Being a researcher is a rewarding career for many reasons: You get to explore new ideas, work with cutting-edge technology, learn about the world, and have important discussions with like-minded individuals.
But, research doesn’t come without its challenges.
Luckily, challenges get easier to overcome when you don’t feel alone in facing them. So, we’ve put together a list of the top 8 challenges that researchers face and some tips to help.
1. Choosing your research topic
Starting a new research project and narrowing your focus to a single topic is one of the first challenges you’ll learn to face as an early-career researcher. And, it’s also one of the most important ones.
Your topic for each new research project is the foundation on which all your other work rests, so it’s vital that you take your time in tackling this challenge. A well-thought-out topic can also help you avoid some of the challenges that we’ll discuss later in this article.
TIP: Stay flexible and consider all the angles
Obviously, you’re going to want to research something that’s compelling enough to hold your interest. But, picking a good topic requires much more than just deciding what you’re most excited about.
Start by identifying a few gaps in your research niche along with different angles you could take on each. You don’t have to change the world with your work, but you do want to pinpoint places where you can make a difference (i.e. adding something new to the body of knowledge that exists).
Evaluate each topic for how realistically you can achieve it. What resources do you have available? Are you short on money? Will it be hard to find people (participants or team members)? Are you on a time limit? Take all these factors into consideration to choose a topic that will be manageable for you.
Your final research topic will likely look a lot different from the one you had in your head when you first started out. Stay flexible as you discover potential barriers and develop new angles that you can take to overcome them.
2. Finding research funding
Another common challenge that researchers face is finding the money they need to get the research done. Sometimes this comes alongside the shock of how much the required materials, tools, and assistance will cost. Research is more expensive than most people imagine.
In addition, there are many researchers competing for the same grants and funding. So, the competition can be fierce, especially for early-career researchers and researchers in developing countries.
If you can’t pull together enough funding, you may have to make compromises that limit how effectively and efficiently you can complete your research. Depending on the project requirements, it’s possible you’ll have to postpone your research until enough money is secured.
TIP: Think outside your social and geographical boxes
It’s easy to get discouraged while on the hunt for funding. So, remind yourself that there will always be more opportunities. Start by reaching out to your network. Request letters of support to help you apply for the grants that you’ve identified.
Don’t be afraid to branch out. Search for sources online and apply for funding available from potential international research partners. Just because your own country doesn’t have the funding doesn’t mean there isn’t someone, somewhere else that will pay you to complete your research.
3. Convincing others of the value of your research
Your research may be important. But, few people will take your word for it without a little convincing. For projects that take a long time to execute or require significant resources, you’ll have to do even more convincing. Unfortunately, the best methods for estimating and demonstrating the impact of research aren’t always clear.
Even after you’ve completed your project, you’ll likely be asked to demonstrate the impact of your research to your funders/stakeholders. This is an important step for solidifying your reputation and that of your research institution.
TIP: Reflect on your research purpose
Set aside some reflection time throughout the development and execution of your research. Use this time to put your purpose under a microscope. Remind yourself why you began this project, what good has come from it already, and what more can be achieved. Reflection exercises help you maintain confidence in your goal. They also ensure that you always have something relevant to say when someone asks: “So, why should I care?”
In addition, it never hurts to improve your scientific storytelling skills. Getting people to care about concepts that they don’t fully understand is a difficult task. Storytelling can help you convince varied audiences of the value of your research.
4. Overcoming imposter syndrome
Researchers have to expose themselves and their work to criticism. While others are criticizing the value of your work, it can be hard to maintain a high level of confidence in yourself. And when your work takes a turn you didn’t expect, feelings of self-doubt can easily creep in.
If you start doubting your own skills and accomplishments, or feel that you’re not as capable as others, you might be experiencing imposter syndrome. It’s a problem that people in all professions face and, in severe cases, it can cause someone to feel like a fraud in spite of all they’ve accomplished.
TIP: Remind yourself of your research (and personal) success
If you’re experiencing feelings of self-doubt, boost your confidence by reviewing past research projects and reminding yourself of your achievements. Lining up the facts in front of you can help with overcoming feelings of inadequacy. If you don’t have a large research record, think about other personal or academic achievements that you’re proud of.
Seek help from others, whether that’s constructive feedback on your work or advice from a mental health professional. And, consider trying something completely new as a hobby outside of your research. Trying new things can shake you out of your usual thought patterns and, most importantly, it gives you permission to be okay with being “bad” at something.
5. Building a good research team (or finding collaborators)
Research is rarely done alone. Chances are you’re going to need a research team to support you (or collaborators in the same field of research to connect with).
If you’ve never built a research team before, you may struggle to know where to start. You may not even be sure what kind of people you work well with.
If you’re looking for research collaborators, you’ll quickly realize that your biggest competitors are often your best potential partners. The research community is a complicated environment and the “publish or perish” mentality doesn’t always foster natural cooperation.
TIP: Use all available resources and expand your network
Think about the resources closely available to you. If you’re early in your career, look for mentoring schemes at your institution or apply for funding to attend academic conferences. If you already have a significant network, think about potential collaborators you can reach out to within it.
When you’ve exhausted the closest available options, create more collaboration opportunities and be intentional in growing your network. In particular, consider looking for team members and connections who bring a perspective that challenges your usual way of thinking.
6. Recruiting research participants (or collecting samples)
Managing participant recruitment and sample collection is a difficult part of many research projects. It’s often the biggest hurdle between the question you have and the data you need to answer it.
Low email open rates, lack of support from institutions, and restrictive regulations are all frustrating for researchers in search of willing (and relevant) research participants. These recruitment issues can become even more prominent when your research focuses on socially-sensitive or politically-charged topics.
TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask (but be sure to come prepared)
Using research tools that help you recruit and collect data from participants is a given. But, these tools won’t help if you’re afraid or unprepared to ask for help.
Prepare a good argument for why people should participate in your research. Learn to sell your story and come up with potential incentives if needed. Finally, have all your forms and information ready if people ask for it.
Then, reach out to your network (or list of potential participants). The worst that can happen is that some will say “No.” And, when they do, don’t let that stop you. Get back up, dust yourself off, and try again. Perseverance is key.
7. Staying self-motivated and managing your time
When you’re managing a research project, it can seem like there’s never enough hours in the day. There’s an ongoing battle between considering all perspectives to keep your research balanced and taking a deep enough dive to make sure your research has an impact. It’s likely that you’ll have commitments outside of your research project as well. So, you’ll be fighting to maintain a good balance between other work, administrative, and personal tasks.
As your research project drags on, you may also start hitting a motivational wall. When you’re the person in charge of maintaining deadlines, the temptation to procrastinate on tasks you don’t enjoy can throw timelines off track.
TIP: Plan and put accountability systems in place
There’s plenty of advice out there to help you with motivation. In particular, if you take the proper care when planning your research project, you’ll be setting yourself up for success. Choosing a topic that is interesting and engaging is key in helping you fight motivational burnout later in the process.
If your topic is engaging but you’re still struggling with time management, try some of these tips:
- Map your project in a visual calendar: If you haven’t already done this, sit down and input deadlines/tasks into a digital or physical calendar to help you break down your research project into more manageable chunks. It lifts some of the mental burden of remembering tasks and gives you a handy tool to see if you’re on track.
- Set up a reward system: Whether it’s going out for a nice meal, binging your favorite TV show, or going on a fun day trip, think of rewards that are meaningful to you and tie them to specific project milestones. Follow through and give yourself those well-deserved breaks when you accomplish the associated milestones.
- Find accountability buddies: Share your research goals with someone you trust and ask them to follow up with you. Knowing that someone other than yourself expects an update every few weeks can be extremely motivating.
8. Ensuring your research doesn’t sit and collect dust
Unfortunately, there are times when research that took a long time and a lot of effort is never used. Sometimes, this is because the expectations of the researcher and the funders didn’t line up. But more often, it’s because of a lack of effective effort to communicate the research results to stakeholders who can leverage it.
In the context of knowledge management, there is also a large body of partially completed research and data sets that are effectively “lost” to the larger community. When you’re incentivized to move on to your next research project quickly, you might deprioritize tasks like making your old research and unused data sets easily accessible to those who are looking for it (including your future self).
Even fully completed research is facing a knowledge management crisis. As mentioned in this study on researcher challenges by ExLibris:
“Advances in technology have changed the demands for transparency in sharing research… Most scholars (almost 60%) are now obligated to make their raw research datasets openly available with their published work. However, over a quarter of them (26%) find it difficult to do so in the context of current research data management solutions.”
TIP: Wrap up your research with the future in mind
When the end is in sight and you’re excited to move onto a new research topic, think about the impact that you want your research to have. If you don’t take the time to communicate your findings effectively or make your insights easily available, all the hard work you did could end up having a minimal real-world effect.
On a similar note, knowledge management benefits your future self. All of those notes and data that you didn’t publish? Where and how will you store them in case you want to access them later? Organize this information while it’s still fresh in your mind. Otherwise, you could find yourself staring at notes years later that seem like they were written in a foreign language. Even worse: bad organization could prevent you from even finding your old notes/data at all.
Research challenges: Expecting the unexpected
Being a researcher is full of unpredictable challenges. Careful preparation and planning can help with some of the common ones that come up. But, there will always be issues that catch you completely off guard.
While it would be great to be able to “expect the unexpected,” the most effective strategy for managing challenges is to simply keep an open mind. Recognize early on that your research is never going to go exactly the way you anticipate (and embrace that as part of the fun of being a researcher).
Maintain a curious enthusiasm about your research question and your research process. It will help you think outside of the box when unexpected challenges inevitably arise.