On the emotional difficulty of conducting research

by Oded Goldreich

Nobody prepares researchers for the emotional difficulties that arise during the research process. Consequently, many researchers (especially junior ones) are convinced that the emotional difficulties that they experience in relation to their research are generated by faults in their personality, and fail to realize that these difficulties are inherent to research and are generated by the research process itself.

Research is an attempt to step beyond the boundaries of what is known and/or understood. Almost by definition, such attempts are bound to fail almost all the time. The failure may take the form of failing to overcome a technical difficulty, which at times may hide a fundamental difficulty, or it may take the form of failing to see what direction or next step to take. Such failures are inherent to the (nature of the) project called "research"; they occur almost all the time and are rarely overcome. Indeed, overcoming these failures and succeeding in a real research project (i.e., a project the success of which is not a priori guaranteed) is a good reason for celebration.

The above refers not only to research projects that lead to breakthroughs of lasting impact on the field. The same holds with respect to any real research project, no matter how small an advance it marks in the march of science. Note that "real research" is defined as an attempt to step beyond the boundaries of what is known and/or understood, and so it is never a priori clear that such an attempt will succeed. The fact that such attempts succeed is indeed exhilarating; indeed, the exhilaration experienced compensates for the frustration caused by prior failures.

The picture that emerges is of an occupation that generates frustration and emotional difficulties almost all the time, but sometimes (alas rarely) leads to exhilaration. Participation in such a project is emotionally worthwhile if (1) we learn to cope with the typical emotional difficulties and (2) we realize the extraordinary fortune of having a path to exhilaration. My guess is that there is no need to elaborate on (2), so I will focus on (1).

The way to cope with the typical emotional difficulties generated by the research process is (i) to realize that these effects are inherent to the process and do not indicate any personal fault, and (ii) devise strategies for reducing the impact of these emotional difficulties. The realization mentioned in (i) is by itself a strategy as sought for in (ii). Additional strategies that are available to researchers who have already concluded a successful research project include (ii.1) realizing that past periods in which they felt stuck were actually periods of (possibly unconscious) incubation of ideas that led to the eventual success, and (ii.2) learning to enjoy writing papers, which report on these past successes and articulate their contents (for the benefit of others).

Indeed, these strategies are suggested in my advice to aspiring scientists (see Nr 1 and Nr 2, resp.)

The emotional difficulties involved in conducting research are parallel by similar difficulties that are commonly acknowledged in the content of the creative arts. In general, I see parallels between the emotional aspects of both these creative activities (i.e., science and art). The following extracts, from a short essay of a writer, refer to the feelings that arise when failing to see what direction or next step to take. Following is very free translation of three passages fromn that essay (written in Hebrew).

So I sit and think. Waiting for ideas. Am I thinking or waiting for ideas? It is not the same. And when I have no idea - when I think, what do I think about? I imagine that I try to find an idea, actively. Try to chase it like chasing a criminal in a crime series. Since I am certain of one thing: Good ideas exist, there exist good ideas that nobody has caught.

So I think: What is interesting in this world? What interests me? What may happen? I try to focus, I try to concentrate. But how long can one really concentrate? Ten minutes? Twenty? Say, an hour, at most. Then the thoughts start to defuse, to wonder. They become tired, they cannot make it anymore: It is not rewarding, it is annoying, boring. Nothing moves. The count shows zero.

Sometimes a brilliant idea emerges, marked as genius. Sometimes, like in the movies, it comes as a sudden enlightenment, sometimes it comes crawling after being hidden behind a cloud.

I think these passages reflect well the difficulty of realizing that these failed attempts (to generate an idea) are actually constructive. That something is actually generated, although we are unconscious of the process of generation (let alone of its product). It is emotionally hard to realize this and not to fall in dispair, feeling that we are not really thinking but rather pretending to think. That is, these failed attempts feel as if they are false pretences, not merely failures.

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