Initiatives that can equip students with essential researcher skills

Reading time
7 mins
Initiatives that can equip students with essential researcher skills

Conducting good research and getting published requires not only a great deal of time but also complex and multifaceted skills. PhD students can feel overwhelmed by the amount of learning required over the course of their degree. They need to acquire and be proficient in skills such as searching the literature, designing studies, and analyzing results. They also need to acquire other skills not typically taught in school or university, such as managing projects, writing papers and grant proposals, and being competent at oral and poster presentations. Early-career researchers (ECRs) may also struggle to get reliable information and advice on career opportunities within and outside academia.

For a healthy research culture, universities and research organizations should address these gaps through initiatives in the form of courses, hands-on sessions, and more. Such resources will ensure wholesome development and help young researchers build their confidence to conduct and present their research impactfully.


Essential skills for researcher success

1. Research practice and data analysis

While young researchers might be exposed to the principles of the scientific method in theory, they may lack the experience to determine the best approach to a research question and to understand, analyze, and synthesize findings.1. Critical and strategic thinking

A researcher needs to approach problems systematically. Critical thinking skills entail being adept at defining a problem and identifying possible causes, being able to process large amounts of information, designing and planning experiments, and implementing solutions. Meanwhile, strategic thinking skills are needed to know which tools and approaches are appropriate for addressing a particular research question.

1.2 Searching and handling data

Researchers need to be well-versed in identifying reliable sources of information (e.g., appropriate databases) and locating, extracting, and organizing relevant information.
Next, they need to learn how to design ways to analyze large volumes of data and synthesize the findings. Data analysis is one of the most essential research skills needed for PhD students to succeed. Numerous online tools are available for analyzing big data. Students can benefit from training modules to keep up with new and evolving data analysis and data visualization tools.

1.3 Research integrity and ethics

Teaching good research practice to influence the behavior of researchers and generate awareness of the importance of research integrity can combat unethical practices and misconduct. Universities should inculcate research integrity awareness at all academic career levels.

2. Communication skills

There is no doubt that effective communication is a key part of research, and this includes both written and oral forms.

2.1 Writing skills

Short-term courses and workshops for research writing can help build confidence and teach ECRs how to avoid common mistakes in writing. An important facet of being better at writing is to be effective at reading as well. Tips to read better will help students grasp nuances and the contextual usage of language.

2.2 Oral presentation skills

Strong oral communication is an asset in every career, and research is no exception. PhD students should gain public speaking experience to feel comfortable in front of large audiences and be able to present complex ideas in a confident, persuasive, and engaging way. These strengths will enable young researchers to make a mark at conference talks, poster presentations, and even networking.

Related reading: 8 Tips for presenting a paper at an academic conference

3. Project management

Every researcher will lead a project some day. During their PhD, students may get a taste of designing a project, charting out timelines, overcoming roadblocks, and managing people and resources. Experience or training in organizational skills will arm researchers with the ability to manage short-term and long-term projects and maintain flexibility and composure in the face of challenging circumstances.

Related reading: 5 Essential tips to plan and manage research projects

4. Self-management and resilience

PhD students need to be able to work effectively under pressure. The PhD journey can be a lonely one, where handholding is not expected. Students must be able to perform well with minimal supervision, even when faced with uncertainty and failure. Every individual will have their way of dealing with such pressure, but mentorship and motivational sessions can support them. Talks and sessions to instill tenacity, self-worth, and persistence will help strike the right balance for a fulfilling and enriching experience. Maximizing productivity and managing time efficiently are also crucial skills they need to learn.


Strategies for imparting skills: ideas and examples

Universities and research organizations should ascertain current research skills and learning gaps or needs expressed by their scholars. This can be done through surveys, interviews, or open discussions. Team leaders and supervisors may then assess available resources, gauge what’s missing, and identify creative ways to address the gaps. They can learn from steps taken by other institutes and track the impact of initiating similar approaches.

There are many examples of how universities and research organizations in various parts of the world are taking up such training initiatives,1–3 some of which are described below.


1. Learning by doing

PhD students can learn leadership and interpersonal skills by mentoring and teaching. Laboratory heads can occasionally let PhD students mentor researchers junior to them or assist them in teaching students and grading tests or assignments. PhDs may be made to facilitate group discussions or conduct meetings and teach skills or concepts to others. Such know-how will help build confidence and teach effective communication and conflict resolution.

2. Creating an atmosphere for open conversations around best practices in research

Senior leadership at research institutes can promote good research culture by leading by example and facilitating open discussions on difficult questions. The Royal Society holds research culture workshops, where participants give examples of leaders discussing ways to boost morale and set realistic expectations around working hours. Research culture “cafes,” where researchers and support staff meet to share ideas and experiences, are a way to discuss best practices.

3. Providing advisory services

Providing advisory services can go a long way in helping students decide their career path. At the Faculty of Social Sciences, Utrecht University, a statistics professor is available to advise young researchers on statistical analysis in their research. Meanwhile, at the University of Zurich, the main library, in cooperation with various departments, supports researchers by offering advice on data handling, data literacy, data use and re-use, and choosing the right repository for publishing data. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center provides a career-counseling service to their scientists to discuss career paths and steps needed for progress and success.

4. Training and testing modules

Dedicated training may be imparted to improve communication skills. Students can be made to prepare concise and logically written pieces, from short reports to longer reviews and manuscripts, as well as grant proposals. They can be made to communicate ideas or debate issues in small and large groups. Hands-on experience coupled with evaluation and feedback can make the learning more rigorous.

Trinity College Dublin incorporates research training focusing on research methods and integrity across the academic cycle, starting at the undergraduate level. At the Faculty of Medicine, University of Geneva, medical students must pass an online examination on plagiarism.


Concluding notes

For researcher success, adeptness in multifarious skills is essential. In fact, these skills are valuable even in fields outside academia. Institution leaders should cultivate an environment that allows the acquisition of these diverse skills and the ability to apply them to everyday life.

It must be noted that these initiatives needn’t be a burden on the institution; pre-existing resources (e.g., the institutional library) and manpower (e.g., faculty) can be put on the job. A research organization can facilitate skill-building initiatives in tandem with regular research and administrative activities. Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of these initiatives will go on to be happier and more successful researchers!


1. World Economic Forum. 7 ways to promote better research culture. World Economic Forum. 2018.

2. Karlin, L. Wellcome – Research Culture. Extended Review. Shift Learning. 2019.

3. League of European Research Universities. Towards a research integrity culture at universities: From recommendations to implementation. LERU. Advice Paper No. 26. 2020.

Be the first to clap

for this article

Published on: Jan 31, 2023

Sunaina did her masters and doctorate in plant genetic resources, specializing in the use of molecular markers for genotyping horticultural cultivars
See more from Sunaina Singh


You're looking to give wings to your academic career and publication journey. We like that!

Why don't we give you complete access! Create a free account and get unlimited access to all resources & a vibrant researcher community.

One click sign-in with your social accounts

1536 visitors saw this today and 1210 signed up.