How to keep your research on target
Is a lack of focus baffling your team? Dr Matthew Partridge recommends setting research goals and sticking to them...
To an outside observer research has a great air of focus, planning and careful consideration. From vaccine research to Nobel prize winning physics, research looks well organised and planned. But, to anyone that has ever worked in research the reality is often confusion and a lot of eye rolling.
It really doesn’t have to be that way. Focus, planning and careful consideration are easy if you just know how to, errrr, focus plan and consider things and luckily that is something we can help with. Here we have prepared some simple steps to do at the outset of your new project to ensure laser-like focus and avoid a baffled research team.
Have a goal
The first step is hopefully so obvious that it will seem ridiculous that I even wrote it down. Your project needs to have a goal. You would be astonished at how many research projects don’t have one of these. I’ve seen researchers hired on three-year PhDs only to be pointed at a lab and told “do something with that”. Generally, what most researchers then do is use the lab to have a bit of a cry, and rightly so.
Goals don’t have to be super detailed or complicated. A simple “build a sensor for X” or “look at new methods for Y” will do. Research is big and what we don’t know in science is vast. It sometimes helps to at least narrow it down from “literally anything” to “I dunno… chemistry I guess?”
Once you have a goal then it helps to actually start to think about what success would look like. Again, this seems simple but in most labs this is radical thinking right here.
What is minimum success for your project. Is it getting a sensor that can improve detection by at least 5x, or a method that is 3x cheaper than Z. These take a bit more thought as you actually have to decide what would be ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’ (top tip: bad is more often than not the exploding outcome… but not always).
Speaking of which. Failure happens. But it happens a lot more if you don’t actually know what that is either. Write down what it is about your project that would be a failure. Would the sensor costing $10m per sample be failure? If your method requires sacrificing two students every time it’s run, would that be a failure?
Knowing when your project has failed is a good way of knowing when it’s time to move on to a different project or focus more resources to help. If you constantly run along the lines of “oh that, yeah it’s probably fine”, then the only thing that’s fine is your slow decent into a project that is at some point or another going to hit the research equivalent of a wall and turn into the research equivalent of pile of broken glass and crumpled metal.
Stick to your plan
Now the final stage is the hardest. You actually need to stick to all the things you’ve just thought about and planned. If your minimum success levels are called that for sake of your team, your morale and deference to the meaning of the word, call it a success.
If I have to sit in another meeting and hear someone say “you’ve hit those goals really quickly… I guess they were too easy, let’s do better” then I’m going to start writing a focused goals list where minimum success is getting away with some light murder.
Author: Dr Matthew Partridge is a researcher, cartoonist and writer who runs the outreach blog ErrantScience.com