How Can I Become a Productive Researcher as a Doctoral Student?


All doctoral students must learn how to become more productive researchers. This skill will come with time but outlined below are some tips about how to increase your productivity, even at the earliest stages of your academic career. Some doctoral students are more interested in teaching while others are more natural researchers and scholars. Even though students have different strengths and talents, it is important for all PhD students and academics to have a steady research agenda and produce at least some scholarly work. This does not mean that if you are more passionate about and interested in teaching you must place development of teaching skills last; it just means you should be aware that there is a reasonable expectation of all doctoral students that they will produce high quality research and learn how to become productive researchers.  

Take the research productivity quiz, and see where you stand!

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero, PhD in Social Work, on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

Check out Dave talking about writing introductions to research paper:

Here are some ideas about how you can become a productive scholar and researcher while you are a doctoral student, and beyond.

Here are some ideas about how you can become a productive scholar and researcher while you are a doctoral student, and beyond.

  • Develop a core set of academic interests early on. When you are in the coursework phase of your doctoral program you should be absorbing professors’ knowledge and experience and exposing yourself to different facets of research in your academic field. Take a course on something that is not your main interest; you never know how your interests might evolve. Do that in the first year though, so that once you know which subfields interest you most you can focus on becoming as knowledgeable as possible in those areas as you proceed through the program. It is important that you develop a few areas of expertise through coursework early on, so you can think as early as possible about your research agenda as a student and academic, and about a dissertation topic. Take this fun quiz to see if your research topics are interesting!
  • Work for a research institute or professor. When you work for a university-based research institute you will have an opportunity to engage in funded research projects as a research assistant or staff member and to work closely with professors on their projects. I would suggest taking a research position even if the focus area does not match your very primary interests exactly. As long as the position is in your general academic field the experience you gain will be very worthwhile, even if you decide to focus on a different subfield later in your studies and as a professional academic. As a research assistant you will be involved in writing literature reviews, gathering data by distributing surveys or conducting interviews and focus groups, and you may even be involved in designing research instruments. (Check out our post on what a research assistant does.) Once the data is gathered you will probably in charge of entering it into a database and analyzing it. With this type of work, you will hone your analytical skills such as coding and/or using a statistical software package, organizing and presenting data, and writing up the results sections of reports. You will also hopefully have an opportunity to be a coauthor on one or several peer reviewed journal articles. This will get your foot in the door of being a published author/researcher. The value of this experience, and how you will feel when you get your first co-authorship should not be underestimated.
  • Design a mini study. Once you are connected to a research institute or a professor’s project you might ask for more responsibility. Find out if you can do a small side project on your own, such as a gathering data to explore a different type of research question. You can work on a mini study over the summer when you are not taking courses. Put together a literature review and set of research questions and have a professor review it. Then gather your data and write up the results. Coauthor a manuscript with one professor, or write it on your own, and submit it to a peer reviewed journal.  Getting published under your own authorship, or with one other person, will look great on your CV and show that you can design and carry out a study.  
  • Use coursework papers to create manuscripts. Nothing like killing two birds with one stone. You spend so much time on coursework research and papers. Choose topics and projects that could be used to develop a real study that will result in a manuscript. You might only use the literature review portion of a course assignment for your manuscript, but that is fine. You have done the research, so use it to your advantage. For courses where you must propose or design a study, use what you have proposed to initiate a real study. You are going to gain immense knowledge in your courses, so use this knowledge to help you become a productive student researcher.
  • Develop synergy between what you are teaching and your research interests and projects. If you are teaching research, use that course to keep yourself fresh with the latest and most important (and sometimes even basic) research skills. In order to teach it, you have to know it, so teaching research will keep you sharp. Going over basic and advanced research skills in preparation for your class will help you think about your own research, remind you how to do certain techniques correctly, and maybe even inspire some new ideas. Try to teach at least one research course – do not be afraid. If you do not have an opportunity to teach research, try to TA a research course. You can also make extra money tutoring graduate and less advanced doctoral students in research.
  • Focus on research over the summer. Take a mini online course over the summer that will help you learn research skills and techniques that you are less familiar with or do not use regularly. There are also some summer research programs, onsite or online, that enroll students with similar interests. Some programs may be for students in specific phases of their doctoral studies. These programs may provide opportunities to share your ideas, manuscripts, or proposals, ask questions, and meet leading researchers in your field. Keep an eye out for such opportunities. You may be able to get financial support from your program to participate.
  • Hire a research assistant. Most likely you will not be provided a research assistant by your program while you are a student, but you can hire one on your own.You might hire a research assistant to help you gather and enter data during the dissertation phase if you are doing original data collection. You might even hire someone temporarily to help you with entry level research work for a mini study or project. Hire a grad student informally or go to a freelancing site to find someone. This type of support can be immensely helpful.
  • Collaborate with other students on research projects. You all have limited time for research as students, so band together to work on a research project and produce a manuscript. A project might emerge from a group assignment in class, or you can work with other students serving as research assistants or doing work for an institute or center. Some academic fields may lend more readily to this type of collaboration, while others are more competitive, and collaboration can be difficult. Gauge how well you think you could work with other students based on observing their performance in courses and on projects. It will be better to work with other students you feel you can trust.  
  • Take a break to complete a research project. If you are engaged in a study that is very promising and is providing you with experience that can only be gained outside the classroom, but you don’t have time to focus both on coursework and the project, ask for a leave of absence from your program for a semester. Certain research project are just that important and worthy of putting your coursework and other work on the back burner for a few months. If an amazing research opportunity presents itself, take it, and make the time you need to do it right. The director of your program will probably be supportive, but you may have to pay a maintenance of matriculation fee. You may be able to get a small stipend or grant to work on your short-term project. The project may even take you abroad, which is quite exciting, and you may be able to get some course credit for doing an independent research project.
  • Work smarter during the dissertation phase. Use your time wisely during the dissertation phase of your studies. You now have a number of in-depth papers from course assignments that you can use to kickstart your dissertation proposal. Use your literature review, study ideas, and study proposals to put together a great proposal. Greater efficiency during the dissertation phase will lead to greater efficiency as a researcher in general. There are two broad reasons why. The first is that the quicker you get through the dissertation phase the quicker you can get to being a professional academic researcher! But also, the more thought you put into your dissertation proposal (e.g., do I want to be focusing on this topic for a few years post-graduation), and incorporate your prior learning and ideas, the better the manuscripts will be that emerge from your dissertation. As you organize your research questions for your proposal, think about different articles you can write based on each of these research questions. You may have several closely related research questions in your proposal; this can mean two or three manuscripts. Plan for your life as a researcher during your dissertation phase. All the hard work you have done during this important phase can be used to build a strong foundation of research during the first years of your professional academic career.

Check out these frustrating questions to never as a PhD!

What if I really just don’t like research?

It is true that some doctoral students much prefer teaching over research and aim to work at a teaching college or university (not a top tier research institution), and that is a fantastic goal; but even at schools that emphasize teaching over research you are expected to have some research experience and a small research agenda. It is important that all doctoral students gain research experience and learn how to be productive researchers. If you are not a numbers and statistics person, try to specialize in qualitative research. You can begin to do so as a student. Take qualitative research courses, gather qualitative data for professors, and become proficient in at least one qualitative research software package. Publish a paper or two using qualitative methods; or try to collaborate on a paper using basic quantitative techniques. Try to leave your research comfort zone – you do not know what you will discover about your skills and interests if you do so. Ultimately, do not feel you have to compete with other students who have already published multiple papers and seem to enjoy research as their primary academic occupation; but you do have to produce some original research work, at the very least for your dissertation. Furthermore, you may end up competing for academic jobs with those students who excel at research, so at least show that you can do the basics.  

Don’t confuse productivity with hacking your way through research. Here Dave talks about some productivity hacks that just don’t work:

The bottom line

After you earn your degree and move into the world of academia, you will become a more proficient researcher. Your productivity will increase with your experience. You will learn more tips and tricks and figure out what type of research and projects you enjoy doing most. This will all come in time; but while you are still a student create a foundation for yourself to excel at research and enjoy doing it. Learn the ins and outs of writing research proposals, getting grants, getting published, and collaborating with others while still a student; you will thank yourself later.

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