Elena Avanzas Álvarez, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Oviedo (TransLIT Research Group) and a freelance medical translator and health communication expert. Her research focuses on the intersection between medicine, literature and TV in US popular culture with an emphasis on women writers with a medical background.
She has worked for several national and international media outlets such as Los Angeles Review of Books and Mystery Tribune in the USA, and El Comercio, La Nueva España, OcultaLIT, and The Conversation in Spain, as well as a consultant for different hospitals, scientific associations, and research groups.
Her interests also include gender study, forensic science, domestic noir, and true crime.
12 Things I Wished I Knew as an Early Researcher (And I’m Still Working On)
Our time as early researchers is full of excitement, hard work, and learning to navigate the world of academia and research. APA referencing? You can find it (and get it done too) online. Conferences to attend next year? Also found online. However, sometimes the more practical things can get in the way. So, here I’ve compiled a few things that have helped me, though I must admit I’m still working on some of them. Some of these tips may work for you, others won’t, but we hope they can work as guidelines that you can twist and adapt to your personal situation as an early researcher at ASYRAS.
1. Research is work. Treat it as such. Because we get to do what we love and what we are passionate about (helloooo binge-watching 5 hours of Bones followed by a shift at the hospital attending autopsies the next day. All in the name of work!) we sometimes forget that research is also a job. Set an amount of hours/day that works for you and try to stick to them as much as possible while being a bit flexible. Sometimes you will have to do overtime, and other days you may not do your best work or life may get in the way. But it’s OK.
2. Find a mentor. I was a bit lost when I first started researching as to what, how, when, where, etc., So many calls for papers! So many journals! And don’t get me started on choosing a bibliography with so many interesting books out there. But I had two wonderful mentors who were there to guide me and answer all my questions and tell me to please stop reading and start writing. NOW. Warning! Do not expect your mentor(s) to solve all your problems. Be proactive, ask questions, and above all, watch them work.
3. Plan. Plan. Plan. Research is a job, and most jobs have to be scheduled aka planned. Nowadays there are many tools out there to help you plan your time, whether digitally or analogically. I am a physical planner-and-pen type of person, but if you still don’t know what works for you don’t be afraid to experiment until you find something that helps you work easier and more efficiently. Once you have the tools, it is time to set daily, weekly, monthly and even annual goals, divide each goal into actionable tasks and set to work.
4. Inspiration is not your friend, hard work is. You know when people in films are struck by inspiration and sit down at the computer at 3 a.m. to write a masterpiece? Well, that’s fiction in 99% of the cases (sorry). If you wait for inspiration to struck you, you will get very little work done. Instead, train yourself to set a goal and work towards it. I found that asking myself to write a number of words a day did wonders to my productivity. Why? Because this is what is known as a SMART objective:
· Specific: What is your goal? Is it a paper? A conference presentation? An article for a magazine? Be as specific as you can be.
· Measurable: How many words do you have to write?
· Achievable: Be realistic. Writing 10.000 words/day for a whole month is not realistic. Instead, think about your routine, how you work, etc. and plan it.
· Relevant: How is this going to help your research?
· Time-oriented: For an objective to be achievable you have to be able to complete it in time. Calls for papers can be very effective in helping you here, as they have deadlines. However, for more personal work or for work with no specific deadline try to set a deadline for yourself.
5. Find yourself a hobby, take time off and reward yourself. Do you have a hobby? If you don’t, then this season in your life as an early researcher is the perfect moment to pick up one. I am not kidding. Find an activity that you enjoy. And do it. Every single day if possible. If you are not good at allowing yourself time for non-work things, SCHEDULE YOUR HOBBY and block time in your planner/calendar. It doesn’t have to be a meaningful activity or change the world; it just has to make you happy. Knitting, gardening, and jogging work for some people. But playing fetch with your neighbour’s dog, watching a trashy reality TV show or learning how to curl your hair (true story) are just as valid.
6. Find a community. Research can be a very lonely activity, especially in the times of COVID. However, technology can be extremely useful in helping us connect with other researchers around the world. Once you have found that group of people, try setting up research dates or deadlines together, or even setting up online research sessions in which you all join Zoom (or your app of choice), connect the camera and the microphone, and research. Think library study session, but online.
1. Don’t Overdo it/Stretch yourself thin. Research is your passion, you are excited and grateful to be able to work in something you adore, especially in today’s economy. But research is also a marathon, not a sprint, so treat it like that and remember to keep things SMART.
2. Don’t imitate another person or compare yourself to others. No one does you better than yourself and no one knows your ideas, time, and life circumstances better than yourself. Trust your instincts and your body and mind and enjoy your journey. There is no other like it!
3. Don’t expect perfection. A friend of mine who is a painter once told me that every time she sat down to work, she expected her work that day to be her best, so much so, that she ended up terrified of picking up a brush in case she failed. Do not be like my friend – much love to her – because we are all human beings capable of failure, mistakes and plain disasters. Sometimes your work will be amazing, but there will be days when your work will be to delete, edit, and discard part of what you have done. It’s OK. Sometimes it helps to remind yourself no one has died because of your bad work/mistake (we can only hope) and move on.
4. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. In a time when side hustling has become the norm, it is extremely important to learn how to take care of ourselves. You already know how important healthy eating, regular exercise, and 8 hours of sleep a day are, so act on it. Also, DO NOT skip your doctor’s and dentist’s appointments. Health comes first. Always.
5. Don’t fall down rabbit holes. We all know Alicia had one hell of a time when she fell down the rabbit hole but falling prey to this when you are researching can be dangerous and an extreme waste of time. Train yourself to stop clicking on the thirtieth link away from your original reading and ask yourself if this is truly helping your research.
6. Allow yourself to be bored. Being boring is as necessary as working, especially for research as it will free your mind and let it wander a bit. For this, I highly suggest you respect your country’s weekends and holidays and use this time to unplug from research. With time, you will find yourself making mental connections and finding new ideas in the most surprising places.
Finally, allow yourself to evolve and change. The way you conduct your life and research at 25 is not the same as at 50. We are all a work in progress and sometimes adjustments and changes have to be made as we navigate life.