By Tanja

Hi everyone! It’s been a while, eh?

With my revolution slowly grinding to a halt (I haven’t decided about this yet) due to a very strong opposition, I have turned to better things to do. Like my own research. Mid July I have done my midterm and received excellent feedback and guidelines on how to proceed.

After a month off, I almost felt like working again, so I happily jumped into my glorious research. A month in – I am stuck again.

Behold! Most common geological formation in my glorious research.
Behold! Most common geological formation in my glorious research.

I am pretty sure a majority of you (if not all) know how this feels. After all, we have a word for it – the Valley of Shit. One moment you’re happily working on one aspect of your research feeling all good and mighty, and then… something creaksand stops.

You can’t move it. You try gently poking it, then pushing it, then you apply a crowbar, and then you straight out throw stuff at it hoping for some magic.

And the thing … doesn’t … even … budge … a little!

It turns into one of those things from fairy tales – you have to say some sort of magic words, but you don’t know what they are. You turn to other aspects of your research, all the while thinking – “I’ll get back to this” – and then after a while you realize those routes are blocked as well. They are all depending on those magic words.

Foreground: You. Background: Your current goal.
Foreground: You
Background: Your current goal

At times like these I feel like I have no clue as to what I’m doing, or why I’m doing it in the first place. I look around me and see my officemates staring at important looking figures and graphs on their screens, concentration welded into their faces. I hang out with other students and see them go after a while leaving me with the words “I have to try this” or “I have to do that”…. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing. When I ask them about it, they all say they feel exactly like me, most of the time. So how do you do it then? How do you find the magic words? What do you do after you’ve tried everything you could think of?

This is not the first time I’m stuck. In fact I think 75% of my PhD so far I was stuck. Usually I try everything I can. Then I try everything that is so stupid that I wouldn’t ever consider trying it, but I’m desperate. Sometimes, incredibly, this helps. Turns out your problem was something stupid that you hadn’t thought of, and you’re lucky – moving on, magic words worked.

Problem solving
Problem solving

If that doesn’t work, I despair for a while. Then I despair some more. Then I can’t take it anymore and I finally turn outwards for help. This means I go around and talk to people I think could help me. If they can’t help me, I turn to people who probably can’t help me, but I still do it. Among all the truly amazing people in this department someone will have the solution. Maybe it will be a direct solution to your particular problem (“I had this happened to me once…”), maybe it will just be an area of this person’s greater expertise (“let me just take a look at this one tiny detail here…”), maybe they will have a better idea than you, or they will come up with something you hadn’t thought of (“have you tried xy?”) or maybe they will just encourage you.

My most recent help came in the form of a very encouraging conversation just before lunch time today (October 1st). This wasn’t even related to my being stuck right now, it was a conversation addressing different problem entirely. But overall it made me look at things a bit differently – most of all, I left with the message that PhD is learning, it’s a process during which I am developing new skills that I can’t possibly learn anywhere else. And the important thing is people outside (the department, the academia…) will appreciate these skills, because not everyone has them.

It’s not easy, it was never supposed to be easy, but we are all developing skills and evolving in a particular way that makes us better at how we approach problems. Looking at it that way, I realize that I am actually working on myself as well as on my own project. And yes, I do want to be better at what I do and who I am, so I will try and take all the stuff I already threw at my immovable block and build them up so high that I can climb over it. Probably this stuff will collapse a few times, I will be frustrated still, but I will find a way to climb it.

How do you deal with your immovable blocks?