When science is just not completely rational

Doing research means to break new ground. Try new things, experiment and fail 99 times before at the 100th iteration something exciting happens. Endlessly reading complex literature on a topic, studies of a method, only to conclude that no-one actually knows the exact answer to your question. So you carry on, pioneering. “To boldly go…” and all that.


Find your own way, but not alone

For most PhDs this is their first encounter with the fact that nobody is telling you what to do anymore. Yes, you have your research plan, and a supervisor who thinks along and gives much needed advice. But it is different than before. During your bachelor’s and master’s studies: read this text, do that practicum assignment, exam, paper, … Done, and up to the next course. The freedom of choice you had in your curriculum was well structured and demarcated.

That framework drops away when you start your PhD research. You have to find your own path. Even if you execute a PhD project designed by someone else you have to own it, adapt it to make it yours. Fixed frameworks and structures do not return anymore. You have become an independent researcher. By the way, this does not mean that there are no more quality standards. To the contrary. But you proceed quite independently.

How do you do that, making your way when there are no more directives about how and where? When no boss or master tells you anymore what is good and bad, what should go first and what comes after? What when you have yourself become a master in the guild of academic researchers?

You can invent everything yourself, but that requires a lot of time and confidence. Find a mentor and your progress will be much easier and faster. I do not mean someone who can tell you exactly what to do, but someone who gives confidence to proceed in your own direction. Someone who holds up a mirror to show you how and what you are doing. Personally, I have found such a mentor and, honestly, I am amazed at how much this speeds up my development.


Attentiveness beyond reason and the Emperor’s advice

My mentor shows me that I am learning to listen to my intuition and to the signals life is giving me. This may sound vague, but it is not, not really. That intuition is like an extra sense organ that allows me to perceive more of what is happening in and around me. I am curious about what I hear, and listen to the lessons I can find there. Next, my ratio, reason figures out how I can best apply them. This scientifically trained brain excels in critical observation and is adept in strategic planning. But I am starting to learn that it does not know everything, and that my heart has wisdom, too.

What to do when part of your research does not work out? What to do when something in your communication and collaboration with a colleague triggers your emotions? Listen curiously and observe unprejudiced what you can learn from the situation, about yourself, the world, and perhaps about the other. In this way you continue growing, your knowledge grows. I noticed that when you train your intuitive ears like this, so to speak, you will be increasingly capable of picking up these signals, better and sooner. Actually, in this way life itself shows you your path.


“Nothing happens to anybody which he is not fitted by nature to bear.”


“Whatever the universal nature assigns to any person at any time is for the good of that person at that time.”


These quotes from Marcus Aurelius (the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher) contain a consoling thought. Whatever your setback, you can handle it. And there is something good for you to learn from it, even if perhaps you cannot yet see it in the heat of the moment. You can look for it, and sometimes it takes years before you realize what good you gained from a difficult or unfortunate experience.

Marcus Aurelius does not mean that you can simply surrender to fate or be all laissez-faire. Of course you have to do your experiments, read your literature, thoroughly check a method, write and rewrite your papers. Of course you have to employ not only your critical reasoning, but also copious amounts of perseverance. You cannot sit back and relax, waiting for some break through to happen of its own and your article to magically write itself.

However, most brilliant ideas that really help your research forward do not pop into your head while you are toiling away behind your computer. When you succeed in calming your rational reasoning, in letting it go and giving space to your intuitive thinking, you will notice that you receive great solutions and useful brainwaves in a relaxed way. For example, I had been working for two days on a blogpost that just would not come together. As I riding my bike to the supermarket, the idea for this blogpost occurred to me. At home, I wrote it all down within an hour. Obviously this is not a scientific breakthrough, of course, but do not disregard small things when you are learning new stuff.

What about proceeding purposefully when you leave the trodden paths? My intuition tells me we can rely on our inner compass. You can always navigate with that, even in rough waters. To quote Marcus Aurelius once more:


“When in distress return to yourself as soon as you can to master the harmony more.”


You can see my personal anecdote like this: my inner compass took me to a mentor according to a peculiar logic of its own. That mentor demonstrates to me how I am developing now and confirms my resolution to strengthen my inner harmony throughout my entire being. This way, I am climbing the ladder to a higher level, intuitively, but with my reason on board. And I am convinced you can do the same.




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