Dr Alex Pavey, Doctoral Student Development Manager, King’s College London
Staying Well – Challenges vs Barriers
There’s an idea that I’ve come back to again and again in my years of supporting researchers. I’ve formulated it in different ways, but the core principle is this:
Doing research is hard. Sometimes it’s hard because it has to be. Sometimes it’s hard when it doesn’t need to be.
What this means, for me, is that some of the difficulties involved in research are inherent to the process. Making a novel contribution to a field of knowledge, having first immersed ourselves in the existing literature so that we can recognise what originality might look like – how could that be anything but difficult?
The archive fails to contain the new insights we were hoping to find; the experiment that takes days to set up and run fails again; the moment of inspiration leads us to a mountain of new papers that will take us weeks to read, annotate, and synthesise. All of this can be frustrating and disheartening in the moment – but if we take a step back, we can see that there’s nothing wrong here. If we are to test new hypotheses, apply unfamiliar techniques, make speculative leaps, then the risk of these difficulties will always be there.
We might call these moments challenges: difficult situations that nevertheless present opportunities for growth and development. Without these types of challenges, the joy of research – of mastering a technique, clarifying an idea, making a breakthrough – would be impossible.
On the other hand, all researchers will encounter difficulties that are not inevitable or inherent to the research process. Unnecessary barriers that obstruct our progress, limit our potential, and affect our wellbeing. Unrealistic demands and unhealthy working patterns; research environments that are not as accessible or inclusive as they should be; competitive dynamics and imposter thoughts. All of these things make research difficult – but if they could be removed, the research itself would not suffer. In fact, it would almost certainly be improved.
Distinguishing between the challenges and the barriers isn’t always easy, and we don’t always have the power, as individuals, to remove every barrier we encounter. But fortunately we’re not alone.
In the years since I began my own doctorate, these barriers have begun to be more openly acknowledged and addressed. The Researcher Mental Health Observatory (ReMO) is an international network focusing on wellbeing within academia. In the UK, reports from the Wellcome Trust and Vitae have emphasised the importance of fostering positive and healthy research cultures, and the Office for Students and Research England have invested more than £1.5 million in projects to support researcher wellbeing. With the right support – from supervisors, line managers, peers, and professional support staff – many barriers can be removed or overcome.
All of this might feel far removed from your own day to day experience – but I think there are valuable and practical insights to be drawn from it:
It’s not a failing to find research hard sometimes – When we encounter challenges, we can often be overly self-critical or frustrated – assuming that if we were ‘good enough’, we wouldn’t make mistakes or experience difficulties. Reminding ourselves (and each other) that some uncertainty is inevitable in any research project can provide a helpful perspective.
You can push for change – If you’ve identified a barrier that is hindering your research or affecting your wellbeing, you may be able to do something about it. In every university there are opportunities for students and staff to provide feedback, raise concerns, and propose changes. In my experience, there are always staff working behind the scenes, advocating for researchers and arguing for improved conditions.
There’s a reason I come back to these ideas again and again in my discussions with researchers, and why I’ve based this post around them. There is lots of good advice out there about how you can look after your wellbeing as a researcher – tips on how you can manage your time, maintain a healthy work-life balance, look after your physical and mental health, build resilience. Important as it is for us to feel empowered to manage our own stress levels and take responsibility for our own wellbeing, it’s equally essential that the right support structures are placed around us.
The very best advice is sensitive to this context in which we work – the structures and processes that often support us, but sometimes constrain us. The writing and resources created by researchers like Dr Zoë Ayres and Dr Petra Boynton are particularly valuable here, and I often recommend them. For doctoral students in particular, the Wellbeing Thesis is also excellent – an online resource that draws together advice, research, tips and video case studies all tailored to the different stages of the doctoral experience.
Staying Motivated – Keeping Track and Giving Yourself Credit
I’ll end by sharing one practical tip that helped me to stay motivated during some of the most challenging stages of my own doctorate.
I’d experimented with many, many different writing tips and time management techniques to keep myself productive during my PhD. Every time I tried a new approach it would work for a while, but sooner or later I would find myself back where I started, struggling to get words on the page and finishing each day frustrated that I hadn’t achieved more.
There was one technique approach in particular that developed organically over the course of my PhD and that I found consistently useful. It’s also been the strategy that has seemed to resonate the most with other researchers when I’ve met with them to discuss writing, time management, or problems with motivation.
I called it my thesis diary when I began using it, although I now tend to think of it as a research log, and it’s a fundamentally very simple idea. One day I opened a new Google Doc, and typed this:
Date: What I did today:
Every day, I made sure the last thing I did before I finished working was to fill in those three bullet points. And I always added the latest entry at the top of the document, pushing the older entries further down the page – so that the next time I opened it, the first thing I would see was the last thing I had done.
What I unexpectedly found was that this simple bit of admin evolved into an incredibly useful resource: a record of what I had done, including the things I might otherwise have forgotten, and a dialogue with myself that helped shape my research.
The more I made use of this approach, the fewer mornings I spent struggling to decide how I should get started, and the less time I lost wading back through multiple notebooks trying to remember whether I had annotated a certain paper.
As I look back, I think that the reason my thesis diary became such a useful habit was that it addresses two of the key challenges we face as researchers – keeping motivated and keeping track.
It can be difficult to keep motivated on a long, complex project, when there’s always another task to move on to, and our to-do list never seems to decrease. We naturally and necessarily focus on what’s ahead of us, on what comes next. But this focus on what’s left to do often means we lose sight of what we’ve achieved – yesterday, last month, or last year. And so we can become overly self-critical, always preoccupied with what we feel we ought to have achieved. I found that keeping a record of my incremental progress and small ‘wins’ made it much easier to give myself credit for the work I was doing.
We also have so much to keep track of. A research project involves hundreds of decisions – some that we debate and agonise over for weeks, but others that we make in a single afternoon and are half-forgotten almost immediately. We create hundreds of artefacts – Word documents, data files, lab notes, print-outs of different drafts. Often our schedules are irregular or disrupted by unforeseen events, or we have gaps between research days because of teaching, work, or other commitments. And when we next sit down at our desks, we have to build up all that momentum again. What were we doing? How far did we get through that paper? What did we decide to prioritise?
As a part-time PhD student, these challenges could feel particularly acute, and at the time I probably would have said they were particular to me – to the specifics of my project, my situation, and my good and bad writing habits. The more I’ve spoken to other researchers throughout my career, though, the more I’ve realised how common these experiences are.
If any of this resonates with you, then consider giving this strategy a try. Make it an easy habit to keep, and one that marks the end of your working day. Create a single, easily accessible document. Make it digital rather than handwritten, so it’s easily searchable. Make it cloud-based so you can always find it. And at the end of every research day, finish by briefly recording what you did that day.
What did you read, what did you write? What went well? What admin jobs did you have to get done? What decisions did you make? Where will you start next time?