The obvious challenges of graduate research are taking and passing qualifying and comprehensive exams, defending one’s dissertation proposal, navigating relationships with committee members, and finding funding.
Less obvious are the Research Rites which also plague every graduate researcher at some point in their career: getting scooped, grinding to a halt, and approaching the finish line by half-lengths.
Scooped Last year I came across a paper whose title summarized my work perfectly … from the 1980s. After all that work for my literature review and here, in my hand, a paper that just made everything I designed obsolete. One paper just derailed my professional existence and from 30 years ago, how could this happen?
Although one’s inclination is to fall on one’s knees, weep, and rend clothing while crying out, “Why, Lord, why??” I recommend against it for two reasons. First, it is overly dramatic and you (I) need your (my) energy for your (my) research. Second, it scares the undergrads.
Read more than just the title. In fact, read more than just the abstract. Unless you are proposing to work on cutting edge technology – in which case, why are you in grad school, get to Silicon Valley – chances are extremely slim that you, or I, were scooped.
Grinding to a Halt Sadly, I see this more frequently than I should. Students who show up less and less to do their research, or take a professional position thinking they will finish research or writing in their spare time, or researchers who just give up, are all variations on a theme. The temptation is everywhere, especially in the face of real employment with a steady paycheck and health insurance.
My very best recommendation is to show up every single day. I know, the frustration is there and some days it doesn’t feel like any forward movement happened. But show up. Make a list of tiny bits to get done that day. Send necessary emails, write a paragraph or an outline for your publishable manuscript, add to your references cited, just make forward progress every single day. Eventually, the dam will break and evidence great progress.
Half-Lengths And here I stand looking at the finish line. I can see the end. Every time I say, “I should have everything I need to start testing!” One more necessary piece is not there. In the spirit of approaching the finish line by half-lengths, which is to say, I move toward a taunting finish line ad Infinitum, I can only say this: keep going.
No, my friend, Zeno’s Paradox does not describe your (or my) research path. In my case, certainly, inexperience with instrumentation plays a considerable role. But that is the nature of research… if we knew how to do it or what result we would get, it would not be called research.
Persist. The finish line is closer than you think.