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How to become a successful researcher at every stage of your career

November 16, 2020

By Sneha Mittal Sachdeva

Steps to building a successful research career – with a JACC webinar for physician-scientists

Pursuing a career in research can be daunting. Regardless of your field, it can be highly competitive, with challenges at every stage. These include the uncertainty of grants and fellowships, maintaining work-life balance, and publishing in premium, high-impact journals(opens in new tab/window).

For physician-scientists, the success rates for securing research grants has declined from 33 percent to 19 percent, while the number of grant applications has increased by 72 percent. However, with a roadmap for success, the path can provide personal and professional fulfillment and dynamism.

In this article – based on our webinar the Journal of the American College of Cardiology(opens in new tab/window) (JACC) – Dr. Valentin Fuster and Dr. Harlan Krumholtz share best practices to become a successful researcher at three stages of your career: early, mid-career and senior. While their advice is for physician-scientists, it can apply to people in all fields of research.

Webinar: How to become a successful researcher at every stage of your career

How to Become a Successful Researcher At Every Stage of Your Career ( in new tab/window) Join this free webinar(opens in new tab/window) with Valentin Fuster, MD, PhD, MACC, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC)(opens in new tab/window), and Harlan M. Krumholz, MD, SM, FACC, Director of the Yale Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation(opens in new tab/window) at the Yale School of Medicine. They discuss how to maintain a successful physician-scientist career at three stages: early, mid-career and senior. They also suggest tips for grant receipts and talk about the importance of the mentor/mentee relationship and the need for creativity in grant submissions.

1. Identify the right research project

As a researcher, irrespective of the career stage, understand that you’re in constant competition to continue your research. To ensure that you’re working in the right direction, you can follow this step-by-step approach:

  • Identify your skills and resources: Identify the range of skills you currently have and your available resources. But don’t be afraid to think big!

  • Recognize the requirements: Next, recognize what kind of projects are you willing to do. Ask yourself if you are flexible, if you’re willing to take risks and if you can really choose and afford to be entrepreneurial in terms of the available opportunities for your project.

  • Research the topic: Read and learn from the existing literature around your research topic, demonstrate the rationale for selecting the topic and ensure you’ve completed the background research before finalizing your research topic.

  • Improve the likelihood of success: Identify what resources, skills, individuals and support can enhance the likelihood of your success.

  • Prioritize time: Estimate the amount of time required to complete the project vs your available time. Allocate your time carefully to important projects, and don’t underestimate the time, efforts and energy required for each project. If you’re a senior researcher, identify the opportunities for networking, learning and future opportunities, but take a calculated approach before taking on a new project.

  • Understanding the current scenario: Understand what projects your sponsors, funding teams or organization will pay you to do. Ask yourself if you can leverage the available opportunities to find a balance between what you want to do, what the world is interested in and the support you can expect to receive for the project.

  • Make a strong case: Do you understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing this? In a short description, try to write key compelling reasons why you should take the project, and only take on the project if the reasons are convincing.

Once you have clarity on the research project topic, ensure you put your energy and efforts toward making the project a success. Then take all your learnings to your next project.

2. Develop and nurture qualities of being a successful researcher.

Is a researcher born or created with dedication and hard work? Or is it a combination of both? The best researchers are curious by nature. Here are a few other qualities that predispose them for success:

  • Courage: The top quality of any successful researcher is the courage to ask the right questions, seek answers from peers, experts as well as literature and questioning how their project will make an impact. A successful researcher will fight the fall into the comfort zone and will understand the rewards of a life in science which can help him/her contribute to the world.

  • Persistence: When thinking about your research career growth, envision the position you would like to achieve and the journey you would like to take to reach that position. Even though sometimes the journey might not quite suit you, don’t quit, learn and improve as you go.

  • Determination & Resilience in the face of challenges: Everyone among the top successful researchers have faced challenges at one or more junctures of their life. Everyone faces difficult times when people don’t believe in them or doubt their capabilities. However, what made them stand apart was the resilience they displayed in the face of challenges. When times are hard, don’t quit easily because success only comes to those who work hard.

  • Self-motivation: Surround yourself by an environment where you see examples of success, where you see people you admire, people who inspire us to think about what we might aspire to be, who we want to be and how do we want to get there. Find colleagues who’re asking questions, trying to seek knowledge to improve people lives and don’t limit this search to people just in front of you, but look for opportunities across institutions and across borders.

3. Find a mentor for every stage of your life.

A mentor is someone who can provide guidance and support, accommodate and suit your individual needs and requirements, understand your aspirations and become an anchor for you at difficult stages of life. Regardless of the stage of your career, the role of a mentor is critically important in steering your interests and contributing to your growth.

You can have several mentors in your life based on your career stage; for example, a mentor to guide your thesis, a mentor who supports your career growth and a mentor who is an anchor for your life. A great mentor-mentee relationship is one where you have good chemistry and comfort. Mentorship doesn’t necessarily mean a mentor is supposed to tell you what needs to be done, but it’s a relationship where you can always seek guidance and supporting advice.

If you’re in early or middle stages of your career, find a mentor who is welcoming, supportive, encouraging and helps create or discover opportunities for your growth.

If you’re a senior researcher, contribute to society by discovering people with talent and encouraging them. Find the right triggers, understand talent, and support the people who have the right ingredients to become successful in their life.

4. Understand your talent and enhance it.

Understand your talents, skills and interests, and spend time enhancing these. You can ask yourself these key questions to help you grow in the right direction:

Self-discovery questions:

  • What are you trying to achieve in the next 5 years?

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses?

  • What projects keep me excited

  • Which strengths would you like to cultivate in the upcoming years?


  • What happens when things don’t work?

  • How can I keep myself motivated?

  • What are my contributions to the society?

  • What is the journey I would like to go through?

  • How can I achieve that big win?

My team:

  • How do I connect with people?

  • How do I motivate others around me?

  • How do others around me keep me motivated?

Research area of interest:

  • Do you enjoy working on new ground-breaking research or does your strength lie in enhancing the existing research?

  • How can you add value to your institution with your research?

Parting wisdom

At every stage of your career, remember to be a bold and creative problem solver. Ensure you thank the people who have made your journey important and memorable. Be satisfied with what you do, understand your talent and invest in them continuously. Begin with the end in mind. Your research is not the money, but the contribution you have made to the society and the impact you have had on your team. And most importantly don’t forget to enjoy each stage of your journey, learning lessons and striving towards becoming a better version of yourself each day.

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Sneha Mittal Sachdeva