Have you ever thought about your needs as a researcher? Not the simple ‘I need a new reagent’ or ‘I need more study participants’ but on a higher level.
A basic human needs level.
Abraham Maslow studied high achievers, including scientists such as Albert Einstein to establish the hierarchy of human needs pyramid.
Maslow  described 4 basic needs you have to fulfill before you can address the highest human need ’self-actualization’.
The 4 basic needs are physiology, safety, love/belonging, and esteem. Self actualization is about achieving goals with a broader purpose, your contribution to society.
“What a man can be, he must be.”
– Abraham Maslow
The researcher needs pyramid.
A similar pyramid can be constructed for the needs of researchers.
There are 4 basic needs in research: funding, methods, data, and publications. Researcher self-actualisation occurs when he or she ‘moves the field’, causes a paradigm shift, or simply achieves a meaningful result that adds to the bigger picture. It is about contributing to step-changes in our understanding.
The value of becoming a successful researcher
Becoming a successful researcher can bring prestige and money. Those things, however, are not the most important.
What is, is the deep satisfaction that comes when you contribute to a step change.
It is always nice to know that you have helped an individual. The smile you get when you go out of your way to open a door or let someone get in line in front of you says it all. That sense of satisfaction is minor.
It is minor compared to what you can achieve with your research. Knowing that your ideas, your efforts led to something that helps thousands if not millions of people is deeply satisfying.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.”
– Steve Jobs
No wobbly pyramids please
The researcher needs pyramid is more than a cocktail party topic. It is a strategic roadmap for your research career.
The best way to do great work is to master the process of fulfilling your researcher needs. It is not sufficient to just expect that over time your needs will be met.
Yes, some of your needs will be filled by passive diffusion. If you hang around long enough you may get some funding, develop some methods, collect data and write a few papers. But, the impact of your research will not be anywhere close to its potential.
It is easy to plod forward doing things the way you have always done them. If this is your strategy your pyramid will become wobbly. Technology changes, science advances, and new ways of working are constantly emerging.
Think about it. The internet was developed to provide a means for researchers to communicate and exchange data. How did researchers do that before the internet?
It’s hard to imagine not being able to just send data files to your colleagues in a matter of seconds. Using the internet to collaborate on research was at one point a new way of working. Those who adopted it early on were able to fulfill their needs as a researcher much more efficiently.
The better you are at meeting your needs the more secure you will be. Your work will be more satisfying, more fun.
It comes down to investing in increased efficiency. The more efficient you are the less time you have to spend on drudgery. The more time you can spend enjoying your work.
The efficiency of we.
Collaboration can be one of the the best ways to efficiently meet your needs.
Suppose that you really need one technique that you don’t have immediately available. Should you spend months even years developing a new technique? Or, is it more efficient to collaborate with someone who is already using that technique?
This scenario is becoming increasingly common.
In fact in most research fields you cannot master any of your needs without collaboration. The complexity of modern research is such that an array of experts has to be included in every project.
You cannot deal with the complexity of modern research on your own. If you want to contribute to the step-changes in your field you have to collaborate.
Balanced career development
What is nice about concepts such as the researcher needs pyramid is that can help you set priorities. By honestly assessing your mastery of each of the needs it becomes clear what you should be working on.
Suppose you are good at getting funding, are using novel techniques that are generating lots of data, but you just can’t seem to get any papers written. Then you should prioritize improving your writing skills.
Maybe you think you have good funding, good techniques, lots of data, and lots of high impact publications. Then your priority should be distributed across all the needs and you should focus on going from ‘good’ to ‘great’ or even to becoming leader in your field.
Maybe it is the opposite.
You are no good at fulfilling any of the your researcher needs. Then you should apply most of your effort to developing your ability to meet your needs as a researcher.
You owe it to yourself and to society
Chances are that if you are a researcher you work hard. By definition research requires that you are open minded and can think about new ways to solve complex problems.
Often in research there is no help manual, no list of frequently asked questions, and no one to start a popup chat box conversation with that will solve your problem. That’s because research is about forming knowledge that will later be put to use by others to improve their lives.
You owe it to yourself and you owe it to society to invest some effort in mastering your researcher needs pyramid.
it is not just about mastering each step. There are a number of skills that span the entire pyramid such as being able to effectively communicate, manage your time well, manage finances, or working with a team. Mastering these types of skills can have a significant impact as they enhance each of the 5 needs.
The less difficult your work as a researcher is, the more time you can spend thinking and creating. Most importantly, the chance that you will contribute to a step change that helps us all will be greater.
- Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper.