Take a break

Occasionally, the best research is done in long periods of concentrated effort. Allegedly, Isaac Newton used to sometimes write for eight hours standing up without a break.

At other times, taking a break helps the research process. Think of Archimedes and his Eureka moment. Many of my best ideas come while walking, or taking a shower. In fact, I once suggested to my head of department that we should have showers installed in every office as it would increase the quality of our research.

Then there are the times when playing around with related ideas can lead to a new way of thinking about a problem. Sometimes I read a paper on a related topic, or do some numerical calculations in R, or browse through a book that might have something of interest. In this mode, I try not to think too deeply about the specific problem.

Most research tends to involve all three (and other) modes of working. There are times when you need to shut the door, block out distractions, and think hard. But after a while, if progress has stalled, it might help to go for a walk. If that doesn’t help, try playing around with some related ideas.

Recently, there has been some interesting research on the value of taking a break. In a recent article on “Cognitive Benefits of Nature Interaction” in Psychological Science, it is reported

Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed attention abilities a chance to replenish.

(Thanks to Andy Hunt for the pointer.)
In other words, spending some time in a natural environment (in a park, on the beach, climbing mountains, etc.) will help our cognitive processing abilities. The periods of concentrated effort will be more effective if you also include periods of time enjoying the natural environment.

So go for a walk in the park without feeling you are wasting time. It is a valuable brain regeneration activity, and will help you do better research.

Seek help when it's needed

I don’t think I’ve had a research student who did not think about giving up at some point. It was part through my second year when I felt like giving up. I felt I was not going to be able to finish my thesis, and that I would be better off throwing in the towel and doing something else. Fortunately, I couldn’t think of anything better to do, plus I hate giving up on anything, so I persevered and it turned out ok. I was also fortunate to have a very supportive wife and a great associate supervisor in Gary Grunwald who kept me going.

Feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and isolation are normal for research students. It is a pity this is not discussed more, as many students seem to think they are the only ones struggling. In reality, it seems to be common to every research student at some point during their canditature. It is even more difficult for students with families overseas, or who have conflicting demands on them such as family or cultural expectations that make it difficult to study.  Also, the sheer intensity of doing doctoral research can bring personal issues to the surface that may make study difficult.

Several of my students have experienced phases of distress and depression, during which they find it almost impossible to work at all. Some students feel unable to talk about their stuggles, and battle on feeling lonely, inadequate and isolated. I try to help as much as I can as a supervisor, but sometimes it is necessary to seek additional assistance.

For those students at Monash, please consider using the free counselling service. The staff are very experienced and trained to deal with exactly the sorts of problems outlined above. Most universities have such services these days, and I encourage students to seek help when it’s needed. There’s no shame in asking for assistance.