Research Doesn’t Happen in a Straight Line

Planning is good. It is right and sensible that you have a clear project plan for your research, mapped against the time you have. This will provide your research with direction and focus and being organised will make it more likely that you will complete your degree on time.

But here’s the thing.

The process of completing your research will not conform to your plan. Things will go wrong. Life will happen. Participants or partners in the research will not appear. You will get unexpected results that you need to explore further. Some of your initial hypothesis will probably not be sustained by what you discover. 

This doesn’t mean there was anything fundamentally wrong with your initial plan. This is just how research happens. Research exists to explore uncertainty. That means the process of your research will be unpredictable. If you accept this and embrace it from the beginning, it will not only be easier to manage, but you will be more able to respond positively to setbacks and as a result produce better research. 

Accept from the beginning that some of your time will be spent on activity that ultimately does not produce reportable results. That time has not been wasted and you are not behind time as a result. This use of time was always going to be part of the work. Focus on what you have learned from this experience and apply that to how you approach the rest of your research (was it obvious earlier this wasn’t going to work? Did you follow it because someone else wanted you to or because you wanted it to work, even though the signs were there it wouldn’t? Is it a complete surprise it didn’t work, in which case, is it worth exploring and understanding why?)

If you can accept that research doesn’t happen in a straight, well-planned line, it will be easier on you, and you will be less likely to lose time feeling frustrated and chastising yourself for what went wrong. Things going wrong in research doesn’t mean you are a bad researcher; it just means you’re engaged in research. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no point in planning at all. You still need the plan, so you know when things have taken an unexpected turn and you can make decisions about what you need to do next. If you are trying to research without any sense of direction, you can wander without making progress and not realise that this is happening.

You just need to take a flexible approach to implementing your plan and redraft it continually as you go along, in response to the progress you are making. Accept the reality of research is messy and unexpected and embrace the opportunities this brings.

Remember the experience of Alexander Fleming, who returned to an experiment to find that his petri dishes had been contaminated by mould. Rather than feeling frustrated by this set back, he instead examined his mistake to see what he could learn and in doing so, discovered penicillin, saving millions of lives [1].



Marland, M. (2008). Ideas, insights and arguments : a non-fiction collection. Retrieved from Fleming&f=false