Skills needed for Applied Research
Research can be seen as being on a spectrum ranging from ‘basic’ to ‘applied’. Basic research explores fundamental principles of a discipline that underpin current thinking, while applied research takes these findings and applies them to ‘real world’ solutions. For example…
A basic researcher in biology might work toward understanding biological processes at a molecular level.
An applied researcher in biology might use the above knowledge to develop novel drugs.
In applied research, you will likely deal directly with the subjects that your work will impact. A certain set of skills is needed to thrive in such a field, some of which we will uncover here.
Having a broader, practical understanding of research
The focus of applied research is usually about invention and innovation rather than an exploration of why things work the way they do. Therefore, rather than researching into fundamental concepts, your applied research is going to be more about problem solving. This means that you will be taking already established fundamentals and using these to synthesise a solution to an issue. This will be the focus of your work.
However, the reason your work is still considered ‘research’ is that it may be the case that not all fundamentals have been established for you to apply to the issue at hand. Therefore, you will be required to be able to link your most basic pieces of understanding of the issue(s) at hand with applications of principles that are much further along and have yet to be established, which is no mean feat.
In essence, humanity has figured out how to do things before we understood why they work. Applied research, in part, is about working backwards to understand the principles in order to further develop applications. To succeed at this, you need to do two things:
- Try to think in broad terms, rather than getting bogged down in minutiae.
- Always ask yourself the question of how you might apply novel findings to practical applications.
Being a multidisciplinary collaborator
As research is translated and becomes more applied, you will be dealing with more diverse backgrounds. Here’s an example to illustrate…
To build a battery, chemists, engineers and electricians come together to solve problems that apply to their respective fields. Now, it is your project to make batteries more efficient.
However, as batteries as we know them already exist, you’ll need to cooperate with all of these different disciplines in order to have a holistic understanding of where you can make a change, which aspects of the technology require better understanding and how you might be able to make a difference.
Here, it’s important you think about the backgrounds of whomever you are collaborating with, and to take into this into account when it comes to closely working together.
For more on succeeding in multidisciplinary research, read: Skills needed for Multidisciplinary Research
For more on collaborating in research, read: Collaborating in research: Purpose and best practices
Engaging in public communication
Many scientists consider ‘applied’ as what is most likely to be the most easily digestible kind of research when it comes to public communications as it tends to deal with ‘real-world’ problems. Therefore, these types of research are more amenable to outreach activities and public engagement, and it is likely that you’ll need to engage in this as well.
Work with your group to think about how you can make more wide-reaching impact than just via publications (such as through blogs, podcasts and social media), such that you can maximise your overall impact on society and humanity.
When it comes to applied research, the most important factor for success in your work is to develop higher-level thinking. This will help you to link findings and find solutions that are meaningful and drive your project forward. All the best on your applied research journey!
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