18 months ago I embarked on a PhD, fresh-faced and enthusiastic. I was confident I could learn enough to understand research at the coal-face. But when faced with the prospect of producing an original paper, I was frankly terrified. How on earth do you turn vague ideas into concrete results?
In retrospect, my naive brain was crying out for an algorithm. Nowadays we’re so trained to jump through examination hoops that the prospect of an open-ended project terrifies many. Here’s the bad news – there’s no well-marked footpath leading from academic interest to completed write-up.
So far, so depressing. Or is it? After all, a PhD is meant to be a voyage of discovery. Sure, if I put you on a mountain-top with no map you’d likely be rather scared. But there’s also something exhilarating about striking out into the unknown. Particularly, that is, if you’re armed with a few orienteering skills.
I’m about to finish my first paper. I can’t and won’t tell you how to write one! Instead, here’s a few items for your kit-bag on the uncharted mountain of research. With these in hand, you’ll be well-placed to forge your own route towards the final draft.
- Your Supervisor
Any good rambler takes a compass. Your supervisor is your primary resource for checking direction. Use them!
It took me several months (and one overheard moan) to start asking for pointers. Nowadays, if I’m completely lost for more than a few hours, I’ll seek guidance.
2. Your Notes
You start off without a map. It’s tempting to start with unrecorded cursory reconnaissance, just to get the lie of the land. Although initially speedy, you have to be super-disciplined lest you go too far and can’t retrace your steps. You’d be better off making notes as you go. Typesetting languages and subversion repositories can help you keep track of where you are.
Your notes will eventually become your paper – hence their value! But there’s a balance to be struck. It’s tempting to spend many hours on pretty formatting for content which ends up in Appendix J. If in doubt, consult your compass.
3. Your Colleagues
Some of them have written papers before. All of them have made research mistakes. Mutual support is almost as important in a PhD programme as on a polar expedition! But remember that research isn’t a race. If your colleague has produced three papers in the time it’s taken you to write one, that probably says more about their subfield and style of work than your relative ability.
Aka love of failure. If you sit on top of the mountain and never move then you’ll certainly stay away from dangerous edges. But you’ll also never get anywhere! You will fail much more than you succeed during your PhD. Every time you pursue an idea which doesn’t work, you are honing in on the route which will.
In this respect, research is much like sport – positive psychology is vital. Bottling up frustration is typically unhelpful. You’d be much better off channelling that into…
5. Not Writing Your Paper
You can’t write a paper 24/7 and stay sane. Thankfully a PhD is full of other activities that provide mental and emotional respite. My most productive days have coincided with seminars, teaching commitments and meetings. You should go to these, especially if you’re feeling bereft of motivation.
And your non-paper pursuits needn’t be limited to the academic sphere. A regular social hobby, like sports, music or debating, can provide a much needed sense of achievement. Many PhDs I know also practice some form of religion, spirituality or meditation. Time especially set aside for mental rest will pay dividends later.
No, I don’t mean related papers in your field (though these are important). I’ve found fiction, particularly that with intrigue and character development, hugely helpful when I’m struggling to cross an impasse. Perhaps surprisingly, some books aimed at startups are also worth a read. A typical startup faces corporate research problems akin to academic difficulties.
Finally, remember that research is by definition iterative! You cannot expect your journey to end within a month. As you chart the territory around you, try to enjoy the freedom of exploring. Who knows, you might just spot a fascinating detour that leads directly to an unexpected paper.
My thanks to Dr. Inger Mewburn and her wonderful Thesis Whisperer blog for inspiring this post.