Research is the biggest driving force behind innovation and success. It is also the main reason why many of us are drawn to higher education. It is the bread and butter of what we do and why we do it. It is the motivation behind all those underpaid hours we spend in front of our computers designing surveys, crunching numbers, reviewing the literature, making grant deadlines, tediously crafting and re-crafting study protocols, running experiments, going through zillions of revisions on our manuscripts… 

That is why it is so critical that we put a keen emphasis on improving our research process and being diligent about it throughout each project. But what is a research process? And how can we improve it?

The research process is a full cycle of a research project, starting from the conception of a research idea (i.e., research topic) to the publication of the completed study. So, the process includes every detail ranging from how often to synch up with collaborators to seemingly more critical details such as the study design.

There are many ways to improve the research process and all start with being cognizant of and deliberate about it. The key is to systematically try and figure out what works best for you and your team. For those of you that are brave enough and interested in fusing a business mindset and a design-thinking approach to the research process, our Design Your Research workshop might be a great resource. In this post, I will review three main suggestions from a model we developed to make the process less frustrating and more fun. 

First, and foremost, start with being intentional and making a completely conscious decision about your research topic and question. The research topic is a brief description of your research, often crafted as an accessible short title that is both enticing and clear on key aspects of the research (e.g., Preventing Postpartum Depression Using Digital Technologies). Think of it as a conservation opener; the goal is to spark interest in your audience to learn more about it. The research question is a more fleshed out description of the main question you are trying to answer in your research project (e.g., Can personal digital health tools be utilized to deliver behavioral interventions and prevent postpartum depression?). Hence, developing the question usually comes after choosing a broader topic by narrowing down all the crucial details.You can, and will often need to further develop it into sub-questions, which can then serve as specific aims in your proposals. 

There are few things to be mindful of, while choosing your topic and crafting your question. For starters, they should be viable in terms of researchability (i.e., Can you address that question by executing a main study with limited sub-branches?). They should not be too broad, nor too narrow. But these are not hard limitations since there is always a way to adjust them to reach that optimal scope size, by adding or removing restrictions to the topic. While that optimal scope varies depending on field and discipline, being able to find a handful of peer-reviewed scholarly publications on the question of interest is often a good indicator of the right scope. 

At this stage of topic-question fine-tuning, it is a good idea to do a literature overview across various platforms and resources, including news media, talks, websites, blogs, special interest groups, etc. I realize that many of us, as scientists, often disregard these non-scholarly resources (or at least we fail to mention that we read those). However, checking out these “for broader public” resources is a great way to gauge the public’s needs as well as interests on your topic, which often is an indication of how much grant money and resources might be available for you to tap into. This does not mean that a topic of interest should be trashed if there is no hype about it in public media (i.e., no recent news, blogs etc on it). But, it is critical to be aware of such a situation either to iterate the question towards a more desirable content or to plan additional outreach and awareness efforts ahead of time; so that when your study is complete; you will find an eager audience to share with. 

More important than anything though, there needs to be a real deep connection between you and your research question. You will be spending lots of time on it; it has to be on something that motivates you, it has to have implications for which you are willing to put in months and years of work. So, do a real deep down search for love: Do you believe your research question is one of the most important things that needs to be solved, now? If so, why should it be you who solves that question? If your first answer is nothing short of “yes” and you can muster at least one reason for the second (e.g., “because I know what it feels like to be that mom suffering from depression”); then you are good to go. If you are unsure, that does not necessarily mean to abort right away. Do more research on the topic, find real-life ramifications of the problem, read user-stories on it, try to connect with the big picture, human/animal/planet side of it. But after all of your efforts, if you are still not sure; then it is better to iterate and formulate a new question (and even a new topic). This is often the biggest piece missing in junior research projects conducted in academia, especially when students or postdocs inherit research questions of their PIs or senior team members and they fail to form an authentic connection to it. That missing excitement almost always seeps through in their presentations and it is often the main reason why the audience fails to get excited about their research, no matter how impeccable it is. It is really hard to convince others to be passionate about your project, if you, yourself, are not. 

Second, you need to communicate your research to whomever you can find, wherever and whenever you can. Just like an entrepreneur, you need to have a 30-second, 1-minute, 3-minute and 5-minute versions of your research project. Think of it as pitching your research project and include all the essential parts (topic and main question, key methodology, progress so far and the projected impact of the final project) depending on the length of the version. These pitches need to be crafted for at least two different types of audience: lay-people and experts in your field. Whenever in doubt, offer the lay-person version and depending on the feedback of your audience, switch to the expert version for details. 

You might have thought of many reasons in the past not to engage in communication about your research. Let’s go over a couple of common excuses: 

  • “Your grandpa would not understand it, right? Why bother explaining it?” Well, anyone, including your grandpa, would get it if you communicate it to him in a clear and succinct way, free of any scholarly jargon. Moreover, he would probably surprise you with questions that go right into the heart of the whole topic. Conversing with lay-people about your research is in fact tremendously helpful while crafting the punchline for rationale and findings. The experts in your field would not be able to give you that honest, down to earth feedback, because they are not immersed in it. The picture as well as the missing pieces are clearer to recognize from afar. So, treat your Thanksgiving dinner as a great opportunity to pitch your research, prepare your lines and mingle with your friends and relatives with confidence. Plus, it is better to try it on a friendly listener first, rather than a complete stranger. 

  • “You are scared to get scooped; so it is better not to speak of your research, unless you have to.” This might be a valid concern, especially in highly competitive areas. However, you can always communicate your research without spilling the magic beans; so it is not a good reason to keep it all to yourself. Sharing your research is the only way to receive honest feedback from researchers in your field and it is better to hear from them sooner rather than later. It can also open ways for collaboration or peaceful competition (such as agreeing on back-to-back publications, etc.). 

  • “You are not ready; not until this x analysis is over.” Feeling ready is one of those things that you can rarely ever achieve. In my 15 year academic research career, I have rarely met a scientist or researcher absolutely satisfied with all of her/his research, and who feels completely ready to share. If nothing, the hindsight is 20-20 and you will likely never be absolutely happy with what you had done months ago. So, this is really just an excuse; you can always communicate your research as detailed as you are comfortable with, without over-promising or over-representing your progress. 

There might be many more reasons to feel timid about communicating your research. However, it is the biggest gift you can give to yourself and your team, especially early in the process. That is the only way, you can receive timely feedback on not only the research itself but also on how to present it most effectively. Having clear, succinct and impactful presentations are crucial to create hype about your research, raise awareness, prepare the field for your upcoming submission, go onto the radar of conference committees, secure opportunities for presentations… Especially in this highly competitive academic landscape, none of us can afford not to communicate our research effectively; and practice is the only way to make it perfect. 

Third, you need to love to iterate. We all need to learn to evolve throughout our projects based on revelations in our or others’ findings, new methodologies coming up, new trends, developments or changes in the team or resources, the challenges and road-blocks we hit on… A research project, even the most straightforward one, takes up to 1-2 years from idea to completion. Nothing stays the same for a year; so neither can our research process. We need to embrace that fact and be open to adapting whenever necessary. Having clear milestones planned ahead of time and chunking them into actionable, shorter-term goals are really the key for timely and sound iterative progress. 

Unfortunately, this part is often ignored. Especially if the research team is one-to-two people (e.g., graduate student & advisor pair), we falsely assume we are already on top of everything and we can recognize a road-block and adjust accordingly.  On the contrary, small teams need clearly laid-out plans even more, because it is very easy to get lost while being so deep in the struggles and challenges of day-to-day processes. Clearly defined internal deadlines and success metrics are even more needed for small teams in order for them not to lose touch with the big picture and to stay on track towards the end-goal. 

Despite the little recognition it gets, conducting research is just as any other skill that we can develop and excel in it, by learning, discussing and practicing. At the DLab, we are here to support you on this process. Check out the many workshops and training opportunities offered on research process, design, methods and tools; explore a one-on-one consultation; or simply just come and hang out in our collaboratory and try your Thanksgiving research pitch on us! 


Simal Ozen Irmak

Simal is a neuroscientist and researcher passionate to translate data and scientific research into meaningful information to improve health and wellbeing. She has a BA degree in Business Administration and a PHD degree in Neuroscience. She spent most of her career in academic research, investigating how certain brain regions communicate with each other during sleep and sleep like brain states.