How being an exceptional researcher is like being an elite athlete

Research is a lot like professional sports.  Elite athletes devote their lives to win a chance to compete for a medal at the Olympics. As a researcher, you build-up your entire career by aligning all your efforts towards this big distant goal of discovering a solution to a very complex problem. The good news is that research does not have a particular date you have to perform by. You can continue your “Olympic” efforts almost forever. 

The knowledge about your expertise area is, of course, important, but I don’t think it distinguishes an excellent researcher from the rest. The same is true for elite athletes. All finalists have physical qualities to win the medal. They have already proven it by getting to the final. And yet not all of them do win at the end. What makes the difference then?

The athletic champions themselves have some insides to offer, and these are totally relatable to the research world. The medalists of Olympic and Paralympic Games and World champions agree that there are certain mindsets and lifestyles that support achieving top performance. I think these apply to excellent research too. 

1. Psychological  attributes

Superior self-regulation

The champions credited their success to self-awareness of their strengths and limitations. Knowing what they are great at, and what may hinder their performance was viewed as an important aspect. Also, self-reflection and analyzing one’s abilities and performance during the competition were highly valued.

Researchers could benefit from self-reflection too. Using your strengths to build your career and benefit your research will certainly make things easier. Being aware of the weaknesses, on the other hand, gives you an opportunity to decide whether you need to invest in improving or just accept the things that they are, at least for the time being. 

The next aspect of self-regulation is the hunger for self-challenge. If you expect everything to go smoothly in your research journey, you may get discouraged pretty quickly. On the contrary, if you welcome challenges as opportunities to learn and grow, that is what will happen. Sometimes, challenges are showing us the areas for improvement. Without them, we stagnate or even go back, in research too. 

Having a positive mindset helps in life in general, but is crucial in academia. Solving problems every day and changing people’s lives (through research and teaching) can be stressful. Having a positive outlook on things helps not only to cope with the challenges but also to successfully interact with other people. 

Intrinsic motivation

The aspect showing whether you have a chance to become a great researcher is intrinsic motivation. Are you interested to know more? Are you curious? Do you feel the need to do research? Does researching make you happy (most of the time)? Research is too long of a journey to be forcing yourself to do it. 

Self-confidence

Wanting to do research, is the first requirement. What you need next is self-confidence. At least at the basic level of believing that you can learn and grow and develop, and so does your research. One of the ways to establish confidence in oneself is to prove to yourself that you can design, prepare, conduct, analyze and disseminate great research. Constant reflection on what you could do better, and implementing the improvements as you go, will guarantee your personal development and improvement in the quality of your research outputs. 

Focusing on what YOU can improve and not wasting time on complaining about the things you cannot change anyway, will pay off tremendously. I am sure your life is busy already; you do not need the ballast of negative talk. If something bothers you: either change or move on spending as little energy on it as possible. 

Effective coping strategies

Like with any long-term endeavor, high motivation levels will fade from time to time. That’s normal. If you will do research for long enough, you will have days, weeks or maybe even months, that things will be far from ideal in your work-life (or home-life for that matter). 

It is a good investment to develop some healthy strategies to apply at the days when you do not feel inspired, and when the projects are not going as expected or smoothly. You need resilience to persist with your work even if circumstances are not optimal. 

This may include finding ways to do your research in ways other them you have expected at the start. Lack of money for research projects or equipment? Apply for a grant or try crowd-funding or collaboration with equipment manufacturers. Thinking outside the box can bring unexpected results and change how you view research and yourself as a researcher by showing you that you can. 

Research can be done in many other ways than academia has to offer. So if you love research, but the academic environment is unbearable, there are other options to do research outside academia. Please consider these before you give up on research altogether.

Of course, some people may get fed up with research, and decide to move on to do something else. And that is totally fine. I acknowledge that there are many more things to do in life than research. If you know that research is no longer the thing you want to do, you should definitely consider moving on. 

Strong work ethic

Growing into an elite researcher will also require a tremendous work ethic. I don’t necessarily mean unreasonably long hours of work. As these would mean an unsustainable lifestyle and almost guarantee burnout.  

I mean developing a work ethic based on priorities, focus, and building. Not all tasks in your day-to-day life as a researcher are equally important. Not all of these tasks contribute equally to developing your excellence in research nor are valued equally by your employer. 

Only you can define the core things you need to be doing. And only you can protect the time to do these things on a weekly or daily basis. The popular example to mention here would be writing. Writing is the main way of communication in research and an important contributor to the researcher’s external assessment. And yet, many academics struggle to write enough. I don’t think that excellent researchers do not struggle, I think they learn how to produce despite the struggle. 

Another aspect of work ethics is paying exceptional attention to the quality of the work you do. In research, the quality of your work will always trump the quantity (I hope). One great project, answering an important and interesting question will always trump two or even three projects which do not contribute that much. Do not get me wrong however, if you have a chance to do more projects, you get more chances of contributing significantly. Only if all of your projects are of great quality, you get to really build something substantial in your research career. 

Your contribution is not only contained within the knowledge you produce. These are also relationships you build, the networks you develop, the mentoring you provide, and the environments you build. Academia used to have it build in with teaching and mentoring being a part of the job. Nowadays, with short-term contracts, it becomes harder to have a stable work environment or access to mentors. Doing our best with wherever we can, has to be good enough for now.

Effective visualization & imagery strategies

In research, this visualization and imagery could include a reflection on your research practices. There is always a way to improve your skills in the lab, stats or to learn something new method. Reflecting on what you do great and what you need to work on is one of the ways allowing you to improve in the stage of your career when external feedback is scarce.  

Visualization of yourself succeeding can be useful for some. Imagining yourself achieving your goals and your research changing the world and having the impact it deserves can unblock your potential. Sometimes the brightest researchers are the shyest and it always breaks my heart. If you can imagine yourself succeeding regularly, maybe it will become less scary. That way you can focus on your great work and stop sabotaging yourself.  

Reliance on routines

I think that investing in this one will pay off in research tremendously. The more creative I try to become, the more I rely on routines. Research takes time and only having a good routine can take you there sane or even happy. Here are some examples.

  • Many of the tasks in research repeat, so investing in a great organization of your processes can save you a lot of time and assure the quality too. 
  • Creating a positive routine around your writing may not only allow you to write more but even feel good doing it. 
  • Also getting rid of unwanted routines, like checking your email five hundred times per day can have a great impact on your productivity. 

2. Performance strategies

Maximizing training and performance opportunities

This one is obvious, to get better at research you have to do research. To some extent, the more research you do, the more opportunity you have to get better at it. The research process is a spiral, so if you can expose yourself to all the stages of this process repeatedly, you will get more familiar with what each one of them entails. 

Maximizing opportunities would also include applying for grants and awards. Some of these seem out of reach, but you never know until you try. Looking at starting a business is also a viable option to broaden your opportunities. Building your brand or investing in public outreach may be beneficial. Also, even if you have a tenure position, I would encourage you to at least look at other positions in different institutions. 

Effective utilization of technology

Technology would include here various software and the Internet in general. These can help tremendously in the automation of some tasks (automatic replies, newsletters, updates, backups). Keeping up with all the new literature would be simply impossible without digital databases and searches. Technology can also save a lot of time in translations, transcribing or figure preparation. 

Technology enables networking like never before. You can connect with almost anyone in the world through social media (e.g., Twitter, Instagram, Facebook), professional networks (e.g., Linked In), and forums and discussion boards (e.g., Reddit).

Building your brand as a researcher on social media may allow you to promote your work, disseminate your findings and solutions while allowing your research to impact more people. Some universities make a decent job in promoting their faculty, but most don’t. If you want your work to be used and known about, you will need to spend some time promoting it, and technology can help. 

Recovery

Utilizing recovery techniques to keep you going over the years is crucial! And so forgotten in the research world. I am guilty! You have to be fit to be productive, especially if you want to have a long career. A healthy lifestyle on a day-to-day basis and taking regular breaks will get you there. What will not get you there is overworking, sacrificing (especially your health) and constantly putting yourself under barely-bearable stress.

The most powerful and easies (or is it?) recovery technique you can use “daily” is sleep. Taking care of your sleep environment, creating a sleep-friendly routine, making sure that you sleep enough hours regularly, can be so powerful. 

There are other things you can do to recover for work, I will discuss them in one of the sections below (keep reading).

3. Interpersonal relationships

Support team

The more people who support you the merrier. In an ideal situation, you would have all the people in the lab supporting your research work, your boss and your uni supporting your work, and all the people outside your immediate work environment understanding and supporting your work too. 

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. So the more people who support you, you can find, the better. Make sure you let them know, at least from time to time, how much they mean to you. Everyone likes to be acknowledged. 

Having a network within and outside the workplace will allow you to make progress even in hard times, as these will certainly come. Here is how to go about building a support team in and outside of academia.

Building a support team within an academic environment

If you do not have a support team yet, there is nothing stopping you from building one. You can offer people collaboration or support on a certain aspect of work like establishing a departmental writing group. Going a step further, you can pay someone to support your research by employing research assistants or writing coaches (or dissertation coaches if you are a PhD student). 

In terms of supporting you within your subject area, you could reach out to people around the world having similar research interests and offer your help/collaboration, or even ask them for mentoring. 

Building a support team outside the academic environment

Your family is super important here. If you can have the support from your family, it is worth investing in it. Family is usually a big part of your life. Family can offer a laugh, fun and unwind so important for recovery and regeneration. Contact with family may at least temporarily remove the pressures of your research work and give you time and space to relax. 

Research work may be sometimes hard to explain, as it is not common knowledge as to what researchers exactly do. So showing some of your family members how your lab or office looks like and what you do there, may help them to understand you a little bit more. Most unis have open days, consider them to introduce your family to your work in a fun and entertaining way. 

It may help to explain to your family not so much what your research is about, but more on the impact you are working for. 

Partnerships

It is not a secret that I love my collaborators. They are important for the work you do, but even more for emotional support and encouragement, as well as honest communication. 

Mentors can also be important in sharing their networks, resources, experiences, and knowledge. The mentor who can support your autonomy and at the same time makes things a little bit easier, or less vague or uncertain, is gold. 

4. Lifestyle practices

It would be silly to expect an elite athlete to perform on the highest level when his/her lifestyle includes poor eating habits, lack of sleep and a super stressful schedule. And yet, we expect a researcher to perform exceptionally complicated thinking without their lifestyle allowing them to be their best. Like elite athletes, exceptional thinkers will have to invest in some lifestyle practices which will keep their bodies in shape to allow their brain to perform. Only a healthy lifestyle will ensure career longevity. 

Nutrition and hydration

Nutrition and hydration are the basics of a healthy lifestyle along with physical activity and sleep. Without thinking about optimizing these, you will struggle to be extremely productive over a few decades of your work life, and that is what is required to achieve excellence in research. If you need to consult a nutritionist or dietician, do so, I promise it will be worth it. 

Getting some blood test, including testing for allergies and then using nutritional supplementation or changing your diet to improve the results. may have a tremendous impact on your productivity, energy levels, and mood. 

As a side note, I will add that researchers are in general respected in society. Many people hold them as an example also in aspects like health (regardless of the actual topic of the research expertise). Your healthy lifestyle will rub off on your family, friends, and strangers too. 

Utilization of complementary therapies

Having a regular massage, going for a yoga session or sauna, having a bubble bath, may all be helpful in keeping you in great shape and fit for performing your best in research. Some find meditation useful. Whatever makes you unwind, switch off and relax is worth trying. Having as many recovery practices as possible and using them regularly will help you to improve and sustain your productivity.

Make sure that you do some form of sport or physical activity regularly too. Choose something you enjoy, but if you do not enjoy anything, you are not exempted from trying to find this thing. Moving your body is important. 

Choose activities that take care of keeping you strong and make you moderately tired at least 2-3 times per week for starters, and go from there. It is a journey and activities (and the amount of time you are able to devote to them) will change throughout your career. This is ok, as long as you keep moving regularly. 

Importance of time out

Developing a way of switching off from your research work will create balance. Time with family and friends, shopping, doing arts and crafts, playing an instrument or training for a marathon or weightlifting competition should be viewed as necessary parts of the process, not as time stealers. 

Music is very powerful is manipulating mood, as is reading, watching movies and spending time in nature. These truly switch our focus and allow the brain to leave work at work, at least for that moment.

Taking vacations and traveling somewhere new are great ways to separate yourself from work. There is a reason for people having holidays every year, we need them. You can’t be “on” all the time. Having regular breaks is likely to make you more productive. When you come back, you will be refreshed and energized. 

Confession

I have to confess that there are many aspects on this list I still have to work on (especially the lifestyle and recovery ones). It is not easy (possible?) to have all these things in perfect order at all times. Striving to achieve as many as possible is however my mission in 2020, so wish me luck. And maybe, just maybe, you would like to join me in this effort?

Hugs,

Alex

Are there other things that contribute to the research performance? Please comment below

This post was inspired by Burns et al. Lifestyles and mindset of Olympic, Paralympic and world champions: is an integrated approach the key to elite performance? BJSM 2019, 53:818-824. 

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