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So you got a research problem. As years of being a researcher went by, I am more calm when problems arise, as I am familiar a bit more about the process of finding solutions, and am familiar more also with myself. Here are some tips in solving research-related problems that I found useful (and continue to use).

  • Mental serenity – Don’t panic! Stay calm.
  • Mental encouragement – sometimes it takes time to learn something new, but you can do it.
  • Write it out as a question. Define in words, what is the problem (s)?
  • Keep a research log, discussing the progress on solving the problem.
  • Consider using other terms related or synonymous with the key terms, as across the fields these can be different.
    1. For example, if you are looking for information on “Gaussian noise”, search also for “Gaussian distribution”, “Normal distribution”, and “Random numbers”, as these terms are closely related and might give you answers more readily.
    2. This is probably especially relevant for non-native English speakers, or if you are new to that particular technical field/technical terminology. Sometimes phrasing the question using other keywords will generate the answers otherwise “hidden”.
  • Jot down a plan of how you are going to find the solution. E.g.
    1. Review the textbook material on it
    2. Look at a recent paper using the same methodology
    3. Try a simpler problem first
    4. Talk to advisor, labmate, another PhD student in your group, etc …
  • Can you break the problem into smaller problems?
  • Do you need to take a break (eat, sleep, rest, walk…)? Do you need to sleep on it and come with a refreshed mind? (Maybe during the sleep you will dream of a solution 🙂 )
  • Work in a different place.
  • Discuss with a (supportive) buddy – does not need to be in your field. Stating out loud the problem and your thought process can be very helpful in finding solutions.
  • Visualize the problem /concepts – make a drawing, chart, map, etc. – in any media of your choice. Use colors (you can have fun also), explore your creative side.
  • Get a new cup of coffee (and chocolate :P).
  • Read on the topic – general literature.
    • I would not limit yourself to only a single source. Sometimes different authors emphasize and explain differently concepts, and you might “get” one author’s style/explanation much more readily.
  • Read on the topic – published papers which used the same concepts – maybe in the methods/discussion they have touched upon the subject. You can reach to the corresponding author with follow-up questions on any details.
  • Is there a user helpdesk for the problem, e.g. for observing proposals, data reduction procedures, latex technical difficulties, installation help, library services, institute resources, etc.?
  • Other forums for questions (be mindful of the environment, sometimes certain platforms can be harsher than others).
  • Can you simplify the problem? And solve a simpler problem first and see if you can scale it up?
  • Inspired by Joan Bolker’s book on writing, perhaps write out your thoughts, feelings, describe the problem, do some free-writing, journal without (self)-censorship about this problem that you are stuck on. What is the question? Where are you stuck? What have you tried? How long have you been at it? How do you feel? What else comes to mind?
    1. Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. H. Holt, 1998.
  • Don’t panic. It may take some time to find a solution. Try to make a joke regarding the problem or the situation. Laugh at it. The point being here is to reduce the stress.
  • Find people who also share the same path as you in research and find comraderie in your struggles.
  • Did I say encourage yourself? You can do it!
  • If it is some problem in code or calculation (or other technical procedure), have you tried doing it again very carefully, documenting the steps, and going back through to check your work?
  • One aspect is also that it is important to realize that having research questions, getting stuck, discovering a whole in your knowledge, learning a new method, etc, is all part of research. It’s okay. It’s part of the process.
  • One postdoc I encountered visualized the problems as “beasts” that they had to conquer. You can also imagine yourself battling against a monster as a superhero? Or imagine that you are in a journey to find a key through a maze?
  • Find a mantra to encourage yourself. For example, some things that help me from my background are:
    • Funny sayings by my family members since my childhood:
      • “You can handle it like a cook handles a potato (translated from Russian)”
      • So what?
      • There is nothing to it – like 2+2=4.
      • “Don’t despair, get the bull by its horns”
    • Some tough-love sayings also stemming from my school years in Armenia:
      • “Get your brains together in your head!”
  • ….

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