Three messages for starting investigators

Presented with the question as to ‘why you ended up in research’ in the first ever Starting Investigators Workshop by the CIHR’s Institute of Population and Public Health (IPPH) in Ottawa, I said, “my interest in research dates back five generations in our family.”

I was kidding, obviously. Yet, there is a tinge of truth in it in the form of human nature to understand things. In fact, based on a number of sporadic anecdotes from my life I concluded that my desire to have a deeper and perhaps accurate understanding of things may have contributed to my becoming a ’Starting Investigator.’

Three days into the workshop, although not convinced of the response I constructed, another question rose from all the information that was provided to us throughout the workshop, and that is ‘How could I remain a researcher?’

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CIHR-IPPH Starting Investigators Workshop parliament tour

With that question in mind, I am briefly jotting down my three take-home messages from the workshop.

  1. Be a one man army to develop an army 

To remain a researcher, you need to develop a team. A team consisting of students to undertake most of the ground work, senior researchers to become your mentors, fellow researchers to become your collaborators, policymakers and community members to become potential knowledge users, communication experts to translate your research, and managers to coordinate everything and everyone including yourself.

They say that it takes a village to raise a child, but as a child in the field of research, you will raise a village around yourself.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to do it overnight. You may have to be a one-man army in the beginning, but the team will evolve around you over time as your research program grows. Networking, though, is key in the process of developing the team around your program of research.

  1. Funding agencies are machines with humans inside them 

To an early investigator funding, agencies may appear like giant slot machines that eat up all your ideas and time and only works in favor of established researchers. To remain a researcher, you need not only to understand but also feel by contacting and seeing the agencies in person that there are people inside the funding agencies who are there to help. If you have questions regarding the grant applications (which you will definitely have), send an email or make a phone call. It warmed my heart when I received a message from a CIHR manager two hours after he took my business card offering to answer my questions regarding application processes.

  1. Connect yourself and your research with society

As an early investigator, you need to connect with people to create the team that is much needed for you and your research. You also need to connect with people to develop community-based, realist, people-centered, and actionable research projects and programs. Most of the realist and policy-related ideas come from the context and society. Research is and should be at the end of the day about contributing to change in society. Finally, you need to connect with people to feel that your research matters to society in one way or another.

Now there are many ways to connect. Connecting with general public could happen through mass media and social media. Connecting with policymakers could happen through policy round webinars, in-person networks, policy-focused conferences, consultancy and advisory boards, and among other ways. You may need to develop the skills to write not only for your peers in reviewed journals but also for policymakers and the general public in print and online outlets and blogs. Don’t be shy or afraid to use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media.

Let me end this post with reminding you about the concept of ‘the strength of weak ties,’ which posits that ideas, opportunities, and resources spread better in larger networks with weak ties than smaller networks with strong ties.

So, strengthen your weak ties.

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