Problems in PhD Research Are a Blessing Not a Curse

Problems in research are not just there to test you, they are there to make you. In this blog post I highlight Tara Brabazon's three step process to "Put the Problem Into the Work".

Problems in PhD Research Are a Blessing Not a Curse
Problems cause us to panic and think its the end, but there is another option - you can build your PhD Design your thesis around problems and it will be better for it

Or so argues Professor Tara Brabazon, Dean of Charles Darwin University in Australia.

I know from experience, when I am in the thick of it all, problems certainly don't feel like a blessing. Instead I've got my hackles up, I'm anxious, often ashamed, and annoyed is usually an understatement. Problems come with a bucket-load of emotions and there is certainly nothing good about them at the time we experience them. Plus if we experience too many problems, it can be deeply exhausting, good or otherwise.

Yet they are inevitable in a research career, and Brabazon argues, are in fact an essential part of research. What defines a good researcher from a bad one, is how we deal with the problems and obstacles we face. And a great researcher thrives in the 'problem' domain - it's practically their middle name.

Now, I want to be a good researcher. Maybe one day I will be a great researcher. To do this however I need to better understand how I can shift myself from 'screaming in internal panic and frustration' from a encountering a problem, to 'being in control and feeling better because of it.' Is it possible to see problems as "a gift"?

Tara Brabazon is a must watch for researchers at any career stage

Firstly I must admit, I have been binge listening to Brabazon's YouTube channel over the last few weeks. Upped to 1.25x speed, they are the perfect length for my commute which I do three times a week.

I'm in awe of her style, courage and determinedness to encourage academic staff to fall in love with their job again and for PhD students to succeed and finish promptly. She both frightens me and spurs me on in equal measure. Her 'Outrider' series walks the boundary between the current unbalanced, and in many cases unethical, world of academia we have all come to know and hate, and the academic wilderness of crazy ideas, non-conformity and complete freedom.

The problem with problems

In her most recent episodes, Brabazon has been focusing on problems and how we can use them to become a better, more ethical researcher. Indeed she emphasises how problems should be woven into the very fabric of our research. Problems make the PhD and they make your best research.

But if we look more widely across academia, the opposite is the case; research culture is designed to hide problems, not shake them up and fight them to the death. Failing is as akin to bad as succeeding is to good.

But as Brabazon talks and walks the line between what is and what should be, she puts it wonderfully; "The wisest of scholars sit within the problem and recognise the flaw or error without shame or blame." I agree. She goes as far to say, "Ethical research starts and ends with the problems, errors, failures and weak correlations." In other words its a call to action to feel empowered to question data, call out poor practise and relish non-significant results. It's a large and awkward pill to swallow, because negative results, are well viewed as negative.

How Brabazon suggests we "put the problem into the work"

Lets look at how Brabazon suggests how we can break down a problem to "put the problem into the work" which she discusses in Outrider episode 38.

When a problem arises, she says, our instinct is to hit the panic button; freeze, run away and probably even cry ourselves to sleep every night for the rest of the PhD.

But whenever one of her students encounters a problem, she sits them in her office and gets them to go through a three step process to deal and get on top of the problem.

How to "put the problem into the work":

  1. Verbalise the problem in full, with emotions included, and record it. Brabazon says putting the problem into verbalised language makes it more understandable, gives it a narrative and turns it into a story, which naturally, has an ending.
  2. Next transcribe everything. Then write down the consequences of the problem, providing context. Perhaps some solutions, if you have them. Think about why you are having the problem, articulating its many facets and directions in detail. Explain the shape and the structure of the problem, she says, writing through it rather than around it.
  3. Finally, work out where the problem will sit in the thesis. Write the thesis around the problem, centralising it into the narrative by setting up the literature review and you are "transcending" the problem, not dwelling in it.

Problems may even be simmering but you haven't dealt with them face on yet

My first thesis chapter looking at grass diversity effects on soil structure is, in one way, disappointing. As ecologists we all hope that more diversity should be better because a lot of evidence suggests this is the case. But the narrative that seems to be developing for me is that it is not always the case; two species performed the same as one. If I now use the approach above and I look more widely at this result, then it's cool, because it begs the question, why? Can we not measure the differences? Are we measuring the wrong thing? Are we looking in the wrong place? Is more context needed? The results from my work so far are building a theory as to why this is the case. So I'm essentially building the problem into the work without initially realising it. But now I understand my initial results were a good thing, it's reassuring to know that I can really deal with the problem inside out and have a more focused literature review and chapters ahead.

I've always told myself and anyone that cares to ask, or indeed listen; a PhD is 1 year of 'actual' work, 1 year of working out how to work and 1 year of dealing with things that don't work. Plus maybe 6 months of doing other work...

Research is about managing surprises yet we are not taught that this is the case. Null results when we were hoping for something more profound are given little importance in the work. But Brabazon encourages us to view those unexpected occurrences as a gift, offering new skills and potentially an insight which will change the direction of the thesis. By discussing and transcending the challenge, rather than wallowing around with it in the valley of despair, the research is likely to change, often for the better. Mine certainly will now.

By acknowledging and incorporating our challenges into our work, we not only enhance our research but also contribute to a more authentic and robust scientific community. So the next time you encounter a problem, remember: it might just be the making of your best research yet.