January is always a time for reflection and for thinking about what you want to achieve in the year ahead. New Year’s resolutions can be useful for a quick boost, but if you don’t stick to them then you can end up with even less motivation.
One of the problems is that research is unpredictable, so it is very difficult to just set one big resolution at the start of the year and stick to it.
I feel it’s better to shorten the cycle, to reflect more often, and set smaller resolutions for shorter periods of time. Here’s how…
1. Take stock
It’s good to pause occasionally and take a broad view of your progress. What do you have which is usable in your thesis? What do you still need?
This may be complicated if you have several strands of research running at the same time, and it can be overwhelming, but it is manageable if you separate each aspect of your research and take some time to think.
2. Set milestones
Set specific targets for each aspect of the research. Don’t set timescales yet, just think about what you need to achieve.
This is easier to do if you break everything down into specific achievable targets you can clearly define as “done” or “not done”.
Then you need to decide what needs to happen first.
If you try to do everything at the same time, you won’t be able to do anything particularly well. You will lack focus and you will never finish anything. This is a common trap PhD students fall into, and the only way to escape is to narrow your focus and prioritise.
This means that for every aspect of your research, you have to think about what needs to happen first in order to allow other things to happen.
For example, if you are working on a chapter involving analysis of data, you cannot complete the writing until the analysis is complete, you cannot complete the analysis until you have all the data compiled, and you cannot compile all the data until you have completed data collection.
You can write a bit, but at some point you will have to stop and sort out the raw material.
So if you are working with interview data, there is no point starting to write your findings until you have all the interviews transcribed. So if you do the transcription first- all of it, 100% complete with no exceptions- then you are free to move on to the next step knowing that you have completed the fundamental first step.
Once you have decided what needs to happen first, then you need to focus everything you have on just that one thing until it is done.
This is not easy, because it means not doing all the other tasks at the same time, but it is the key to developing a feeling of control.
You will inevitably get distracted and think that you should be working on something else, but if you can tell yourself, “it’s OK, I’ll get to that later”, then you can avoid getting into a state of panic.
There will be problems to solve along the way. There will be things that you couldn’t anticipate that will slow or stop your progress, and so you will need to adapt your approach.
This is an unavoidable part of research, and it’s often your practical problem-solving skills that determine your success or failure.
When things go wrong, you need to switch on and engage with the problem, rather than switching to working on something else. This is the only way you can find a solution and make real progress. Otherwise you are just saving all the difficulties for later.
You may need to redefine your target or change your approach if there is a serious problem, but this is only possible if you stay engaged with it rather than switching focus to work on something else.
6. Take stock again
This process is a cycle. Every time you finish something, then there will be something else to do (until you print and submit the final thesis).
It is essential to pause and take stock, think about what you are doing, then reprioritise, refocus again, work on one thing, and repeat until you submit!
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