Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Research Skills

I am still on the topic of self-regulated learning and graduate education. Today I want to discuss another tool that graduate students need for success: research skills. The art of conducting research has many components. First, students need to formulate research questions, preferably research questions that are going to be incremental, if not significant, additions to the field. This is a hard skill to teach, and one students really want to learn how to do. In fact, I was just on a panel at a first-year graduate student orientation, and a student asked – how do I come up with good research questions?  There is no easy answer to this question. But, I have a few ideas of how we can help grad students gain skills related to formulating research questions.

medium_320161805First, we need to teach graduate students how to find and consume research. Faculty often assume that because our students are so tech-savy, they know how to search the internet for research related to their topic of interest, and find relevant articles. However, what faculty forget is that as undergraduate students, our students most often use their computers for social networking and consuming information. It is a very different skill to use the internet to find research. In a future post, I want to talk about skills related to finding research, but that is outside of the scope of this post. Let me just say that we need to teach students how to use the internet (my favorite is google scholar) to find research articles, rather than assuming they know how to do this.

On the topic of how to consume research, I think most students come into graduate school thinking they need to read every word of every article, and that they need to read every single article on their topic. Students will eventually realize that this is impossible. We might save them time by recommending ways to figure out which articles they should read in their entirety (i.e. classic articles in their field, articles that they are directly building on with their research) and which articles they can skim (i.e. articles for class that our outside of their field, articles that they are using just for a particular citation). We also need to help them understand when they have enough of a grasp of their area to begin to move towards research questions. I try to cover how to consume research early in the grad student proseminar I lead (see a syllabus here), but grad students can go years without really understanding how to consume research in an effective, efficient way. It feels overwhelming to get to know a field when you are a beginning grad student, so the earlier grad programs and advisors can give tips for consuming research, the better. Advisors are also the best individuals for helping a student know when they are ready to go to the hypothesis building phase, and have read enough. I have seen students fall in this trap where they think they don’t know the literature well-enough to formulate and test research questions, even after years in graduate school, and these students tend to flounder and not get the publications needed to land jobs.

Once you consume the research in your area and have a research question, you need to gather/find data and test that research question. That is where data collection and statistical skills come in. I think most grad programs do a good job of teaching these skills, so I am not going to spend a lot of time on this topic. But, these are critical skills as well. If you are looking for a grad program and students do not seem prepared in terms of research and statistical skills, or the students and faculty are not publishing in the top journals in the field, then you might look elsewhere. If you are already in this type of program, seek out other opportunities to gain these skills, even if they are in a different graduate program. Most big research universities, which are most likely to have grad programs, have these opportunities available. Take advantage of them even if they are not in your graduate program.

The final critical skill for research is writing. But, I have already covered that extensively in other posts. Oftentimes, students forget that good writing is an essential research skill. But, without the ability to clearly and logically communicate ideas, your research will likely have a hard time finding its way into a journal, or if it does find a journal, it will be a lower impact journal where fewer people will see it, meaning it will have less impact on the field. So, don’t forget about those writing skills!

Have a great week, and I would love to hear some your ideas about research skills that you think are essential for graduate student success!

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