Research can be lonely, especially if you are doing a coursework degree and you are a social sciences student, where group and lab work is typically not the norm. You may have been forced into group work and frustrated by having to work with people who do not seem like they are as committed as you and now you have a chance to do it yourself, but it’s not all it’s been made out to be.
The benefit of doing coursework and assignments is that you feel the support of the collective when your work challenges you. During the research process, the number of challenges doesn’t decline and they may seem more intense as fellow classmates aren’t readily available for you to ask them what their understanding of the work is. But this is the road every research student walks. Many suffer in silence, and some don’t finish their degrees as a result, but a special few seem to thrive under these challenging circumstances.
The danger of becoming discouraged during your project is that you may be tempted to abandon it, wasting all the work you may have done up to that point. It is important to remain resilient, but sometimes this just means finding tools to help you weather the storms you will encounter as you progress as a research student.
In this post, I provide a few points to make sure you stay clear of the ‘drop-out’ ledge. Often, this is just about getting your head right and staying motivated enough to find ways through and sometimes around your challenges.
Learn to be a ‘researcher’
So, you’re entering unchartered waters and perhaps the superstar supervisor you approached is always busy and you’re not getting the support you thought you were gonna get. This is a good time to truly engage the meaning of being a researcher – someone who discovers new information or a new understanding of something.
On your research journey, you will ask many questions about many things. What do my research subjects think about this? What does the literature say about this? Is this an appropriate way to go about conducting my research? Many students, however, solely rely on their supervisors to answer some of these questions. If they are not available as often as you need them (or at all), you will, unfortunately, find yourself stranded for information and help.
There are many places to find answers though. This includes fellow students, previous graduates who have used similar methods, researchers (at your institution or other institutions) who have done similar work and who may be available via email or for a cup of coffee.
Being a researcher means finding out what you need to know by any means necessary and this means sometimes ditching your supervisor for an alternative view (or someone who is available to answer a particular question). This does not mean you disregard your supervisor’s feedback, but also means that you do not exclusively rely on them to get you through the process. If you don’t ask, you won’t find the answers you’re looking for and may just remain frustrated by your supervisor’s lack of engagement and availability.
Build a support network
Support networks are incredibly important, specifically if you are a student who has moved away from your family and friends to pursue your degree. Even if you are still close to your traditional support network, bear in mind that they will not always be able to help you with the kind of problems you will encounter during your research process. In such instances, it is very important to build both personal and professional support networks. Your personal network, like your family and friends, may be able to assist you with the emotional and mental support you will require as your work becomes more challenging. On the other hand, your professional support network may be able to assist with different aspects related to your actual project; and could consist of people inside and outside of your discipline.
This can include a Whatsapp group of classmates who may have started with you and are hoping to finish around the same time. This will allow you to form part of a group that shares their progress with one another and perhaps coordinate writing sessions or other types of get-togethers. Important to note here is that everyone’s journey is unique and comparison can be an enemy of progress. Some people take on more complex projects and take longer to get to the graduation stage. Some experience challenges with data collection, permission letters, ethics applications, you name it. So, this will not necessarily mean that everyone will graduate at the same time.
Your supervisor will hopefully also form part of this support network, but it could also include scholars in the same research area (present or past students and academics) who you consult with on specific aspects of your project from time to time.
Building this network will take some courage and asking people to give you some of their time. This can be a daunting task, particularly if you are an introvert, but you have to overcome your fear of rejection if you’re gonna make it work. The worst that can happen is that they can say ‘no’, for whatever reason, but if you don’t ask you’ll never know!
Don’t rush through the proposal
I cannot stress this enough. It is a point I am always stressing to my own students. The proposal stage can be the most challenging part of your research and may seem like an odd point to make here. But your proposal is essentially your roadmap for your project. Your roadmap with never be an accurate representation of the actual journey (like any real roadmap), but the clearer it is, the more useful it will be as a navigation tool.
Being ‘lost’ and feeling like you don’t know what to do (or which way to go) next can be very discouraging, so rather spend more time at the bus station than getting on the wrong bus! This will not guarantee that you will be 100% certain about what you’re doing while you are busy with your research, but will certainly help with avoiding feeling absolutely hopeless at any point during the process.
Plan for failure
Often we get paralysed by the fear of failure. Because we anticipate that we will not be successful in a certain endeavour, we avoid doing it all together. It is weird that we are trained to fear failure from a young age, specifically as most individuals will experience a greater proportion of failure than success over their lifetime. Perhaps there is some merit in aiming for failure rather than success, as some people have started advocating.
Taking this approach would mean, instead of aiming for your first success, rather aim for your first failure on your research journey. For instance, if getting good feedback on a chapter is a win for you, rather aim to get as many critical comments as possible, instead. This does not mean doing a bad job, but it means avoiding playing it safe. If you are uncertain about something, include it in the draft, especially if you have previous literature to back it up. The point of research is to push the boundaries of our thinking around the topics we study.
This reverse psychology could help you view critical comments as wins, rather than something to mope about for a few weeks at a time. Not only is this a waste of your time, but you may miss the learning which can be achieved by studying the comments at hand.