PhD thought #1: Do you always need to succeed in research?

Every day we read about the amazing discoveries in various branches of arts, engineering and science that are supposed to change the world and make it a better place. We see these as developed by “PhDs” or “academics”, who we perceive as incredibly gifted superhumans – they developed this new quantum computer or new AI algorithms so they must be, right?

As an academic myself, I don’t think you need to be superhuman to be a successful academic and contribute towards solving some of the global challenges faced by our, and future generations. By creating the Motivated Academic, we want to make sure that you’ve got realistic expectations of your PhD and academic career, and you maintain a sustainable level of motivation throughout your career!  

Expectations of PhD students

When reading science news and scientific journals, you’ve probably come across some breakthrough ideas that inspired you to pursue a scientific degree yourself.

You’ve perhaps noted that these pieces are usually written in a way that does not reflect the entire development process that the team of PhDs and researchers had to go through. The articles tend to report the final version of academic development.

What does this mean? You don’t get to read about multiple failures and iterations over months or even years of the project duration until the solution actually worked.

As you don’t often see the full picture in the literature you read, you may think that you need to be super smart or even a genius to develop such solutions in your research.

This kind of thinking and perception puts a lot of pressure, especially on young and aspiring PhDs and scientists such as yourself.

Reality of PhD degree

As with all new undertakings, we often start our research degrees aiming high and being highly motivated.

As we go along, however, we tend to realise that some things don’t always go as we initially planned. Some of our equipment breaks, code doesn’t work the way we want or cannot be validated because data isn’t readily available.

PhD degree can get quite messy and it may be difficult to maintain a sustainable level of motivation so here I share my reflections on how you can stay motivated during your PhD or research project
‘If you don’t struggle during your PhD, you’re doing something wrong’ – do you agree?

You may also find it challenging to juggle problem-solving, running experiments or coding, disseminating your research, rejection(s) of your articles and many other activities that researchers usually are responsible for, and start doubting in your abilities.

Some also say that ‘if you don’t struggle during your PhD, you’re doing something wrong’. These negative aspects and uncertainty of exploratory research, unfortunately, drain our motivation – sometimes to the extent that some may even lose interest in their beloved research area!

I’ve written another post on how to deal with common challenges during PhD. Check it out!

Why did I decide to do a PhD?

So how was it in my case? When I was young(er), I wasn’t much interested in school and education – I preferred to play volleyball and videogames with my peers. I definitely wasn’t motivated to learn the school curriculum and felt that I wasn’t bright enough to succeed! I was, however, curious how different processes work and how do they interact.

It was until my high school when I really got interested in chemistry and environmental issues, and decided that I wanted to dedicate my career towards solving them. With the guidance of my chemistry teacher, I undertook two extracurricular projects around waste recycling and incineration. These helped me to realise that doing research appealed to me. I wasn’t entirely clear what such a path entailed at that time, though.

Graduating with a Bachelor and two Master degrees related to environmental and process engineering led me to undertake a PhD programme in clean energy and decarbonisation. Although I enjoyed taught degrees, the joy of doing a PhD and driving my own project was disproportionally higher.

My struggles during PhD

At the beginning, I thought that I will develop the best technology for CO2 capture that will change the world and solve the issue. This excitement quickly went away when I started reading the literature and discussing it with my peers.

At that point, I realised that other researchers tried to make this technology happen since the 90s’, and they didn’t succeed – it was just too expensive and, without incentives, the industry wasn’t that much interested.

By the end of the first year of my PhD, I thought that it was it and that I wouldn’t achieve what I wanted. However, having learnt that technological development can take years, I needed a new goal that would keep me stimulated and excited about my PhD. I decided to aim high and attempted to publish a good number of papers in top journals in my field.

They say the initial rejection hurts the most, and I agree…I was devastated when my first manuscript was rejected – after all, I spent so much time on perfecting it! I also wasn’t accepted for a prestigious summer school and didn’t get the industrial placement I wanted.

It is easy to get distracted and demotivated if you focus on failures alone, but you need to realise that through these failures in your PhD or your project you learn and grow as an independent researcher and this will help you to achieve success - just go and get it!
It’s your attitude to failure that’ll determine if you succeed or not. Learn from your failures and you’ll grow and succeed!

But I’m grateful for these experience, as they taught me one crucial thing about research and life overall: no matter how much you try, there’s always a chance you’ll fail or get rejected. And you cannot do much about this; there’s no such thing as a 100% success guarantee!

This realisation helped me to deal with rejections and maintain my motivation to complete my PhD without corrections in less than 3 years, with 11 articles published in top journals in my field.    

A final word…

You may wonder what the conclusion on my above reflections is?

There’s a tremendous push on you as a young scientist or researcher to excel at everything you’re undertaking. This pressure to succeed may inhibit your aptitude towards taking risks, trying new things no one tried before, or submitting manuscripts to high impact factor journals (because they reject it anyway, so why to try at all?).

But I want you to undertake the incremental view and don’t limit yourselves. As we never can be 100% sure we’ll succeed, we can accept that to fail is a part of the process.

Such an attitude will take the pressure off our shoulders, and will make it easier to stay motivated.

Therefore, you should think big, try to deliver to the best of our abilities.

If you’re not sure about something, don’t hesitate to seek support from others or dig deeper into the literature to find answers.

If you fail, try to understand why this happened and learn from your experience to improve your work.

At the end of the day, you’ll achieve your goal and make the world a better place!

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Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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