Every so often, during my masters & doctoral research, I’d have what (in retrospect) was a crisis of faith. I’d take a step back, think about my research as a whole, and wonder: what’s the point? Who’s going to read this thesis? What difference will my research make to the world? Why do I even bother?
As my belief in my work wavered, I became much less productive. I’d watch TV in my pajamas instead of reading; bake cookies instead of writing. It was, in some ways, a kind of scholarly depressive state.
Occasionally I’d come out of it in a couple of days. But sometimes, when the crisis deepened, I’d contemplate giving up entirely.
There were practical reasons not to quit (the threat of having to pay back scholarships; the sunk cost of work already done; the career benefits of finishing). If I’m honest, it was those practical concerns – and not the noble cause of research – that kept me going in my darkest moments. I finished in the full belief that no-one would ever read my thesis, and that my research would make no difference whatsoever to the world.
I was a bit wrong. More on that in a minute.
But my regular crises of faith weren’t totally unfounded. As it has turned out, my research didn’t prompt any kind of revolution. It didn’t attract thousands of citations. And while I know it’s been read, I don’t know how much of an impact it made on readers.
That’s quite normal, and it can be one of the central frustrations of research. While there are research rockstars out there changing the world, most of us will make just a tiny bit of difference to a niche-within-a-niche of our field. With that being true, the occasional crisis of faith seems quite rational.
It’s especially easy to feel these crises when major global events seem to dwarf the significance of our own research. Hands up who lost motivation during COVID?
But think of it this way: research, while often a solitary pursuit, is a collective effort. As individuals, our little incremental contributions can feel almost worthless; but together, we advance human knowledge in remarkable ways. Every time a disease is cured, or a book written, or a species saved, the work of hundreds if not thousands of researchers contributes to a remarkable achievement.
In this way, it’s much like living in a democracy. Each voter makes only a tiny contribution to the democratic process, and one vote almost never swings a result.* Yet in aggregate, voters change the course of history. Voters shape their nations, just as researchers shape human knowledge. The total impact is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Imagine, for a moment, that no more academic research was done. No more masters & doctoral students working in labs and offices; no more academics doing research as part of their jobs. What would be the effect?
There would be almost no research that serves the interests of the public good. Private companies and small institutes would be the only ones left doing research, and their interests would control research agendas. Most research would need to have commercial applications in order to be justified. It would be incredibly difficult to conduct research purely because it could be helpful or interesting.
Fewer medicines would be developed. Our cultural commentary would swiftly lose depth. Institutions of power would proceed largely unchecked and unchallenged. Progress on environmental and social initiatives would stall. Textbooks would remain frozen in time, never to update with new or enhanced knowledge.
The collective benefits of researchers’ work are impossible to overstate. And masters and doctoral students are a huge part of that workforce. Even if our work sometimes seems insignificant on the micro scale, it is phenomenally powerful on the macro scale. We are making a difference.
I got a random email some time ago. It went to an old university email address, and I only saw it months after the fact. But it was from a high school teacher, who had found my masters thesis on the university repository. This teacher wrote that they had read my thesis, and it added depth to their understanding of a book they’d been teaching for years. They thanked me for changing the way they taught that book, so that the generations reading it now can see it in a new light.
Impact sometimes happens in unexpected ways. But even if that teacher hadn’t emailed me, I’d still think my research was worthwhile because it changed my own brain for the better.
For the (hopefully?) fifty years I may have left on this planet as a thinking organism, my thoughts are deeper than they would otherwise have been. My experience as a researcher has enriched my professional life, and I make sure that my kids are growing up with curiosity and critical thinking as part of their childhood. Even a totally unread thesis can have those positive impacts that ripple out unseen.
So does any of this even matter? More than we can probably comprehend.
Researchers are knowledge-seekers. What greater use could there possibly be for our time and talent?
*There have been cases in which an election was decided on just one vote. This Wikipedia page on close election results is a rabbit hole for the politically-minded. And math fans will appreciate the work of a group of Columbia statisticians who estimated that the probability of a single voter changing the outcome of a U.S. presidential election could be as high as 1 in 10 million, depending on their state.