Enjoying Research and the Tangible Reward of Publication
This blog is in someway an extension of the earlier series of ‘The Reluctant Researcher’ and there may be some redundancies. This is more about my struggles translating work done as part of my research into the written publication and what I have learnt with time. And this struggle, I believe, has had its origins in our pool old, much maligned, basic school education system.
Our basic school education system, at least when I was a student, focused on grades rather than learning. And it was what was expected from us by our families. And I excelled in it, regularly being in the top-3 of class which infused this idea in me, my family and teachers that I was a brilliant student, with supposedly a high IQ (I never measured it) and would go on to achieve highest accolades in every domain and aspect of life.
Looking back now, I realize I was merely good at getting good grades, in fact I was an expert at it. I was even able to get all but only ‘2’ B-grades during my MS in Sweden. However, there was a serious problem in this approach.
My whole focus of studies was getting grades and I did not study anything else. My mother pushed hard, initially, to get me reading books. However, the work load of school left minimal time for studying and learning for fun. Studying was never a fun but an objective, to get good grades in order to advance to the next level. And what ever free time I got was spent on playing video games and other sports.
Playing games and sports was important but never did I gain love of reading. Even in the newspaper I only read the sports pages :-). This was because of a lack of culture of reading books in the school. My school did not have a library though it was considered a good school. This shows the expectations of our society from our educational institutes where our a School without a library and a culture of reading books is considered a good School. No wonder where we stand in the world today.
It’s not that all schools in Pakistan suffer from this problem. In fact, I was taken aback when I started my job in that rural institute and I found really well read people there, which was kind of embarrassing for me. Anyways, this singular focus on grades hurt me during my research.
Research is much more open ended. There are no set rewards, like getting a grade after giving an exam at the end of a semester or year. The most tangible an award can get is acceptance of a research publication for a conference, workshop or journal which carries a high risk since it can be rejected and the probability of rejection is probably more than than the probability of rejection. One of my papers got rejected three times before being finally accepted. And the absence of such a tangible award was the reason of my habit of procrastination, as highlighted in the BBC article.
However, I did not approach my PhD in this way. Since everything I learned and studied in my 18 years of education was geared towards a tangible target, all the work I did in my PhD was targeted towards the tangible target of a publication. Now one might ask, what else is expected of a PhD student other than to do research and publish the results? Well, there is more to it.
The important aspect of PhD is learning new skills, gaining expertise of a particular field by gaining in-depth knowledge of it, critical analysis of data and of course learning to write, which includes making multiple figures, tables, graphs and what not.
And that was what I was missing. All I was doing was completely geared towards the publication. Therefore, when ever I came up with some results, graphs, tables or written a paper draft or made a figure for the paper, I used to get extremely disappointed when my supervisor would ask me to remove or modify it. It always felt a burden and I wasn’t able to look beyond the tangible reward. I was afraid of doing analysis on my own due to fear of that not being part of the paper, overlooking the fact that these analysis would broaden the horizon of my knowledge and allow a deep understanding of the subject. It does not mean that I did not end up doing more analysis but I always felt it as a burden and seldom enjoyed it.
And it became worse when a paper was rejected. It would mean I had to then respond to reviewers comments and critiques and work more on something I had thought was complete. I did not take that as an opportunity to learn something new and to go further in understanding the subject. There can even be something to learn in the reviewers’ comments (though it can be argued that sometimes reviewers’ comments can be, to put it mildly, not up to the mark).
However, with time I have realized it and am starting to enjoy doing analysis, writing papers, modifying it repeatedly and adding/removing/modifying pictures, graphs and tables from my papers. Hell, I even thought how can people spare time to write blogs, and here I am, writing my 9th blog with a few more drafts with points and ideas waiting.
And with this enjoyment comes new avenues of learning, an opportunity to deepen my understanding of the subject matter and overcome my habit of procrastination. This will also help me set targets to achieve, which act as rewards and helps one control my emotions, which is much more important than managing time in order to overcome the habit of wandering off to YouTube videos, random internet articles or refreshing the same news webpage or FaceBook page again and again, which is what procrastination is all about.