“After preparing for my labs and lecture whole day, I feel drained and have no mind to do any research.”
“My professor wants research output from day one. But, I heard that Prof. Roberts advises his students not to worry about research in the first year?”
These are not uncommon scenarios in today’s fast-paced academic environments. Graduate students are increasingly finding it challenging to successfully complete their courses while simultaneously trying to live up to the PhD/MS research expectations from their professors/advisors even from the very first semester. But, it is hard to blame any one party. There is pressure from all sides. The funding agencies demand better accountability and documentation of how their money is spent by the grantee. Faculty members, in the midst of often overloaded teaching and administrative service responsibilities, have to show results in monthly, quarterly research progress reports and meetings. All that pressure is mostly downloaded on to the graduate students!
While there is no simple solution to this circumstance-specific challenge, we present some principle-oriented practical solutions that PhD/MS students can benefit from.
Have open discussions with the advisor upfront
It is always good to openly and frequently discuss one’s situation with one’s advisor, the challenges one face in balancing coursework and research and how one is dealing with them from day one. Students find this to be a better approach than waiting until the end of the semester only to report that they have been too busy with the courses to make any progress with their research. Also, such discussions are highly beneficial for both parties in building a strong foundation for sustained professional relationship.
A little organization can go a long way
This should not be discarded as an old-fashioned advice. Productive academics are very well-organized, professional and systematic in their approach. Often students fail to convince professors, due to lack of organization, that they are indeed trying their level best to fulfill research expectations while giving their best to the courses.
As simple as documenting how one spent his/her time during the day using a simple Excel spreadsheet can be very helpful in effectively communicating one’s proper use of time and resources to the advisor on a weekly/monthly basis. For instance, if some part of the day was spent on studying research articles, objectives and key highlights of those articles can be summarized right after the study in a Word document or PowerPoint presentation. This can come handy when it is time to update the research team or the advisor of the progress one has been making with the research. Advisors have already gone through what their students are now going through and do understand their difficulties. Most advisors will be happy to see their students making sincere efforts.
Set realistic goals
Remember the proverb, slow and steady wins the race. Although it is true that a PhD student’s research goals and deadlines are often aligned with those of the research project(s) that he/she is funded from, it may still be possible to set realistic goals on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, semester basis in consultation with one’s advisor.
Realistic goals are those that are effort-focused and not result-focused. For example, “I’ll spend one hour a day this week reading research articles and writing a summary” is a realistic goal because one can easily evaluate one’s progress towards that goal on a daily basis. Goals like “I’ll make significant progress in my research this week”, “I’ll complete the numerical modeling of the problem by the end of 2 weeks”, etc. are vague, over-ambitious and does not take fluctuating coursework demands into consideration. Progress towards vaguely-defined result-focused goals is very difficult to measure on a daily basis. Also, tasks such as coding and understanding a research phenomenon require inspiration and cannot be forced. In summary, it is more fulfilling to set goals that focus on steady, sincere efforts than on the results. Although the progress may appear to be slow at times, but steady, sincere efforts always pays off in the long run.
Choose courses wisely
One cannot get around the core course requirements. But, one can choose other courses that are more closely aligned with the research. One may find courses that teach specific techniques and methodologies to be more useful as they may directly relate to one’s research tasks. Many courses often require a project to be completed as part of the course requirements. Where possible, one can choose a project that will compliment or enhance one’s understanding of the PhD/MS research topic.
A final word of wisdom
It does help sometimes to detach oneself from the present situation and look at it from above, not below. We can relate to this when we travel by flight or even look outside through the window from a high-rise building. What seems to be gigantic on the ground looks tiny and insignificant from up above. While we make our best endeavor to excel in our efforts, we may not always succeed or live up to our own expectations. Don’t be too hard on yourself! Self-criticism, negative self-labeling, and needless lamentation are all deterrents to productivity. It helps to be flexible like a tree and not have rigid expectations of what graduate and professional life experience should be. Each student’s situation is unique and cannot be compared with that of someone else. Many graduate students have found it useful to practice some form of meditation, breathing exercise, and/or prayers as they go about their daily routine to ease the tension and feel grounded.