As an undergraduate, you know if you’re doing well. Every semester, in every paper, you get multiple reminders: this essay is a C+ or that exam was an A-.
I found that constant, quantitative feedback quite addictive. I kept track of my GPA, and my grades became (probably too closely) tied to my self-esteem and mood. If I didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped, I got quite down. But if I got an A, I felt great! Chasing the A… it sounds like the tagline for a drug movie, but for many high-achieving students, it’s what motivates us through our first few years of university.
So what happens when you enter postgraduate research and suddenly, those regular performance indicators dry up?
No more As, Bs, Cs; no more percentage scores or positions on a bell curve. The clear, unmistakable scores and grades that were once attached to our work are replaced by fuzzy, sometimes ambiguous feedback. We are given suggestions, ideas, and critiques; but we are rarely told how we’re doing. We have to work for a year, or three, or even longer, with absolutely no firm measurement of the standard of our research.
In order to survive and stay motivated, we have to come up with new ways to define and measure our success.
The upside of all this is that we get to decide what we count as success for ourselves. In the best times of my own doctoral research, I’ve counted big things as successes: scholarships, great feedback on lectures, written praise from my supervisor, winning prizes in postgrad competitions. Sometimes my “achievements” are a bit less impressive: presenting at a conference without actively falling on my face, or getting through a difficult reading. In the tough times, I have been known to celebrate completely non-research things like doing the dishes, because at least that’s getting something done.
It’s important to recognise successes, no matter how big or how small, because a lot of the day-to-day stuff of research doesn’t feel like progress. The unproductive experiments, the entire days and weeks spent on formatting, the time spent exploring tangents that will never make it into the thesis – these things can start to feel like failures, whereas in fact they’re just part and parcel of the research process.
So it’s important to count the little things as successes. I may not get a paper published today, or submit my thesis, or win a Nobel Prize. But I did get out of bed!*
*Number of times pressing snooze not specified.