PhDiaries: Dealing with the messiness of PhDs and research

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Many have told me that research is not a linear process…a very understated sentence in my experience! For me, it has been very different to undergraduate and even master’s experiences.

Although you will be drawing on others’ research from similar fields, you will be working to create something very unique. Many of us lead on much of the project, some areas of which might be very or completely new to us. Even projects that appear to have more controllable variables in terms of the activities, will very likely still require coordinating access to facilities and what seems to be endless paperwork. So with all this in mind, here are a few things I have learnt and faced along the way of my PhD journey so far.

Embrace it

The main thing I have learned is to embrace the messiness when you can. For me, it has been much less of a problem than I thought it would be. Messiness can be a fantastic opportunity for creativity and for you to think about exploring (and hopefully resolving) complexities that arise. Working with changes that come through this can be really helpful and less stressful than continuing to focus on your initial plan. Sometimes it’s still easier said than done though. For me, trying to tap into why I feel resistant to changing plans is also important as being aware of this can help tremendously in moving forwards – messily or organised!

Know when to get organised

On that note, of course, organisation is always helpful. Afterall, with any PhD or project, there will be an ultimate deadline to hand in your research, so some kind of a plan is necessary. This does not mean you have to throw creativity out of the window. It can be really helpful to recognise the moments when organisation is key though.

As someone who can find decision making a challenge, having a rough plan and knowing when to steer back to it is very helpful in deciding when enough is enough. If you are going through the ethics application process too, writing to plan ahead and allow for any flexibility in your research as well as the actual data collection itself is all helped by being organised.

Messy decisions

From personal experience, I often put pressure on myself to hold back from making decisions unless I feel like I know everything there is about something. I have found that I can plan as much as I want but at some point a decision will need to be made. Even if this is through being intentional with not making a decision!

Learning to make decisions when things do not feel complete or enough has been a skill I have developed over the course of my PhD. This does not mean I do not read any relevant guidelines, stay out of communication with supervisors or rush into taking action. I have realised there is only so much I am able to do each step of the way at a given time, also depending on life circumstances. Making decisions when things feel messy is challenging, but a really helpful thing to be able to do to move forwards.

Messiness in research is something I’m sure you have encountered or will likely do so at some point. It is not usually something to worry about but something to explore and work with for the majority of the time. Planning will always come in handy, but my advice is to always notice when planning becomes avoidant or too resistant during your research process. You never know what you might uncover and figure out during your messy research phases!

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