.a. research ideas.
If you treat productivity as something that must be learned, protect your most productive times, prioritize writing and papers that are closest to publication, and experiment with productivity-enhancing tools, you will become a better researcher.