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On perseverance

One of the challenges of the PhD journey, is to hold on tight and plow through the mud when necessary. These days, I’m re-analyzing the experimental data of my first series of experiments, and it’s at least, a tedious task. I have 500-something spreadsheets that I’ve been making already for the analysis, and I’m still not getting there. It’s an uphill journey, with only very small discoveries at a time, but it’s a necessary step in the entire process.

Here’s what seems to be necessary to me to keep going and persevere:

1. Keep track of the bigger picture

It sure wouldn’t help me if I just think that I’m moving data around in spreadsheets the whole day (OK, maybe that is what I am really doing). Instead, I like to focus on the fact that I’m going with a fine comb through my data, shining the light on it from many different angles and studying everything step by step, to see if I can find something that glitters in there. Something that gives me new insights on my topic is what I am looking for, and a better understanding of what I exactly learned from all my experiments.

2. Track your progress

For a new report, I typically keep track of my progress in terms of word count. Now that I am revisiting my previous analysis, I have already written most of the text itself, and I’m mainly changing graphs and results and some sentences. If I’d count those words, it wouldn’t make me feel too satisfied at the end of the day. Instead, I now see the number of pages that I’ve altered as a percentage of the total to see my slow but steady progress, and I count the sections which I can alter in a day’s worth of time.

3. Eat an elephant, one bite a day

I’ve been putting off this tedious task for too long – the last version dates from September 2011, and now only in March 2012 I’ve come to the point of going over it all again. Even though I have other tasks going on at the same time, I now try to finally pick up this task and make it a priority by working on it steadily. Even when I have a full day planned with activities, I try to alter at least one section of the document. Or I try to alter one section in the evening at home. Just one step at a time, and eventually I’ll have the task mastered.

4. Reward yourself

You deserve a pat on your back every now and then. There are many different ways to celebrate a good day’s worth of progress. Whether you write a hooray-entry in 750 words, or settle with a nice cup of wine and a good book in the evening, or get yourself a delicious dessert, make sure to get your reward. 

5. Don’t overdo it 

I’m sometimes tempted to think that if I’d just lock myself down for a few days and pull a few allnighters, it will be done. The fact is that doesn’t work: I would end up making mistakes, and research simply isn’t like cramming for an exam. It’s a process of 4 years, and you don’t want to end up tired and sick of it. Treat yourself like an endurance athlete: eat well, sleep enough, get enough exercise and don’t beat up yourself over failures.

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This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Nice post. A PhD is a long slog. It does get so frustrating when you feel like you have been doing the same thing over and over again but not going anywhere… Taking it chunks at a time is a good idea. Also planning holidays/time off in advance helps to make them happen or you could find yourself not taking any at all! There is ALWAYS more to be done!

  2. True – my list of ideas and things to try out keeps on growing, and I really need to make choices and keep in mind that I have one year left to finish it all up. As for holidays, I always have them planned ahead and the ticket booked, since my fiance lives across the Atlantic – and nothing is going to compete with my wish to see him regularly 🙂

  3. recently I have started reading your blog. Though I am working on a different area – organization theory and microfinance; still I can relate to your writing and find them to be very encouraging. The experiences of doing thesis are same irrespective of different areas of work and its truly inspiring at times to find someone fighting a similar battle. keep posting. best wishes

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