5 rookie researcher mistakes

One thing I have learned over the years I have been Whispering is, although the problems they face are similar, no two research students are alike. What works for one person may not work for another. For this reason I have developed a habit of ‘reverse advice’ lists, for example: “5 classic research presentation mistakes” “Are you getting in the way of your PhD?” , “5 ways to fail your PhD” and “5 ways to poster = fail”.

I like a reverse list because it highlights the problem more than the suggested solutions, leaving you free to choose your own.

This time of year I attend a lot of research student orientation sessions around RMIT, where I usually give my  ‘top five newbie mistakes’ talk. I tell students there’s no need to take notes because I have blogged it (yet another reason to keep up a blog by the way). However a student wrote to me this week saying they had read through the whole blog (!) and I hadn’t actually written out this rant yet. Oops. Thanks for that. I’m lucky to have such a diligent audience!

I developed these ‘top five mistakes’ from years of listening to research students talk, reading The Literature and doing the occasional bit of research myself. This list is my opinion; as always, I hope that those of you with some more experience of studying or supervising will chime in with your own.

 Don’t write (nearly) everyday:

My colleague Dr Judy Maxwell is fond of saying that a thesis is like eating an elephant. I think the only way to eat an elephant is to approach it with quiet confidence, preferably from the rear, and use your knife and fork to take a small bite at a time.

This means you need to be writing all the time, not leave it all to some future time you will ‘write up’. Of course, it’s easy to promise yourself that you will write early and often, but hard to stick with the resolution. Even people who love to write can find the enormity of a PhD thesis confronting – and many of us don’t love the writing.

I think the trick is to treat writing like piano practice: just do it for its own sake, everyday. The best kind of writing is the sort we do for others: a blog post, a grant application, a long email – anything like this will do. When you write with an audience in mind you improve your fluency and clarity. Even taking notes is a great opportunity to sharpen technique; pretend the notes are for a research assistant who doesn’t have the same background as you and needs to put a paper together in a hurry (your future self will thank you).

Some of the daily writing will end up in your thesis – but don’t worry too much if it doesn’t for the first year or so. For more severe cases of deadline-itis I refer you to the ever popular post: “How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)”.

Don’t attend other people’s research presentations

When I was a PhD student I received a steady stream of emails advertising seminars given by other research students, visiting scholars, professors in the faculty and the like. Many of them offered a free lunch. The problem was the reminder email would inevitably arrive just when I was having a good writing moment and I would ignore it in favour of doing work. This felt good – virtuous even. I was denying myself social contact and having lunch with my Thesis instead.

Sometimes as little as 50% of the people who register for my workshops turn up, I suspect for the same reason. Even when I offer a free lunch. I am not the only Thesis Whisperer in world; there are many of my kind who work to support research students. Whenever I meet another Whisperer they tell me it’s hard to get students to turn up, so I don’t feel too bad. Over the years I have started to give my workshops ridiculously exaggerated names like “Heinous research mistakes and how to avoid them” just to get business. If I called it “Ethics, plagiarism and copyright” people would stay away in droves.

I was one of you. I get it. I could give you all the community minded reasons why you should go, but I am going instead to appeal to your selfish side. You learn a lot from watching how other people present their work and even more from watching them being criticized. Let’s face it, it’s much better to watch someone else be torn to shreds than experience it yourself. If you watch enough of these you will start to work out, amongst other things, the devious questions which academics like to ask to trip new students up.

(And if you say you want to come to a workshop, please turn up! Think of the poor Thesis Whisperer in your university with an empty room and too many sandwiches.)

Don’t visit the 807 section of the library

We all went to secondary school and got a basic education in how to write and research an essay. Some of you may have gone on to do an undergraduate course which asked you to do a lot of essays, while others – like myself- will have specialised in a profession which did not emphasize writing skills.

Even those who did a lot of writing as undergraduates will need to step it up while doing a research degree. Your work will be judged by scholars of international repute whose standards are very high. Make a visit to the books residing in the 800’s section of the library, particularly in 807. You will find heaps there on writing style, researching tips and the like (in fact, I like to think if this blog was in a library it would be in the 800 section, hanging with the other cool kids).

Fail to attend to paperwork

Any university is a massive bureaucracy. At RMIT we have a policy on policies (true fact); we even have  person whose WHOLE JOB is just to check every single form we produce.

Let’s take a moment to think about that …

… best not.

We might go mad.

Anyway, my point is that ‘paperwork’ is not some minor irritant. It’s central to your life as a student and academic. Paperwork takes time to process; ethics committees and scholarship applications can get held up if you don’t fill in the forms properly. Make sure the form you are using is the right one and up to date. I can’t count how many people hand in their ethics application on the form the supervisor sent them, which is 3 years old, then get pissed when they have to wait another month. Being angry at the need to do paperwork is like being angry about the weather – satisfying, but ultimately pointless. And while I’m at it: file them properly when you have finished. A well written ethics application can sometimes be feed right back into your thesis. Sometimes the writing you do on forms can be re-used on other forms, for example, grant and/or job applications.

Don’t use technology

Tools like Mendeley / Zotero / CiteUlike help you find out what other people are reading. Humans are, after all, the best search engines. I could bore for Australia on how you can leverage social media and cloud apps for productivity and your career advantage. Oh wait – I’m writing a book so you can read that instead. At least learn to use Endnote ok? It will help Aunty Thesis Whisperer sleep at night.

So that’s my list – what do you think are the top five mistakes research newbies make? Love to hear about them in the comments.

Related Posts

Are you getting in the way of your PhD?

How to declutter your writing

43 thoughts on “5 rookie researcher mistakes

  1. Vijay says:

    A very good post, Inger.

    When I was doing my Master’s I used to attend (most of) others presentation not because I want to learn from them but because I get lot of good food (seriously the Uni where I done my Master give really good food, not just sandwiches).

    When I came to do PhD, I noticed the changes thats happening with me (whattttt….?). These days am attending others presentation because its a way of getting to know others work, most importantly how they are presenting and the contents of the presentation. If I like some contents of a particular presentation I will note down, go to library and get that particular piece. After attending so many school presentation given by my colleagues, I feel now that am ready to give my school presentation:)…Yay. I got to know the tricks of the trade:)
    Looking forward to read your book, Dr Inger:)

  2. Mary says:

    All very good advice, but I think it’s horses for courses depending on individual circumstances, inclination and daily mood. I don’t write every day, because I am researching and note-taking. I spend quite a bit of time reading, annotating, copying, and saving information for later. I then go through my material, organise it, then based on what I have gathered, I start writing. I’m on my last chapter, and my way seems to work for me. I may spend a few days doing nothing, but make it up by being extra productive other days. I try to balance family life, kids, work and research and not let the thesis dominate my life – when I do, I become miserable. Some days I get inspiration and I am on a roll. Other days I don’t want to think about it. When I force myself to work, I end up doing nothing. So, I reached the conclusion that no rules are the best rules. I do what I can, when I can and so far I am doing ok.

    • Anonymous says:

      That sounds like the kind of writing I was talking about. Writing notes counts as writing – it sounds like you have great writing habits! And you’re right, some days you can’t force it; academia is a creative profession. Those days I try to have some mundane, but useful, writing task to do. This stops me from feeling panic at the work mounding up…

  3. Lucy says:

    I’ll second the writing practice idea. Writing a blog on a topic that relates to my discipline (but not my thesis topic directly) has been so beneficial to my writing skills. I started the blog 4 or 5 months into my phd. I’m at the editing stage of my thesis, but I know my later chapters won’t need much work in terms of grammar or style. My supervisors always go on about how my writing has improved and how my writing a ‘joy to read’ that doesn’t need correction (and one of my supervisors is a grammar nazi!). I’m pretty sure it’s because my blog has taught me to enjoy writing.

    • Mickey says:

      Concurring with you 100%, Lucy! I blog about being a fledgling blossoming researcher, and it gives dignity to my struggles while helping me write better! Glad someone else is having the same experience, because sometimes I feel judged for “blogging” when I have so much else to write! It’s a balance, certainly, but it has turned my emotions around regarding my thesis.

      • Lucy says:

        Sometimes I feel guilty for writing something other than my thesis, but as my supervisor said to me at the beginning: ‘after your phd, you will be judged not only on your phd, but what you did *during* your phd’. I regularly publish reviews in art journals, I’ve curated exhibitions during my PhD (which included a published catalogue), and of course my blog. My phd didn’t suffer because I was doing all this extra stuff, in fact, I believe it enhanced it. It gave me confidence in my own opinions (although I still am not confident about my phd – I think it’s all relative), it means that I have more industry experience when I finish, and I received a grant to curate the exhibition which looks good on my CV. As a result, I have the best publishing record of all the RHD students in my school, and as a bonus I’m on track to finish within four years. I have a fairly short attention span, and I honestly have no idea how people survive without diversifying their attention during a phd. I’d have dropped out if I were only concentrating on my phd topic for 4 years.

    • Pamela Fruechting says:

      Lucy, I have a couple of blogs, but just added my own to house “me”, with an emphasis on my research. I still write posts that are probably too long for the general reader, so I’m working on honing the skill of brevity and remembering my readers aren’t as interested as I am in my topic. You are dead on right about how it improves not only writing, but also our ability to communicate our research ideas succinctly. I enjoy the challenge and would recommend it to others. Thanks for mentioning it. In this day of digital publication, I think it’s almost an essential.

      • Lucy says:

        A blog on a topic relevant to your research is also great if potential employers or just interested people want more info on your work. I started my blog with just the intention of improving my writing, but I find that I’m now putting the URL on my CV when applying for writing-related opportunities. It’s a great asset and I’m glad others have found it beneficial.

        • Pamela Fruechting says:

          Great point, Lucy. I’ve been putting my blog titles under “Publications”. I think the commitment to write for the critics and therefore, to write well, stretches me, and hopefully improve my skills in the process. I would also say that creating a group of constructive critics, is helpful. I have a few close friends that are very open with me to tell me if I’m too loquacious (all the time!) or not logical, or if it’s just right. I’m glad that you are putting your URL on your CV. I hope others do, too. It is a lot of work to do blogs, and you should be proud of your work!

  4. Katrina says:

    As well as learning to use endnote (or whatever your choice of program) use it. Put everything you look at into it in as much detail as you can bear, even if it is with a note saying ‘this is useless, never read this article again’. Three (or more) years down the track you won’t remember all those hundreds (thousands?) of books and articles you looked over.

    Start searching and applying for any funding you know you might need from day 1. I had to do overseas research and the process of waiting for funding rounds to come along and be decided and be given the cash took me over a year for my first trip, so I was already a third of the way through my PhD before I could start my primary research.

  5. Judy Redman says:

    Re Endnote: I was at a grant funding application writing workshop where we all brought our laptops and started actually writing applications. I was the only person using any kind of bibliographic software. We were all doing a section where we were providing evidence for our proposals. By the end of the session, I had mine all written and correctly referenced. The academics had theirs all written with a dozen or so references that needed chasing and inserting. Endnote or whatever saves you heaps of time!!

  6. Incognita says:

    This is all very good advice. Thank you, Inger!

    I think it’s important to distinguish between ‘mistakes’ that are truly due to lack of experience (i.e., rookie) and practices that are engaged in due to misleading ‘guidance’ (generally from non-rookies). For example, not realising how significantly EndNote can improve your workflow is more likely to stem from not (yet) having been involved in enough longish projects to have suffered the consequences of a chaotic workflow than it is from a consciously stubborn choice to maintain dodgy habits (or some other ‘flaw’). But something like, for example, reading ‘too much’ (irrelevant, peripheral, unfocused, etc.) – a common ‘rookie error’ – is in my opinion, a self-inflicted crime that is aided and abetted by lazy supervisors and advisers, especially during the first year of a PhD.

    [For a pragmatic antidote to this particular ‘problem’, see the ‘reading like a mongrel’ post in this blog – March 8, 2011. Excellent!]

    • Pamela Fruechting says:

      Thank you, Incognita, for the “Reading Like a Mongrel” post recommendation. I tend to read way too much on tangential topics. With my most recent load from the library, I read the preface, introduction, and conclusion. I avoided the chapters only if there was something I would actually use, based on the preliminary reading. Saves me so much time. And it keeps me disciplined about not letting my adult ADD take charge.

  7. Pamela says:

    I totally agree with the writing everyday … I do … with the exception of ONE day per week. For balance I have one day with no writing (Except maybe personal social networking), I will only read light reading, watch light TV/DvD, try not to think too hard about anything and hang with non academic types …. Oh and do something active. The PC stays off (not the iPad though – I haven’t managed to have that off as well). Come the day after rest day? I am so motivated to get back into it that it’s great for productivity AND motivation.

  8. Nathan says:

    I really, really agree with writing every day (even though I probably didn’t do it as a research student!). It’s a habit that I’m getting into the swing of now.

    I also think it is really good to get in the habit of reviewing what you have written, and filing away – or chucking out – stuff that you don’t need any more.

    Example: Early on in my PhD, I had some pen and paper calculations that ran to 20 pages the first time that I did them. The final handwritten “best” result was six pages. In my thesis it was trimmed even further! And yet when I finally graduated I still had the 20 page messy first draft proof that had long been superseded. In fact I had thousands of pages like them, which I had let grow and grow and grow.

  9. Eljee Javier says:

    I think one of the mistakes a research newbie makes is thinking you need to attend every training session on offer as soon as possible “just in case”. I remember having this feeling of panic thinking that I’m never ever going to possibly attend every course that I felt I “needed”, thinking that my research would suffer if I didn’t go to everything!

    Thankfully my supervisor wisely asked “So what relevance will “x” have to your thesis?” which made me stop and reconsider what I thought I needed and the reality of where I was at.

    I fully agree that attending other presentations are beneficial. I do think that new researchers need to stop and think that they need at the moment and what could be useful further down the line when they’ve gained a better understanding of their research area.

  10. Mickey says:

    Thank you for the post.

    First, I think one of the HUGEST rookie mistakes is the failure to obtain an understanding of the EMOTIONAL aspects of obtaining research and writing skills. Emotions affect cognition, so they’re important for that reason alone, plus a host of others. I have an inkling that this is not treated explicitly enough in many graduate research programs. I have found this site to be illuminating on the matter: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/rsd/. I am currently searching for a book to read on the topic.

    Second, I must give a +1 to using the computer tools that are right for you, and a +1 to reading from section 807 of the library!!!

    Regarding computer tools: When my laptop died, I was SO glad I had been using Mendeley (all of my literature therein was safe and sound as Mendeley backs up to the web). I now use SpiderOak to backup and sync EVERYTHING thesis-related. And then you must know yourself: What computer tools will actually get your writing (and not writing zero drafts)? For me, between Citavi, Docear, Scrivener, and physical copies of my articles so that I can SCAN fast and get a sense for “where things were” in the PDF, I’m writing. Other digital workflows were a trap and “domesticated me” (a reference to a previous ThesisWhisperer post). I’m sure this varies by person.

    Regarding section 807 of the library: YES! Every book I have read on writing helps a heap. I just finished reading “The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective,” and I tell you it has transformed my mental world!!! Who knew?!?? The whole time I read it, I kept thinking “Why hasn’t anybody tell me this before?” Also, Carlis’s “toward a one-draft thesis” PDF (which can be found if one googles it) was one of the most affirming pieces on writing I ever read.

    Thanks again for the post. It’s a great reminder, and the comments are helpful, too.


    • Pamela Fruechting says:

      Mickey, you are so right about the emotional side. I spend time each day getting my heart and mind in a happy, contented place. Many times that means connecting with people and giving kudos or help before I start on my own work. Sometimes its prayer. But the right attitude and a grateful heart do wonders for creativity, freedom, and productivity. I just watched this TED talk by Shawn Achor the other night, and I love it….he speaks to these exact issues. It’s about 20 minutes, and well worth the time. (Achor wrote The Happiness Advantage). http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work.html

    • Anonymous says:

      hi Mickey

      I am new to the Thesis Whisperer, so I just saw your note about emotions and cognition today. If you haven’t found a book that talks about how emotions affect cognition, may I suggest “Move Closer Stay Longer” by Dr. Stephanie A. Burns. There is also her PhD thesis on “The Emotional Experience of Adult Learner” (University of South Australia).


  11. A.L. McMichael says:

    Another great post. I second the idea of forcing oneself to completely take a day off once in a while; the work after a day off is usually much better than usual.

    Another rookie mistake is not keeping track of the search engines/databases you’ve used and the search terms you’ve looked for. I’ve been known to print an article two or three times, thinking it was a great new discovery each time! Now I have a “not useful” pile and folder. I’ve also found through trial and error that it’s best to stick to one website or database for a day or two and exhaust all its resources before moving on to another one. (Of course you can always revisit it later). This helps me ward off the Obsessive Article Collecting that comes with bouncing around from site to site looking for whatever seems useful on a particular day.

  12. Pamela Fruechting says:

    I find I’m more creative overall if I use portions of most days for pursuing topics unrelated to my research: TED talks, reading outside my discipline, music, and engaging with people at length about their lives and their work. Trying to find worthwhile types of engagement that relax while simultaneously fueling brain cells, and occasionally releasing a flood of dopamine happiness and contentment arms me for the next day’s serious writing.

  13. Jo says:

    Rookie mistakes:

    1. Dont take the time to proofe- read your riting;
    2. Use spell cheque exclusively too edit you’re work.
    3. Change tense while you wrote.
    4. Ignore the conditional clause.
    5. Fail to use the correct Style Guides.
    6. Attempt a PhD prior to attaining relevant industry or practical experience.

    Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

    Thanks for your posts.
    They are very informative and inspiring.

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