Climbing Out of a Research Rut

Erin M. O’Mara Kunz was at a loss about how to get out of hers, but after posting a tweet, she received feedback from other professors that was overwhelming in the best way possible.

September 8, 2022
Illustration of a woman who has fallen in a literal hole in the ground.
(ayakono/istock/getty images plus)

For many faculty members, tenure and promotion to associate professor is a dream. But for me, roughly five years after the dream came true, it began to sour.

During the summer of 2022, after more than two years of doing research and teaching through a global pandemic—during which I also gave birth to my first child—I realized I was in an associate professor research rut. After analyzing data for another project that did not work out and finally submitting a paper I’d worked on for years, my research tank felt empty. I was out of ideas and unsure about what to study next.

I knew I was not the only person to experience this malaise and burnout. In fact, from the beginning of my career, mentors and colleagues had warned me of the tendency to fall into the occasional research rut. Nevertheless, I was at a loss as to how to climb out of mine. There wasn’t much outside help; universities and grant agencies offer plenty of support for pretenure faculty research, but those of us who are associate professors—once referred to as “the forgotten rank” by a colleague—often lack such supportive mechanisms.

After suffering in private for most of the summer, I decided I would publicly acknowledge my research blues. In late July, I posted a tweet explaining that I was in a research rut and asked Academic Twitter for help. The feedback I received was overwhelming, in the best way possible. I received a lot of valuable advice from fellow professors, across all ranks, who have experienced their own research ruts. This advice was so fruitful, I thought I would share it to try to help other faculty members confronting a similar issue.

  • Attend conferences; talk with researchers. Interact with other scholars, the commenters told me. For years, the pandemic restricted our ability to attend research talks and conferences and from sitting across a table from other researchers to talk about our work, but those face-to-face meetings are returning. Such conversations can be more informal, too—they can happen before or after a brown-bag or seminar talk, or over coffee or lunch.
  • Stop, collaborate and listen. Establishing collaborations and leaning on collaborators was another frequent piece of advice. Try to work with new people, with people from different fields, with junior colleagues and doctoral students. The scholars offering me advice on Twitter described collaborations as a “win-win” and as something that had rejuvenated them. Collaborations can offer a new perspective, which can help inspire new research questions.
  • Let students lead the way. A research rut may suggest that it’s time to focus on student research. Discussing research ideas with students, from undergraduates to Ph.D.s, can spark new ideas for discovery. Ask students what they care about, and consider how to transition their interests into research questions. Shift from thinking of yourself as the source of your research questions to thinking of yourself as a research mentor who fosters others’ ideas. Doing so can not only help you get out of the rut but also benefit students’ research careers.
  • Read. Responses to my query frequently suggested reading as a solution. Read about topics in and outside your area of research. Read academic books written for the public that you just haven’t had time to read. Read something completely random. Read for fun. Just read!
  • Ramp up your professional development. Several comments I received suggested looking into new opportunities for professional development, both formal and informal. One faculty member recommended listening to the Academic Writing Amplified podcast. Another mentioned the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity boot camp. And another suggested attending the Spark, Research for Social Change fall meetings.
  • Pivot. Try viewing a research question through a different lens. Mix up the research routine by looking at a phenomenon in a different species or sample, or combine a research question with a seemingly unrelated idea or field. You don’t have to learn a new research method or paradigm to try something new even within your existing area of expertise.
  • Press on. Carry on with your current research by finding small ways to keep a failed study alive, contemplating why the idea did not work and considering what would be required to get it to work. Other ways to persevere included seeking out opportunities to write shorter papers or book chapters. Or consider conducting or collaborating on a meta-analysis or writing a review paper—two approaches that allow you to take stock of a research area and identify next steps.
  • Get outside. Take time to enjoy nature. Going for long walks, especially after reading a research paper, may provide a chance to think about ideas and let them marinate. And it serves as a nice break from work.
  • Take a sabbatical. Use it to go somewhere new to get inspiration. A sabbatical can be a wonderful time for garnering research inspiration from a new university, city or country. It can also be an opportunity to establish new collaborations.
  • Take risks. A faculty member whom I very much admire reminded me that with tenure comes the opportunity to take research risks. This faculty member suggested considering ideas that you’ve long puzzled over but thought were too risky to explore pretenure.
  • Take the pressure off. This last category of advice was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most reassuring and comforting. Many comments focused on giving yourself time to think and let your mind wander. Be kind to yourself; let yourself simply reflect and breathe. The co-pilot of a research rut is research rut guilt; feeling guilty for being in a rut only deepens the rut. This type of advice suggested a route out of the rut that does not involve self-flagellation or frantically trying to come up with new ideas.

I received a lot of other excellent advice that did not fit neatly into these categories, including thinking about pop culture and things that annoy you as inspiration for research ideas. Other suggestions included focusing on revamping lecture material, changing research areas completely or—my favorite—just getting more sleep. Finally, several folks thanked me for being open about this quiet but relatable problem among faculty members and for getting the conversation going.

I discovered that I am not alone in experiencing a research rut and that getting out of the rut may take time. But I also learned there are many ways out of it.

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Erin M. O’Mara Kunz is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Dayton and holds a Ph.D. in experimental (social) psychology.

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