In most graduate programs, to obtain your master’s or PhD degree you must complete a long-term research project and write and defend a thesis or dissertation. Sounds pretty straightforward right? Wrong!
The path to the completion of your work is not the road less traveled, but the road not traveled—not even by the squirrels. It is a treacherous route, and one you must take alone. No one else knows the path you should take; only sometimes is someone able to nudge you in the (almost) right direction. This road is not for the lighthearted and it is one that will test your resilience, your strength, and your love of the subject you are studying.
Graduate research is notoriously isolating. It’s you versus your research topic, and oftentimes even you versus you. During your years in graduate school, your goal is to push the boundary of knowledge in your field just a little bit further by contributing novel results or conclusions. It is up to you to do the background research to learn what is already known and to design the experiments that are going to push that boundary forward a bit further and that are going to determine if your hard work was worthwhile.
While you may think you are on the right road—a road that seems well thought out and free of obstacles—you will quickly realize how easy it is to lose your way or to get pushed off course by an insurmountable obstacle. Your experiment will go wrong and likely you will not get the results you expected, but it’s up to you to keep your research on course even when things seem hopeless. This is when the battle becomes you versus you: you must find everything within you that can help you keep going when you are lost, feeling defeated, and want to turn back. Only you can overcome your own self-doubt.
Even though our road is one we must take alone, we may also find solace and companionship with others who are on a similar journey. Fellow graduate students can be your greatest ally as you travel down your road; not because they know which way to go, but because they may have tips on how to navigate some of the obstacles you will face. Climbing over that rock pile may be as simple as talking to someone in another department. Fighting off the bear (cough cough…your advisor…cough cough) that’s in your way may just require a simple reorganization of your ideas or plans. These challenges may seem treacherous when you first happen upon them, but likely another graduate student has faced the same challenge and learned how to overcome it—learn from their experience!
So why should you even want to start down this road? For the love of learning, the thrill of discovering the unknown, or for what you will learn about yourself along the way. Conducting my master’s research has been the most frustrating yet exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. For a while I was lost in the woods, fearing I would not find the road again, but by mustering all of my discipline and determination I was able to find my way back to the road and start making appreciable progress once more. Graduate research has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and yet I would not wish to make it any easier. It has tested me in ways I could have never imagined and it has shown me that I am capable of overcoming more than I though I ever could.
Graduate research might be the road not traveled, but it is the road that is entirely yours and one that will lead to a great accomplishment that only the most determined ever achieve. Are you ready?
If you have completed research for a master’s or PhD program, how did you feel along your journey? What helped you get back on track when you veered way off the road not traveled?