Principles of Effective Research

Key takeaways

  • Effectiveness in research will in many ways resemble effectiveness in any other part of life.
  • In the short term, focusing only on a research project while neglecting other parts of your life might lead to increased productivity. But it will be very bad in the long term.
  • Focus on doing the basics well on a consistent basis.
  • Take personal responsibility for your work. Don’t blame teaching load, supervisors, students, lack of time.

I believe that the foundation of effective research is to internalize a strong vision of what you want to achieve, to work proactively towards that vision, taking personal responsibility for successes and failures. You need to develop disciplined work habits, and to achieve balance between self-development and the actual creative research process.

Three signs that you are not taking personal responsibility for your work

In the short-term it’s easier to use these strategies rather than taking responsibility over the situation.


  • What sort of researcher would I like to become?
  • What areas of research am I interested in?
    • How am I going to achieve competence in those areas?
    • Why are those areas interesting?
  • How am I going to continue growing and expanding my horizons?
  • How will I balance the long-term goals with the short-term realities of the situation I find myself in?

Dedicate time to develop and hone your vision, it will be a strong motivating factor when you run into issues along the way.


Clarity: What, why, how

It’s a lot easier to work hard on something if these three aspects are clear to you. Procrastination can stem from a lack of clarity in the what, why and/or how.

Social environment

Find a group where you will be held accountable, that helps you develop research skills and research excellence. Take on students, collaborate, set up mentoring relationships.

Honesty with yourself

His example was about time management and how a colleague realized he only spent 30 minutes per day on actual research.

Self-development versus the creative process

If you focus only on self-development, you might exit the academic career too early because you don’t feel like you are being treated well enough.

If you neglect self-development, you might end up publishing a lot of papers but you will stagnate in your own development.

However, some people end up obsessed with writing as many papers as possible, as quickly as possible. While the short-term rewards of this are attractive (jobs, grants, reputation and prizes), the long-term costs are significant. In particular, it can lead to stagnation, and plateauing as a researcher.

If you manage to find a good balance between self-development and research output, you will produce enough to get and keep good jobs while also developing your talents and renewing yourself.

Developing your strengths

You want to develop unique combinations of abilities, they will give you a comparative advantage over other people. If a new opens up which combines X and Y, a person that tries to really learn the other field will have an advantage.

In any given research field there are usually only a tiny number of papers that are really worth reading. You are almost certainly better off reading deeply in the ten most important papers of a research field than you are skimming the top five hundred.

Going deep rather than wide again. Depth over width is the path forward for content creators.

Develop a high-quality research environment

You can start a seminar series, develop a discussion area, organize a small workshop, etc. If you can create the type of environment that promotes rather than hinders high quality research, it will help improve your own work as well.

Developing a taste for what’s important

  • What are the characteristics of important science?
  • What makes one area thrive, while another dies away?
  • What sorts of unifying ideas are the most useful?
  • What have been the most important developments in your field?
    • Why are they important?
  • What were the apparently promising ideas that didn’t pan out?
    • Why didn’t they pan out?

If you have great taste, you can be honest with yourself about the quality and importance of your own work. Persistent effort will lead you to do work in line with your taste

The Hamming question can help you to focus on the most important problems and Working on the right question means aiming at the core of a problem.

“Messy” fields that are hard to understand may point to possible unifying and simplifying concepts to be discovered.