What makes a “good researcher”?


A question whose answer plagues my very existence…: “NOT ME”. But even though some very lovely people in my life reassure me that I am smart, and intelligent, and whatever else, I honestly very rarely feel this way. Final year PhD makes me feel constantly on edge, like I am far behind where I should be at this point; like I am not pulling my weight. And the little mistakes I make in my work now and again disproportionately make me lose all confidence in my science. According to my own brain, I am not a good researcher.

But… why? Why does my mind immediately jump to me most extreme, illogical negative? Why is there a perpetual meta-worry at the back of my mind that I am doomed to fail and disappoint myself and my family and all those who truly, truly believe in my capability of getting through this PhD?

Call it melodramatic, but these are the kind of thoughts that reverberate around my mind more than I’d like them to – not all the time, of course, but especally when things in the PhD (or personal life) go wrong. And I am certain that a fair proportion of the handful of readers of this blog may be able to relate. So what, my dear friends, can we do to stop ourselves from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy about failing to be a “good” researcher? What does that even mean?

Is this someone who rarely makes any mistakes? Who publishes a research article more frequently than some arbitrary threshold? Someone who quickly finds the answers to all the questions they ask themselves? Someone who has a tonne of original ideas? Someone who casts aside all their personal problems and just gets stuck in the science?

The last time I published a post on this site, I was kind of bathing in the depths of my own misery and it has taken a long time to hoist me just out of the edge of that metaphorical well. I don’t mean for this post to be horrendously self-indulgent, but I do want to admit that the things which were happening in my personal life all just sorta stacked up and took their toll on my work. I was not a good researcher; I just couldn’t spend a “normal working day” on doing my PhD. I would snooze my alarm for 4 hours. Only for the wise words of my lovely friends, I realised that I was burnt out and ended up taking a few weeks’ formal break just to piece my head together again. And that is okay. Sometimes, time off to look after your wellbeing is the only thing that makes sense.

The curse of the PhD candidate is that you often sacrifice a fair amount of your free time sub/consiously trying to resolve something you’re stuck on. Or spend dinnertime coming up with an explanation of some plot you made earlier that day that makes no sense. Or thinking about the comments you got on a draft of a piece of writing – all the while pouring boiling water all over the kitchen counter because you missed the mug due to pondering on science. Or missing dinner out altogether because you’re still working at stupid o’clock and you really shouldn’t be. Spoiler alert: these aren’t going to be helpful for your mental health in the long run. Heed my advice and just.. don’t do it.

I guess that a “good” researcher is someone who perseveres. Someone who gets knocked down, but gets back up again. Someone who tries to find an answer to some niche little part of the bigger problem, but manages not to get too bogged down in the detail  – something I personally struggle with and can spend a week worrying about a tiny problem that in the end isn’t even important. It is someone who is rigorous and makes sure that their exeriments are robust, and their hypothesis is not just backed up in this one very specific way, but is robust to different methodologies and still holds. It is someone who is confident in their work, believes in it, and can defend it against ill-meaning comments.

And it is someone I aspire to be!

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