Wandering in the wilderness versus having a road map

One big difference between coursework and research is that doing coursework can be likened to travelling around in well chartered terrain with a road map – many people have previously gone where you want to go, so the “features of the terrain” and the optimal path from A to B are well known. Consequently, provided you are sufficiently conscientious, you are likely to have a successful journey. In contrast, doing research can be likened to exploring an unchartered wilderness. Whilst the experiences of other explorers can help you on your journey, researchers usually don’t know exactly what path will be the best to take or where exactly they’ll end up until they get there. And there’s no guarantee of having a successful journey (though most who have enough persistence generally do). Consequently, one of the things beginning researchers need to get used to is the feeling, to a greater or lesser extent, of being lost or uncertain. Einstein’s torturous path to the development of his General Theory of Relativity provides testament to this.

Another issue here, is getting used to finding out for yourself what to work on (with guidance as to suitability though!) rather than being told what to work on.

Getting used to how long it takes to get anywhere

While coursework assignments generally only take anything from a few hours to a few weeks to complete, research projects can take from months to years to complete, so progress can seem by comparison frustratingly slow. And sometimes one wonders if any progress at all is being made! Breaking your research project into sub-tasks and acknowledging to yourself completion of these can help with this. For more ideas, see our PhD Writing Guide.

Unstructured time and distant deadlines; homogenous days and maintaining motivation

Without lectures or tutorials to go to, or short-term assignment deadlines to meet, the days of a research student can be pretty unstructured, which brings with it a host of problems related to maintaining motivation. This is particularly true in the early stages when wandering around in the literature, but can also happen if processing and analysing your data is tedious or if you need to follow an exhaustive search strategy (e.g. Thomas Edison tested countless materials before finding something suitable to be the filament in his electric light bulb). The time management section has some thoughts on dealing with this, and the paper by Kearns, Gardiner and Marshall (2008) is also worth a look.

Developing a productive working relationship with your advisor(s)

The relationship between a research student and their advisor(s) is very different to that between an undergraduate and their lecturer(s), so students don’t have prior experience to draw on. See the Supervision section for more.

Needing to ask for help and advice

Being very competent students, most research students will not have had much experience with having to ask for help or advice, so they may feel that doing so might result in them being labelled as “incompetent” by their advisors. However, being a successful researcher requires a significantly different skill set to being a successful coursework student (there is some overlap of course; being something of a perfectionist helps in both cases). A beginning researcher has to expect that they will need quite a bit of coaching/mentoring initially; although, like an apprentice, this is expected to reduce over time. Also, students need to realise that they can’t necessarily be an expert in everything that is needed to complete their research. Some students, for example, may need to consult a statistician for help designing their experiment and analysing their data, while others might need the help of technical staff to build equipment for them, and still others might need some help with designing and building a website or database.