Becoming a Successful Researcher in 4 Easy Steps…

Becoming a Successful Researcher in 4 Easy Steps…

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This post is inspired by a video I watched on the University of Technology Sydney website.

In that video, Professor Andrew Barron talks about how planning, and then referring back to the plan resulted in a huge uptick in his research outputs (publications) in the next 2 years. And that continued planning (and referring to the plan) has seen him maintain that output, without a change to his overall work habits and hours.

So, what’s the magic?


There is no magic.

And nor is it smoke and mirrors.

Rather, it is the power of sticking to something and seeing it through.

Having a plan doesn’t guarantee success. But having thought about the options primes us for success. And no, this is not the power of the secret, or manifestation.

Rather, it is about helping us articulate what we want and how to get it. Then when something comes along that might help us achieve that goal, we can take that opportunity.

So, what does this look like and how can you get access? This is the challenge. Part of the problem of 5 year research or career plans is that they can be anything. Cover anything. Focus on anything. And that provides too many options.

So, the first step is having some structure. This comes in the form of:

  • Setting limits.
  • Documentation.

Most people, when asked if they have a research, career, or life plan, will say “yes”. And I am sure that is true. But, if then asked, “Show me?”, that is much harder. They’ll say, “It’s up here” and point to their head.

If you’re the person above, cool. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The second step is to fix the problem. So, write down your plan.

If you’re doing this as you read – and you should – limit yourself to 5 minutes. Use whatever piece of paper – real or virtual – you have in front of you. Don’t worry about structure. Or layout. Or making it look perfect. Just write your plan. Move it from your head to something you can look at, read, change, update, and follow later on.

At this point, most of us realise we actually don’t really have a plan. And that’s okay too. Again, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The second step is to fix the problem. So, start making a plan.

To help, here are some questions you could ask yourself – and of course – answer (write down) in your plan.


Q1. What do I want my life to look like in 5 years?

Think about all of the things in your current life. How would you like them to be in five years. Importantly, you’re not projecting forward. You’re imagining something new. The best analogy I can give is travelling somewhere. You wouldn’t start driving, without knowing your destination. Yet in many cases, this is what we do in our careers and life.

Similarly, you wouldn’t set your destination based on the direction you are currently heading. Again, this is what we do in our careers. We project forward.

Instead, when it comes to travel, you determine where you want to go (e.g., the shops) and then the best way to get there (e.g., walking), when you’d like to arrive (e.g., in 30 minutes) and then plan to leave based on how long you’ll think it will take you to get there (e.g., leave in 10 minutes, because it takes 20 to walk to the shops).

So, in 5 years:

  • Where will you be working? – e.g., organisation, location, seniority.
  • What will you be doing? – e.g., managing, leading, teaching, researching, administering.
  • What will your lifestyle be like? – e.g., big/small home, kids, partner, pets.
  • What kind of job do these “ideals” imply? Does that seem real? – e.g., if you said you’d be a teaching aid, working part time, living in a big house, in the city, with lots of kids, pets and a partner, being the sole income earner – I’d say the likely salary of the teaching aid is not going to cover those things. So, readjust for reality.

Going back to the travel analogy, the 5 year plan is like travelling somewhere that needs additional saving (i.e., not a trip to the shops) and additional support (i.e., you need to book tickets, seats or venues).



Q2. What does my 5 year plan imply about earlier years?

We’ve already, kind of, looked at the implications of your plan. When we looked at the ideals and if the ideals seemed real/possible.

But, in this step we work backwards from our five year plan. Backwards 2-3 years. Now, you might be tempted to move 3-2 years forward from now. Don’t. Work BACKWARDS from 5 years. What will you need to be doing, so that you can hit your 5 year goal. Let’s call this the 5 minus 3 plan.

If you’ll be a professor in five years, what will you have done 3 years earlier? Maybe it was applying for promotion? Maybe it as moving jobs. Maybe it was winning a grant.

If you’ll be a major grant winner in 5 years, what will you have done 3 years earlier? Maybe it was bringing a team together. Maybe it was to start drafting the grant. Maybe it was move to a location that allows you to be eligible for a certain grant.

And, once you’ve done that for 5 years minus 3, now do it for 3 years minus 2 (and we’ll call this the 3 minus 2 plan)

Bringing it back to travel – this is like knowing you want to visit the Great Barrier Reef (5 year plan) and booking a flight to Cairns (back casting). If you’re going to be swim on the Great Barrier Reef, it is highly likely you’ll have got there via Cairns.


Q3. What do I do now?

So, by answering Q2 you should have an ideal “in a year from now” situation. Again, the “year from now” should be arrived at by working backwards from 5 years, not forwards from one.

However, now is when you get to plan forwards. Knowing what you need in a year, in order to get to your 5 year plan, what do you need to do now – or in the next 12 months?

Going back to the travel example – it means you’ll start a savings plan, book flights, accommodation, and activities. Maybe even buy some new clothes or bathers.

If your 5 year plan means you’ll be in a new country, then in all likelihood this year will mean you’ll do some research on where or what. But it might also mean, planning your exit strategy.

It’ll mean knowing what (broadly) experiments you’ll be running, or data you’ll be collecting or exams you’ll be marking.

If you have current teaching, research or administration commitments, those go in the 1 year plan. And, if you’d like those to change, you need to make sure they are modified in the plan that covers the appropriate timeframe. If you don’t see yourself teaching in 5 years, but your current load is 80% teaching, then you’ll need to transition out of that. You’ll need to plan how you hand that load over to other people.

Limit this plan to a page. Use a table. Use pictures or drawings. But don’t make it larger than a page.

Back to our travel example – if you want to see the turtles nesting on the Great Barrier Reef, you must go in Nov/Dec. And that might mean changing work, Christmas or New Year’s Eve commitments. And, of course, if you want to swim on the Great Barrier Reef, you might need to take swimming lessons first!


Q4. Revisit and revise

Now that you have your plan, you need to use it.

Here’s how.

Every week, re-revisit the plan for the next 12 months. Read the high level tasks. It’ll take no longer than 5 minutes if you kept your plan small (less than a page) like I said above. This activity helps remind you of what is important and why. In the event something arises in that day or week, you’ll have your plan top of mind. You’ll be better placed to say yes or no to something that’ll help or hinder your progress.

Then, every 3, 4 or 6 months revise your plans. Take a look at the five year plan. Consider if it still makes sense. Particularly given you’ve moved forward 3, 4 or 6 months. Adjust your 5 minus 3 plan. Adjust your 3 minus 2 plan. Adjust based on your current progress as well as any changed goals.

Finally, update your Do now plan. It needs to make sense in the context of what you have achieved, as well as what you hope to do. Where you need to get to. This update should take into account how quick you are at doing things.

Back to our travel example – if you want to swim on the reef, but have yet to learn to swim, you might have to change your goal (no swimming on the reef), change your action (take more swimming lessons), change your timing (book the holiday to allow for your slower swimming progress).

Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers, and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.

To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ( or subscribe to the newsletter. He's on LinkedIn (Dr Richard Huysmans), Twitter (@richardhuysmans), Instagram (@drrichardhuysmans), and Facebook (Beyond Your PhD with Dr Richard Huysmans).

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