In today’s post, We have Nimisha Srivastava, an Aerospace Engineering PhD Candidate from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras ( (IITM). In today’s post, she talks about the most important point to remember when writing your first research paper!
PhD Candidate at IIT Madras
Nimisha is a PhD candidate at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at IIT Madras. She has done her graduation from PEC and has been working in the field of CFD extensively. She was heavily involved in the dramatics society of PEC and still loves to act. She is an avid reader and takes great interest in reading about how people think and how things fly. She worked as an industry professional in CFD tech support for a year after her bachelors, before resuming her research journey. Nimisha published her first research paper, derived from her work in her undergrad internship, in a journal in 2018. This article is an insight into her experiences from that.
Writing your first research paper is a lot like opening Pandora’s box. It reveals the true nature of research.
When we day-dream of pursuing research as a career, a lot of us envision ourselves being the next big thing in the future of our subject. We build grand dreams of even more grand inventions and discoveries that would change the course of humanity. We think of creating nuclear-powered cars. Crops that could grow on mars and even of discovering the universal syntax of language.
These dreams are especially grander when we are at the stage when the word “paper” instantly reminds us of the newspaper. Or even just the blank sheets on which we often found ourselves doodling in the middle of an especially boring class before recess. But then, when we take our first baby steps into the world of research and find our minds, laptops, and cupboards filled with research papers (or just papers, as we now call them), do we truly understand the nature of our noble dreams.
For me, this rude awakening came when I was still an undergrad student and began the process of writing my first research paper. To anyone else, it’s just a 10-page paper filled with some funky graphs, but well, for me, it was one hell of a journey that forced me to grow up (2 years too soon) and realize what I had actually signed up for. And well, spoiler alert, it’s amazing! (for the most part… shhhh…)
In this article, I will summarize some of the most important take-aways from my experience of publishing as an undergraduate student.
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1. Keep a Research Journal to Document Everything!
Before I started my research project, I was under the impression that this process would be so much more hands-on. I thought I would be spending all my time conducting experiments and simulations and presenting my ideas to my guide. But research is overwhelmingly a process of documenting what you’re doing. Think of it like building a new road rather than doing cool tricks on an already paved one…
As an undergrad, I used to do assignments and take exams. These were basically questions whose answers were already known; I just needed to find them once again. So I focused on getting to the end result in that situation. I knew which books to refer to, and I knew that an answer existed. I also more or less knew how I could get there. One golden luxury I had was that I simply didn’t need to worry about what people following after me would do; it was a factor that didn’t even feature. But as a researcher, you are the one who needs to tell the ones coming after you where and how to go, and if there is even a place to go to, and for keeping track of all the options you take and reject, you need to be almost constantly documenting.
One way to do so is to keep a research journal; you don’t need to know what you’ll write in there in advance. Just write everything and always put dates. Keep a log of all the things you do and why. It doesn’t need to be perfect or even make sense for anyone but you. However, it absolutely needs to be there. This will help you a lot when you actually sit down to write your research paper as these notes will be your guiding lights when your brain has run out of things to say, which, believe me, it will.
2. Writing a Research Paper is Time Consuming
Another habit that we pick up from our years and years of structured education is that we get too used to instant gratification. Submit a report, get the grade a week (or realistically a month) later, take a test, and you get your score in a day or two. You get my drift… We become too used to instant rewards. However, when you submit a research paper for publishing, counting in all the time taken in looking at a suitable journal, getting accepted (and also rejected), replying to reviewers, and making edits and then making more edits, it can take anywhere between 1-2 years!
Believe me…I started writing my journal paper as an incoming senior in college. However, I finally saw my paper being published as a working professional, a whole 1.5 years later. It might seem tedious on the face of it, but you know, that’s just how it goes. Things take time. Research is a thorough and paced process. It might seem intimidating, but we really need to understand that its nature is not always intense and crazed; it’s really a process of discovery and re-evaluation. And really, almost everything out of structured education is like that, paced. So, it’s crucial to recalibrate our expectations and learn to cruise; the afterburner is anyway overrated.
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3. Your First draft is seldom your last draft
It’s quite enticing to think that you’ll sit for 2 days and finish writing your research paper in one sitting perfectly; just you, your coffee, and your laptop. But unfortunately, as awesome and almost picturesque as that sounds, it’s unbelievably difficult to actually achieve. I know that having experienced undergraduate life means that you would’ve already had your fair share of last minute successes. You would have probably stayed up all night studying for a test and gotten a good grade in it, or finished an assignment 3 minutes before it was due. However, writing a good research paper is a whole different game.
You’ll be surprised at the amount of second-guessing you’ll do, and how reading one new paper could turn your wonderful paragraph into a not so wonderful one. But don’t be afraid of that! Trial and error is the essence of writing your manuscript; it’s how your brain evolves its thoughts. Hence, even if you feel that your first draft is not how you envisioned, It’s not a problem at all. The work of the first draft is to provide a foundation on which you can build your ideas. Quite often, the end result that you achieve is totally different from the one you envisioned. And that’s the power and beauty of having the courage to erase what took a lot of effort and was awesome but wasn’t quite right.
4. You need to know when to stop with the drafts
It is important to realize that writing a research paper is an iterative process. But it also important to know when to exit the loop. At one point in your research, you may find yourself saving your files like ‘paper_final_finale_fullyrevised_fullyfinal_done_22Oct_30Dec_finalpaper.doc,’. At that moment, you need to stop and see if your paper is not perfect but good enough.
The thing about perfect papers is that they do not exist. There’s always going to be some or the other problem, and that’s when you should trust your guide to put the last coat of paint on your masterpiece. They’ll usually offer a perspective or criticism, but most of all they’ll save you from the impossible to please – the critic in your head.
As undergrads, we are rarely used to looking at our professors as mentors. But the thing with academic guides is that they’re there to mentor us and to make sure that they support us when we falter. They may have different approaches to how they support their students. Some may helicopter over you, while others may let you fly free. Under any circumstance, they’re there to help you when you need it.
At some point, you may find yourself hyper-fixating on your draft and meticulously reading each new research article that shows up. You may find yourself to be a week away from completion for 6 weeks. At that point, just stop and submit it. Your guide will wrap it up for you. If that still seems not good enough, then take a deep breath and let the peer-reviewers do the rest of the work.
5. Most importantly, have fun!
The best part of being an undergrad researcher is that you’re just the baby elephant in the parade. To tell you a secret, no one in the lab really expects too much from you! Isn’t that fun? You can always count on your seniors to help you out in a pinch, and you’re almost expected to make a few mistakes. So, take advantage of this wonderful opportunity and have tons of fun with your research journey. Try out new things and ask questions, lots of them! Invoke the 4-year-old in you… To quote a wise man, “the only stupid question is the question that is never asked.”
Take your time to ponder on your results and let your ideas grow; it doesn’t matter if they’re not spot-on each time! Learn as much as you can. And let the process of writing a paper be academically, emotionally, and mentally fulfilling for you. Remember that even if you’re unable to finally see your paper published, you would’ve still gained the skills and experience of research which will help you in your life in countless ways!
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