“You Should Have Better Results Than This by Now”

One of the difficulties of researching at post-graduate level is that your project will be unique. This is, of course, by design. Your project will have been designed to make an original contribution to knowledge, which means no one else in the world will ever have run this exact project before.

This can make it difficult to gauge exactly where you are and to confidently assess your progress. There is no other project against which you can easily compare your progress. As a result, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you should be further on, should have more, better results and should be clearer on what the ultimate findings of your project will be.

This can be further exacerbated if you hear this message from others in your community – other students and academics. Unfortunately, many members of academic staff and research managers will have a focus on ensuring that their department is able to make a good contribution to REF. This isn’t their fault, the system creates this pressure but it can lead to them encouraging PGR students to be producing publishable results quickly.

Comparing yourself with other students can also be a trap. The truth of research is that some projects quickly produce results and some don’t until almost the very end. This doesn’t make one project better than the other- it just means they are different. But if you get drawn into comparing yourself with other people’s research, it can mislead you and undermine your confidence.

It is important to remember and focus upon the purpose, aim and methodology of your project. Use the structures of your degree to help you maintain confidence that you are progressing (see “Using the Structure of the Research Degree to Help you“) and speak to your supervisor regularly. 

It can also be helpful to remember that negative results are not a sign of failure – they are evidence. If something doesn’t work, that is learning. As Popper pointed out, in science we can’t truly prove anything, we can only disprove. If your negative results have disproven something then that is evidence and learning.

Focus on what you have learned, on your project design and why you chose this area of study and remember, no matter what results you produce, anxiety will still try to tell you that they aren’t good enough. Let the anxiety voice go and trust that with sensible hard work, your research will produce the results that you need in time.