Huge problems during research are totally normal


At the moment, I have the great pleasure of working with a bunch of students at my field site in Costa Rica. Which means that I’m really busy — especially during the World Cup too! — but I’m squirreling away a bit of time before lunch to write about this perennial fact that permeates each field season.

We are used to stuff working. When you try to start your car, it turns on. When we set alarms to wake us up, they typically wake us up. You take a class, work hard and study, and earn a decent grade. Usually these things things happen. And when they don’t happen, it’s a malfunction and a sign of something wrong.

But in research, stuff not working is normal. We’re doing things that haven’t been done before. In field ecology, at least, we are inventing methods on the fly to measure stuff that hasn’t been measured before. And there are weather, interfering critters, and trees falling. And if you don’t have something you need, then getting it may be difficult or impossible.

One of the challenges in working with students in their first research experiences is to help them realize that stuff not working out is totally normal. It’s really easy to get dispirited when you hit roadblock after roadblock. But roadblocks are par for the course. It’s hard to hit the green when driving a golfball through a rainforest.

It’s a good idea to get suspicious if stuff seems to be working out perfectly. It’s like the times when a bunch of kids are in another room of the house, and all of a sudden it gets really quiet. Odds are, trouble is brewing. If your project is going smoothly, then that means that there is trouble that you’ve yet to detect and it could be bad. (And sometimes, it could be a major problem that a student has brushed aside as a minor one because of poor judgment or lack of experience.)

This field season, things are working out quite well. By this, I mean that we’re having lots of minor problems to overcome. It’s all fixable, and we can do work-arounds or make compromises, but there’s a lot to figure out. It’s a lot of fun. And the whole crew seems to be appreciating the process and having a spectacular time. I tend to obsess on both the safety and good spirits of my crew. They are both top priorities for inherent and obvious reasons. And, they are also prerequisites for the completion of good research.

I tend to emphasize the Importance Of Communication, probably too much. I keep asking, “How you doing? Everything cool? Need anything?” Saying that you are receptive to communication isn’t the same as actually being receptive, of course. I want to make sure that people’s needs are being met well, and if there’s any tiny little minor problem, we should talk about it to prevent it from becoming something bigger. It could be a small infected bite that needs to get treated before it gets worse, or it could be a personal disagreement among people. But if I don’t know about it, I can’t help fix it. If I do know about it, I may or may not be able to fix it, but at least I can try to make things less bad.

I think the way to get around the inherent roadblocks in research is to make sure that there is trust and open communication. The former is something that takes a good while to earn. I haven’t worked much with this cohort of students in the past, and I’m still getting to know them and they’re still getting to know me. So far, as far as I can tell, things are great! (I’d not be inclined to write about it at all, if they weren’t, at least not at the moment.) But when the students encounter challenges, and I reassure them that it’ll work out, it takes a leap of faith on their part to believe me.

Yesterday, I led a couple others through a patch of forest for about 150 meters or so. That can take a little while, and involving a compass and a number of literal roadblocks. It was the first time I’ve worked off trail with them. We were about two thirds of the way, and I detected some mild anxiety. Maps were consulted. Compasses were triple-checked. A few specific questions about our location were asked. That’s cool. After all, it isn’t entirely normal to just walk off into a wall of disorienting rainforest in a casual fashion. It’s darkish and crowded, and after walking a dozen meters you can’t even see the place from which you started. And to boot, you’re being led with a guy who you’ve only been working with for a couple days. It was a fun little adventure. We hit our destination a few minutes later.

I think — or at least I hope — that I earned a little bit of trust there. And that trust is also critical for the long-term success of any project. Without trust, there’s not good communication. Without good communication, there’s no good collaboration or mentorship. After a few days in the field, we’re still a work in progress, and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks, and beyond. (Some other time, I’ll write about my failures from previous field seasons.)

One thought on “Huge problems during research are totally normal

  1. I saw this paper posted in the window of someone’s lab during a particularly tough time in grad school: The title, “The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research” got my attention, because I was definitely feeling stupid at the time, and the article really changed my point of view about my difficulties. I’ve shared it with some of the undergrads I’ve mentored since then, especially those who have encountered big setbacks. At least a few of them have said it helped, and I think it matches up really well with what you’re describing. Best of luck with the field work, and may all your problems continue to be solvable!

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