Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here.
I have a project where I have been struggling to get results for a long time now, and the results are not even so significant. How do you recognise when a research direction is not really worth pursuing anymore?
This is always difficult. I mean, you’re not the only one ostensibly struggling. Everybody does. Science is a trial-and-error process and not every theory works out. Some of the greatest scientific achievements have been made as the result of proper mistakes; leave open your Petri dish of bacteria and find that mould inhibits the growth of a bacterial culture – you know, Penicillin. Many operate under the impression that results are disappointing and insignificant, or just plain wrong. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. The point is that you have to think the results, and the process of obtaining them, through. Not too much though.
The task at hand is identifying the reason behind your struggle to get results. Is it a new, frontier, state-of-the-art methodology you’re employing, which may or may not be fully functional, yet? Just hang on in there. Have you been waiting on colleagues to present their contributions to your research? Patience. What’s going on? Recognising that a current line of inquiry isn’t worth pursuing anymore is indeed a vital part of the trials to organise your schedule and save time. Fine words butter no parsnips though. Who is to decide that what you’re doing is pointless? I mean, Wegener also did not have that large a success when he presented his continental drift theory. The positive aspect of a struggle is overarching, as the process of obtaining results has merit – though the merit of the results themselves may not be apparent to you at this point in time. You are able to work through an issue, solve it and obtain an answer to some problem you posed yourself. Some just give up half-way through. You did not. Why? Because you – inadvertently – realised that your research direction was worth pursuing (at least with some pain and effort). Or were you just following orders?
In case you’re ambivalent, or maybe even confidently negative, about the proceeds of your current strategy, consider alternatives. It may just be that your research goal is simply unattainable at this point in time. Usually you’re working on a project basis, so in that case you would have to sit it out. The obvious solution to your predicament is to cross over in a tangential line of inquiry by adding some new feature to your problem. “Simply” justify some new methodology, field work or collaboration to further your research – whilst adjusting your research azimuth to more favourable conditions. Easy, right?
The Sassy Scientist
PS: This post was written after having to make a couple of U-turns myself. Fact is that not everything works out the way you want(ed) it to.