Every PhD student goes through that stage when they think ‘I am never, ever, going to finish this’. Fortunately, that’s not true, and we do eventually crawl, dance, or stagger to the end. Unfortunately, in my experience at least, these thoughts come up time and time again, so how do we cope with that worry that nothing will ever come of all the work you’ve poured into a research project?


This is on my mind because this morning I received a message from my elated colleague and friend in Spain who took on the daunting task of leading a study that stemmed from my recent project investigating language development and sensory processing in autism. Our paper has finally made it to print in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. ‘HOORAY! It is done!!!! Three years – and finally we made it!!!’ he said. ‘Congratulaaaaaations!!!’ I said, whilst thinking ‘3 years is nothing in academia…’. So how do you keep going when the end is nowhere near in sight? How do you motivate yourself to take a stepforwards when it feels like you are always taking 2 steps back?

I’m no expert, but here’s what worked for me:

1 – Talk to people: supervisors, friends, co-workers.

Working on your project as an Early Career Researcher can be quite a lonely place. It’s exciting, and when things are going well it’s fantastic, but if things are heading in the wrong direction (or heading in no direction at all), who can you turn to? In my opinion – anyone. Everyone! Sometimes talking through the project out loud – perhaps with your mates down the pub – can help things slot into place. Get a fresh perspective on it. As a supervisor, I know that if your student goes completely silent, things are either going really well, or really badly… if you need help – ask for it sooner rather than later.

2 – Make a list of tasks, and a SENSIBLE timeframe.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But sometimes it’s very easy to focus on the things we haven’t done and forget about the things we HAVE done. Reminding yourself of all the things already achieved, stages already completed, and task ticked off the list can be very motivating.

3 – Just keep swimming….

When I started to worry about my last project going nowhere, and panic about all those hours of work ending up in the bin, my husband told me the story of two frogs who fell into a pail of milk and couldn’t get out. One gave up swimming and drowned. The other kept kicking and swimming and trying to get out, until it turned the milk to cheese and jumped right out. Ok, I thought, ‘I will be that swimming frog’, and amazingly, with thanks to some brilliant supervision and very wise collaboration, things actually turned out pretty well. Three publications emerged from that project, and I’m proud of them all.


4 – You can’t drag a dead horse!

I can’t tell you how many versions of my recent ‘auditory discrimination’ paradigm I produced – because I honestly don’t know. There were so many. And that was before I got the superb Dr Brian Sullivan and his supersonic Matlab © programming skills involved. I so desperately wanted my experiment to work, that I kept adjusting, piloting, tweaking, re-piloting, again, and again, and again. Brian and I were at a conference together discussing what else we could do to help our nonverbal autistic participants engage with the task, when a friend helpfully contributed, ‘You can’t drag a dead horse’. This may be true. BUT, this does NOT mean ‘give up entirely’. It means try something else. A new angle. A fresh perspective. Although we hadn’t achieved exactly what we set out to do, we had made progress and had some fresh insights to contribute to field. So, we wrote it up as a methods paper so the work could be of use to other researchers – and it is now in print in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. (Having said that, another experiment, which I had very high hopes for, just Did Not Work. There was nothing for it but to bin the data… which was extremely painful. But, unfortunately not so rare in the world of academia. But hey – something else I learnt during my postdoc in Spain – ‘no hay fracasos, solo lecciones’).

5 – Know that you are not the first person to feel like this!

What’s the point of this post? I hear you ask (if you’ve actually read this far – in which case – thanks). Knowing that other people have experienced similar situations, and talked, listed, swam or dragged their way through, might be helpful. I don’t know… but it’s worth a try.

Comments - No Responses to Just Keep Swimming: what can you do when your research goes one step forwards and two steps back?

Leave a Reply