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The Other Side of (PhD) Despair

Shuai WangThis post is by Shuai Wang. Shuai is currently a PhD Student in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

There is a famous saying that ‘life begins on the other side of despair.’ I experienced this last month. I went to Paris for a holiday. I had never been before. At first I felt strange and alone. I got lost. I couldn’t find my hotel. However, over time I became more familiar with the city. I enjoyed visiting places of interest and the beautiful scenery. Before leaving I felt at one with the city and I was reluctant to leave.

It struck me how this saying can also be related to our PhDs and the research process.

You could say that great research comes only after great despair (and plenty of hard work). I am now in my second year, but at the beginning of my PhD everything was hard. Luckily, I successfully overcame many difficulties. I want to share some advice to students who are starting a new project so that perhaps they may reach the other side of (PhD) despair a little quicker than I did…

1.      Write down all the new concepts and definitions

It is easy to be overwhelmed by all the new information. Do not let the new terms and definitions scare you. What you need to do is to take out a piece of paper and list everything you don’t understand until the concepts become clearer.

2.      Keep reading

The more you read the more the new and often confusing information you have listed will become clear. Always read with a clear objective and pay attention to the concepts that you are not familiar with. Explore the unfamiliar through further research or by discussing it with your supervisor or colleagues.

3.      Be clear on the problem you want to solve and how best to solve it

At this stage, you might be clear about the objective of your research but you might be unclear about the technical details. Go back to the classic literature again but, this time you should concentrate on the detailed approaches and methodologies. What methods / procedures would help you solve your primary research goal?

4.      Reproduce previous results and perform your own experiments

It is important to test the methods you have read about. Try to reproduce results and perform new experiments using similar methods. Finally one day, everything is clear. You discover the best methods to obtain your results. Now you can finally be productive and you will be more confident in your research topic.

Now all that’s left is to…

5.      Analyse the data and publish your findings

If you are lucky to get this last step, congratulations, you are an expert in your research area! It is time to enjoy your research success.

Please comment if you have any other tips to share in reaching this stage. And remember, don’t despair, research success is just around the corner!


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