Our favorite caricature of a postdoctoral researcher: a frail man (or woman) with disheveled hair, bent over in front of a computer screen, with a half-filled coffee cup next to him. As the coffee gets colder over time, he appears oblivious to his surroundings. He is happy to spend many hours at his desk conceiving an occult theory on obscure topics that the real world doesn’t care about. He is in a state of eternal “tapasia” – contemplating his eternal love affair with knowledge… because life is an eternal search for knowledge! Or so the world thinks.
Once they have completed their Ph.D., and recent researchers decide that research is what they would like to do for the rest of their lives, their friends and family may begin to assume that the Doctor of Philosophy is just another thinker in an armchair.
The importance of writing as communication
It is really true that researchers like us (postdocs, research fellows, senior researchers, etc.) other things. Maybe we are Doctors of Philosophy, but in reality, we are Masters in writing and some other things. This is because the requirements of the role of researcher require us to be levers of many professions and masters in some.
Writing is intrinsically linked to communication. As researchers, we need to be good at communicating our thinking — what we study, why and how, and what we can (and cannot) infer from findings — to diverse audiences. These scholars include colleagues, policy makers, university administrators, and the broader public.
It requires us to be as creative as the publicity specialist in the neighborhood. We need to learn how to frame catchy headlines clearly so that articles grab the editors’ attention immediately. We seek creative answers to questions such as: How do we sum up in 200 words a complex research idea that took us six months to conceptualize, test and implement? What is the next big search idea, and how are you going to get the billion quotes in a few months?
Management skills development
In addition, we also begin to play managerial roles. First, we need to hone our people management skills. Supervising students, research assistants, PhD scholars, and entry-level post-level documents is a daily activity.
This creates new challenges: How can we find a good balance between our research interests and nurturing the interests of our junior researchers? How do we encourage them to work hard while ensuring that they are not overwhelmed? How do we find research assistants who care about our research as much as we do? How can we motivate master’s students to do their best in carrying out their research plans?
Second, we need to develop good project management skills: for example, we need to make sure our research assistants set realistic deadlines. However, even well-planned deadlines can sometimes be unrealistic. In such cases, contingency actions must be taken to ensure that promises are kept to external stakeholders.
Third, budgeting: We need to pay our research assistants at market rates and budget accordingly, while also keeping funds for travel, lab equipment, subcontractor expenses, organizing workshops and other project events.
However, research money is never enough for all the fancy research we aspire to do, especially if we hire a Research Assistant so good that we want to keep it. In such cases, we need answers to an additional list of troubling questions: for example, should we pay them more than market rates by reallocating funds from some other research plan?
Searching for entrepreneurship
Soon, ambitious researchers like us are facing the Matrix moment. We soon realize that everything we learned during our graduate studies was only partially true. We soon realize that we are part researchers and part entrepreneurs. Organizations such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States and the Dutch Research Council (NWO) are our private equity firms.
In order to get them to give us huge bags of research money, we have to tap into our inner entrepreneurial spirit, hone our management skills, sharpen our creative juices, and write grant proposals. If we are good entrepreneurs, we will be blessed with money, resources, talented PhD students, and hopefully some well-cited academic articles in high-impact journals.
However, being an entrepreneur is not enough. We also develop organizational skills to plan stakeholder meetings. These stakeholder meetings ensure that our research is grounded: that we don’t waste our hard-earned grant money proposing an ambiguous theory on ambiguous topics. Good research takes into account the costs and benefits for all stakeholders who participate in or are affected by the research.
Planning for such events is a challenging task – it requires answering questions such as: How do we make stakeholder meetings participatory in nature? How do we develop seating arrangements so that power imbalances between stakeholders do not impede communication? How do we get them to open their minds and tell us what they really think of our research? What kind of food preparation should be done? Are participants’ expectations, with respect to both restaurants and other organizational aspects, affected by country-specific cultural practices?
Skills needed for good researchers
This brings us to the most important and least talked about role the researcher has to play: knowledge brokering, with its delicate balance between advice and advocacy. Good research is essential to solving societal challenges, both in the short term (in the case of applied sciences) and in the long term (in the case of basic sciences).
Societal challenges can only be resolved if researchers seek to bridge the gaps that exist across various scientific disciplines, policy, and society. This requires us to be reflexive about our work. It also means that we have to defend the implications of our research (and the uncertainties associated with it) with policy makers, grassroots activists, private companies, funding agencies, students, and society at large.
In other words, a good researcher is not only an expert in research and writing, but is also a socket for many other professions. A good researcher is a good manager, a self-motivated entrepreneur, an event planner, a creative communicator, and an emotional but reflexive advocate for the role of science in solving societal challenges.
The PhD program teaches the prospective researcher to be good at formulating research questions, in defining the appropriate research methodology to answer these questions and in implementing research plans using this methodology. Over time researchers also become good at writing. However, many of the other skill sets discussed above are less developed during higher education. This is a missed opportunity.
Drawing on our own experiences, we wrote this article to highlight this bug. This is because we believe that PhD students need to be equipped with skills in management, planning, creative communication, and knowledge brokering. Only then can they act as effective analysts of societal challenges.
Sanchian Nath is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development (Utrecht University, The Netherlands).
Arjan Wardecker is a Senior Researcher at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and a Visiting Researcher at the Center for the Study of the Sciences and Humanities (University of Bergen, Norway)