Today, it has been exactly one year since I started my PhD studies. Without surprise, the past 12 months have gone by in a blur. Looking at my list of publications, however, one might wonder what I have actually been doing during that time – as (spoiler alert) it has not been writing articles.
Well, thinking about it, this year has been mostly about learning. I have slowly been getting a better grasp on (to me, at least) fuzzy concepts such as research and academia. Now, I understand a bit more – at least enough to be aware of everything I still do not know and have not yet understood. (Yes, lifelong learning will be needed indeed. Not that I doubted it before, but it has somehow become much more concrete throughout the past months.) In this post, I would like to share with you what I feel I have learned about being a researcher throughout this first year.
- Research is a way of thinking.
I started my thesis with a very vague idea of what “true” research was. I heard everybody talk about, refer to it, discuss its “validity”, but I really did not have clue as to what it was about. What made a question interesting from a research / scientific perspective? What differentiated a research project from, say, an organizational development project? This first year has provided me with the beginning of an answer. Listening to my colleagues, reviewing papers and doctoral theses together with them, reading scientific articles and working on the development of my own research project, I have come to understand a little bit better how researchers think. This has led me to change my “mental model” of research, from a kind of technical project-based method to a way thinking, of questioning things, of looking at the world.
- Research is a continuous process. With a lot of unforeseen turns.
At the beginning of my thesis, I used to see the research process as rather straightforward: development of a research question, elaboration of a suitable methodological approach, data collection, analysis of the results etc. I did not understand how you could “get lost” in the middle of the way, ending up having a method and results that did not answer the original research question (a phenomenon that I observed in several scientific papers). Couldn’t you start with a well thought-out research plan and just stick to it? But I have come to realize that as you slowly discover more and more about your research topic, your perspective changes. What first seemed to be a fantastic idea might seem obsolete and terribly limited a few weeks later; you might find an article disproving certain aspects of your method or discover a different theory or method that seems more promising, among other things. And then there are, of course, practical limitations and obstacles from the field that can get in the way (not enough participants, original set-up not implementable, etc.), leading to your not performing your study as you had planned Things just do not always go as planned – not least your own understanding of your topic.
- Research is not only about “making”. It is also about sharing and listening.
There is a very social aspect to research, which I did not suspect before I started my PhD studies. Exchanges with peers and researchers that are more experienced are a real motor for reflecting over and “feeding” one’s research. Beyond attending conferences, which I have not yet a big experience of, taking part in informal discussions with colleagues, attending seminars and defenses and even more actively asking my peers for advice have been huge contributors to the main “breakthroughs” in the development of my thesis so far.
- Part of being an academic is juggling tasks. Constantly.
You have already heard me complain about my struggle to manage my time – the fact is, working within academia implies working on many different kinds of projects at the same time, continuously setting new priorities, and constantly switching from one project to the next. The picture of the isolated, desk-bound scientist who spends his whole day thinking about his research could not be further from the truth – within my research area, at least. Many of my daily activities are social and not directly related to my research (though, fortunately, the discovery of unexpected “bridges” leading back to one’s research is frequent).