This week has been tough. I spent a lot of time trying to make progress in my research, but ended up frustrated everyday. Even worse, because my research requires working with a computer, I found myself wasting time throughout the day by surfing the web randomly. Nothing is more dangerous to productivity than a habit of using Internet at work. Maybe the solution is telling myself to stop opening a browser during research, right? Unfortunately, the issue is more complicated; it demands a serious and not-so-simple answer.
Actually I begin each research session with a good mood. I usually have several ideas of possible solutions to the problem at hand. Then I implement these the ideas and pray they would work. But most of the time they fail, and I become disappointed. I repeat the cycle over and over for another 30 minutes or so, and if I do not get a satisfactory solution, I would be deeply frustrated. You may guess what happens next. A click at the Google Chrome’s or Firefox’s icon opens an escape for me, at least temporarily. This is not a great way to do research, I suppose. Something must be changed in my routine.
Yesterday when I collected my stuffs before heading home, I recalled a blog post by Matt Might, a computer science professor at the University of Utah. He has a few articles about PhD students that I really enjoy. In one of those articles, he wrote about the qualities every successful PhD student should have. Persistence is the most important one.
Let me quote a passage from the article:
To survive this period, you have to be willing to fail from the moment you wake to the moment your head hits the pillow. You must be willing to fail for days on end, for months on end and maybe even for years on end. The skill you accrete during this trauma is the ability to imagine plausible solutions, and to estimate the likelihood that an approach will work.
If you persevere to the end of this phase, your mind will intuit solutions to problems in ways that it didn’t and couldn’t before. You won’t know how your mind does this. (I don’t know how mine does it.) It just will. [emphasis mine]
Everything Matt said about persistence rings true. It is enlightening to realize that I have the right to fail when I do research. If I know that it is okay, even normal, to fail repeatedly, then I can feel better about myself. I will be more likely to persist working on the problem, generating other ideas, implementing them, and possibly facing a lot of failures. It sounds like a huge test of character, but PhD is exactly that.
Last night I also went to a talk by Steven Squyres and Bill Nye to celebrate the 150th birthday of Cornell. They discussed the joy (and the pain) of discovery. Steven likened his work for the Opportunity mission on Mars to an adventure. He and his team, all brilliant people, most of them having PhD degrees from prestigious institutions over the world, still had to endure countless failures during the mission. Many times they even had no idea of what they were doing. Still they persisted, and eventually they successfully landed the rover on Mars. That is a spectacular feat of discovery.
Research is discovery. You do not know what will be coming your way. You just hope somehow you will figure all out. And you need persistence, a heck lot of it.