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.