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Researcher Resolutions

Mon, January 26, 2015 12:27 PM | Laura Parshall

Give yourself a fresh start in your job in the new year! Try these ideas for boosting motivation and advancing your professional development.

Researcher Resolutions

by Laura Parshall

It's a new year, and lots of people are making resolutions to change their lives for the better. For some, this means more gym time, or less TV, or finally getting that home improvement project done. The energy of a new year can lend a boost to these endeavors, as we're conscious of people around us who are also striving to make positive changes, and as more and more sunlight starts slipping into the winter days, making things feel a little more alive. While making all these changes in our personal lives, it can be easy to let our work lives sink into a rut. This year, why not bring this energy, this sense of a fresh start, into your job? Here are some suggestions.

1. Learn a new skill.

It's easy to let your job responsibilities dictate your skills and learning.  If you aren't required to do data analytics in your position, you might well find yourself looking blankly at people talking about regressions and deviations and the like. I will frankly admit that I am in this position myself, since data analytics and prospect research are done by different groups of people here at MIT--the result of being a very large shop. If you deal mostly with individual research, you might not know all that much about researching companies and foundations as prospects. Why not dip a toe into the water by attending a workshop or webinar on one of these subjects? NEDRA, APRA International, and the various APRA chapters, as well as other professional organizations, offer these sorts of programs to give us a place to start on learning new skills like these with other people in the industry. You can usually find "101-level" or "introduction" sessions at conferences, as well.

There are other types of skills to explore, though, that are not necessarily specific to prospect research and management and related fields. If you've ever thought about giving a presentation at a conference, but lacked the confidence in your own speaking abilities--or even if you've felt your palms sweat when you've had to talk at an office meeting--a workshop or class series on public speaking might prove incredibly helpful, and take away a lot of the fear factor. Toastmasters International, a nonprofit organization, has clubs all over the world designed to help people learn to speak confidently and competently in public, and can be a less expensive alternative to commercially run classes.

2. Dive into a specialty.

We all know, or know of, a researcher who's considered an expert on a particular subject matter. Some of them acquired their knowledge through a previous career (in my office, we have someone who knows the world of financial services inside and out because of a career in that field), but some of them only started educating themselves in their specialty after they started in the field of prospect research. Although I don't consider myself an expert by any means, I've chosen a specialty for myself: international research, particularly in Asia. I had already done a decent amount of work in this area when I decided to really put some effort into finding and learning to use a wide range of resources besides those that were already in use in my office, and worked with a colleague to put together a collection of resources and information to help our colleagues at MIT and fellow researchers elsewhere in international research efforts. If there's a subject that particularly interests you, always be on the lookout for ways to expand your knowledge of that subject. Look for "intermediate" or "advanced" sessions on the subject at conferences. Go to round-table discussions (like NEDRA RINGs) where you can share ideas and information with other researchers. You can even look outside the industry to find classes or resources directed at other industries (information on valuing companies that's directed at investors, for example). Take the time to delve a little deeper into something than you had before, and you might find people coming to you for answers.

3. Invite yourself to a meeting.

Sometimes, getting that figurative "seat at the table" in the larger development community can start with getting a literal seat at the table. A research colleague and I recently started attending meetings where development officers discuss strategies for engagement and next steps for top rated prospects. There's not always a lot discussed that directly relates to our research, but we've found that being at these meetings has its benefits. When a fundraiser wonders aloud about a gift that a prospect made to another organization, or whether they might be related to another prospect, we can pipe up and give them the information from our research. Being able to provide intelligence on the spot like that helps to raise the profile of research. In addition, being at these meetings allows us to keep abreast of what's going on with these prospects, so we can be ready for any research requests that are likely to come up in the near future. Are there meetings in your organization where you've wished you could be a fly on the wall? Speak up, and ask whoever organizes the meetings if you can attend one. Even if you don't say much, you might still learn quite a bit, and all it will cost the other attendees is the space for another chair.

4. Get out of the office.

Although the old trope of researchers being relegated to a dimly lit basement isn't really true anymore (at least, I hope it's not!), it's true that sometimes we find ourselves isolated from our larger organizations, spending all our time in an office where we mostly just see other researchers and development staff. This can sometimes lead to a feeling of separation from the mission and the energy of our organizations. Since most of us joined the organizations where we work because we admired them and their mission, this means we're cut off from a source of real motivation. Any time you have the opportunity to get out and get involved in your organization as a whole, to experience what happens outside the development sphere---take it! A couple of years ago, MIT celebrated its sesquicentennial, and as part of that, there was a series of symposia open to all members of the MIT community. I attended one on exploration that included a panel of astronauts who were MIT graduates, talking about space exploration. Learning about the exciting work that was being done here by our professors and about the discoveries were being made reminded me that the work I do supports some really, truly incredible stuff. Even just being at that symposium along with faculty, students, and alumni made me feel more like a part of the MIT community, instead of just being on the fringes of it. Try it yourself: get out and go to a lecture. Take a tour. See an exhibit. Volunteer with patients. You might be surprised at how much of a boost it gives to your motivation when you get back to your desk.

The New Year's researcher resolutions I've mentioned are only a start. Depending on the kind of work you do and the kind of organization where you work, there are probably many other things you can do to liven up your job. The most important thing to remember is always to keep your eyes open for opportunities to learn, to grow, and to get connected. While the New Year is a great time for changes, there's never a bad time for professional development or priming the motivational pump.


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