Three Questions

Making Progress on Research


When I first started out in grad school, my schedule was often dictated by the classes I was taking or TA-ing, and it wasn’t too difficult to know what needed to be done. Between atttending my classes, doing homework, teaching labs/courses, grading assignments, etc., the tasks to be finished were pretty obvious.

Fast forward to just after I completed my classes, and started focusing more on research. While I had some general ideas about where my work was going, and what to do for the project I was working on, in the course of my day-to-day activities, actually getting something done felt very overwhelming. It was easy to get sucked into doing “make-work” type activities, as opposed to taking the time do do deep work. Worse, figuring out what needed to be done was a formidable challenge in and of itself! Very often, I would come home after a day at UNM and wonder

What had I really gotten done today?

I think this is a common question most grad students face, especially as they advance in their studies. Eventually, we are in charge of directing our research, and our advisor has a more hands-off kind of role. We also end up involved in more activities, such as collaborations with other researchers, or sitting on various University committees, or taking on other projects. (From what I can tell, the obligations on our time get worse as we get older and have more responsibilities!) As such, managing this whirlwind of activity is crucial to doing well as a researcher.

In thinking about how to manage the hectic nature of day-to-day research, I have tried to focus on three questions:

  • What is the simplest thing I can do to move my research forward?

Too often, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the things needed to move the project forward. Writing a paper involves drafting, editing, making figures, etc. Research may involve coding, or refactoring, or running simulations. Or maybe reading a dense paper. It’s like standing at the starting line of a race and thinking “How am I ever going to finish this?!”. Drawing on the wisdom of Lao-Tzu, instead of thinking about the entire project and feeling overwhelmed, find the first step you can take towards moving the project forward.

I have read that human psychology is such that, if we have some small victory, we can use that as momentum to keep us in a good frame of mind, and tackle harder things we would have otherwise avoided. By doing a small thing that actually helps with the research, I can think “I’m making progress. I can do this. What’s next?”, as opposed to “I can’t get that done.”

  • What is the most impactful thing I can do?

Priorities are important. While for me making figures is pretty easy, sometimes messing around with the color scheme on a plot is not the best use of my time. Between two simple things I can do, the one with the higher return on investment (ROI) is the one I should pick.

Though it’s worth keeping in mind that what determines whether a task is high ROI or not depends on where you are in the project. So if you’re writing a paper, making a draft is more important than cleaning up grammar mistakes; once you’ve done several edits and have most of the paper written, then worrying about word choice and whatnot is important.

  • Did I actually do it?

Accountability is important. If there was something I could have done during the day, and I didn’t do it, then that’s not good. If there’s still time and I can get it done, I will try to do it; otherwise, I put it on my list of things to do the next day. Though if I find one task seems to keep rolling from one day to the next, I have to stop and ask myself why that is. (Which can be a useful conversation to have with oneself!)

Overall, I find these questions to be useful in helping me manage my time and energy over the course of the day so as to keep the research happening. Hopefully they help you as well!

In case you prefer a more visual format to describing these questions, I made a video. If you like such videos, click through to YouTube and leave a comment letting me know, or subscribe to my YouTube channel. Ideas for other kinds of videos you would find useful are welcome!