How I Published 7 First Author Papers in 4 Years
Sharing my research strategies from my 3.5 year PhD program
From my PhD work, I published 7 first-author papers. These papers were published between 2018 and 2021.
In reality, I completed 11 papers by the time I left my PhD program; however, four still remain unsubmitted.
Of my published papers, I had one review, two short communication, and five research articles. There are multiple strategies that I developed and factors that affected my timeline to published papers without burning myself out.
In this article, I want to share my strategies to help all students and scientists in becoming more efficient in their research process. If you want even more guidance, consider getting my 30 Day Research Jumpstart Guide!
Develop Many Ideas
Looking from the outside, many of my colleagues thought that I was just given easy projects or all my projects just happened to work. I actually had my lab mates tell me that my success only came from my advisor giving me the "easy projects".
My frustration with the idea of an easy project is a topic for a different article, but what my lab mates did not know is that all of my published papers were my own ideas.
I was fortunate in a certain sense that my advisor generally allowed me to pursue my own ideas as long as I produced results.
The secret was that all of my ideas were not successful. I worked on at least double if not triple the number of projects that I published. In some projects, I only did initial experiments, while in others I completed the entire project before my advisor rejected it.
However, the first secret to having successful projects is to have multiple ideas that you can investigate.
Learn When To Leave
The benefit of having multiple ideas is when one idea seems unfeasible you can move on to another idea.
However, we can often become stuck on a project and not be able to let it go.
I have seen my fellow lab mates stay on the same project for years without getting any usable or publishable data.
One of the main things you should do during your initial experiments is to determine the feasibility of your project. If you are running into problem after problem where you cannot find a solution, it may be time to let that project go or alter your project to make it more feasible.
In my case, I had multiple projects where I found that my instrument did not have the resolution to make the project feasible or there were other problems that I knew the project would be impossible or very difficult to complete.
When I recognized this, I would move on to a different project. Occasionally, after I had time away from that project, I would realize the solution to the problems I was encountering and could come back to that project later on.
The biggest thing you want to avoid is staying on a project for years that will give you no usable results.
Create a Research Plan
When you have a research project, you can get really excited and dive right into performing the research. However, I would suggest taking a step back first and creating a research plan.
This research plan does not have to be as detailed as a proposal, but you need to ensure that you are performing your experiment correctly from the beginning.
You do not want to complete all of your experiments and realize you didn't have all the proper controls in place or you ended up measuring the wrong variable.
When I got my first project in graduate school, I quickly ordered my chemicals and jumped in the lab to make all of my solutions and analyze them. After analyzing all of my samples and spending days and weeks in the lab, I realized that non of my solutions were prepared correctly.
Therefore, a research plan should include all the variables and controls in the project, phases for completing experiments, potential pitfalls, and how you will continue this research through these pitfalls.
Be Consistent in Research
One of the biggest ways to be successful in research is to be consistent.
If you work 60 hours on research one week then do nothing on a project for a month, it will be very difficult to be successful in your research.
Consistency in research does not mean working on research in all of your free time. Instead, being consistent means performing a reasonable task each week.
For me, I would set up research goals every week. These goals would be realistic and would not be dependent on external factors. By doing this, I was able to feel like I was being successful each week because I was completing my goals!
This also means that your research is never set to the side when your week becomes hectic. Instead, you know what you are needing to accomplish each week.
However, just having a goal will not allow you to achieve research consistency. Instead, you have to prioritize your research so that when you have a test or a major assignment, you do not fall behind in your research.
Develop Repeatable Systems
Once I collected my data, I had systems in place to perform the initial data analysis and convert my data into published papers.
Data Analysis System
Early in my research, I developed a data analysis system. As soon as I got my data, I knew exactly what I was going to do with my research and the figures I needed to create first.
I had three main types of research projects and developed systems for each of these projects.
For example, in my steroid analysis projects, the first thing I would do is extract mass-specific chromatograms and arrival time distributions. This data would then be put into text files and loaded into another software that my lab used. In this software, I would create publishable chromatograms, determine the centroid of the peaks, and calculate the resolution values.
The centroid of the peaks would be converted into collision cross section values. Then, I would finish by creating scatter plots of resolution values and collision cross sections.
The goal of these systems is that my data analysis time was more efficient. This initial system allowed me to get my data to a point where I could look at further data analysis, but the initial analysis also created many of my published figures.
The goal of these systems is to allow data you regularly analyze to become a structured, effective routine.
The second system that I created is to turn my analyzed data into a published paper. Initially, I wasted so much time trying to understand how to write papers.
I would stare at a blank screen and then read so many published papers. I was trying to figure out what the secret was to write a publishable paper.
After struggling through my first published paper, I unknowingly generated a system to be able to write my papers within a week. The key components to this system are creating a figure outline, writing the paper, and then preparing the paper for publication.
I have actually created a checklist so that you can follow my writing system. If you want to follow along with this checklist, you can access the Scientific Research Paper Checklist!
You can't control it all!
Overall, my success in research came from the ability to develop multiple ideas, creating research plans, being consistent in research, and utilizing my systems. This allowed me to be efficient and effective in completing research in a quicker timeframe.
However, there is a final massive factor in my timeframe, which is luck. The nature of my research allowed me to complete work faster than possible in other research areas. I did not have to wait on animals or spend years growing crystals.
Therefore, the goal of this article is to help you become more efficient in your research. I do not believe that success should be measured in how many papers you complete in a certain timeframe.
While you cannot control everything, becoming more effective in what you can control in your research will decrease your stress and increase your success!
Originally published with permission: https://medium.com/phd-life/how-i-published-7-first-author-papers-in-4-years-13146513d51a