Undertaking a research degree inevitably means reading from an ever-growing list of journals and numerous reference books. While having a solid understanding of the fundamentals of your discipline is crucial to conducting research, it is important to add to your reading list books which will help you develop the softer skills necessary for becoming a competent researcher. This article outlines three of my favourite books which can help any aspiring researcher develop three important skills: master academic writing, manage uncertainty and develop creativity.
1) The Scientist’s Guide to Writing by Stephen B. Heard
Conducting research usually entails collecting copious amounts of data, running lengthy experiments and analysing vast amounts of publications. While these will help you make progress in your own project, they do not significantly contribute to academia unless the results are clearly articulated and shared with both our colleagues as well as non-academics. As Adam Savage, the host of the show “Mythbusters”, said: “The difference between messing around and science is writing it down”.
Although many students embarking on their postgraduate journey are knowledgeable of their respective fields and are capable of conducting research, writing effectively and productively is a separate challenge. From personal experience, despite the fact that I had been trained in creative writing, when I arrived at University I realised that technical and academic writing require a different skillset – one that nevertheless can be developed if approached correctly!
Stephen B. Heard puts an emphasis on two different aspects. The first of course, is the significance of clear articulation and efficient communication with the reader. As an associate editor of the American Naturalist journal and professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick, he draws from a lot of his personal experiences. But more important is the second aspect of the book which is a study into the understanding of your own personal behavior when writing. The book includes an analysis of the psychology of writing behavior in order to aid the reader in understanding how to write efficiently but also effectively.
2) The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg
One of the first things my supervisor told me prior to me undertaking a PhD is that a key skill for conducting research is “uncertainty management”. Unlike an undergraduate degree, which includes predetermined goals and assessment methods, the work produced during a research degree cannot be easily evaluated as the novelty of the material produced prevent one from doing so. To manage this uncertainty and to be capable of criticising and evaluating your own work, there exists a fundamental prerequisite: being independent.
The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research is a guide to becoming an independent researcher. The book provides great insights into developing your own methods for analysing literature, presentations, journals and more. In addition, as the book was written by Marian Petre, a computing professor, and Gordon Rugg, an English lecturer and field archeologist, the book understands the differences between research techniques within different fields. This is why one of the recurring themes of the book is advice on how to solicit information from established professionals within your discipline.
Finally, one of the reasons I find this book to be of great value is because it provides you with a fairly good understanding of how academia functions. Publishing papers and becoming an expert in a field is fundamental to a research degree but understanding the history and culture of academia will help you place your findings in a bigger context and gain a further appreciation of both your own work as well as the discoveries of those who have come before you.
3) Little Bets by Peter Sims
A researcher can be thought of as a businessman. Your project is your very own start-up company which has clear goals and measurable outcomes and is your duty to oversee its operations in order to guarantee its growth and success. Like an entrepreneurial venture, a piece of research is not defined merely by its technical aspects but more importantly it is based on creative elements which are discovered and developed incrementally.
In Little Bests, Peter Sims presents a series of technical, entrepreneurial as well as artistic breakthroughs and analyses the small, experimental steps that were taken in order to develop ground-breaking ideas. While most postgraduate students and PhD candidates praise analytical thinking and problem solving over creativity, an important part of obtaining novel results is being able to tap into your creativity and break away from traditional narrow thinking structures.