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Renew Your Research

Strategies for re-engaging with your research -- when and if you’re ready.

April 16, 2020
 
 

It has been a chaotic time within academia and for grad students everywhere. With the transition to virtual instruction, canceled travel plans and digital accessibility challenges -- to say nothing of the potential for new child- or eldercare responsibilities -- many graduate students’ lives have been turned upside down, and work on their research may have been one of the things to fall by the wayside in this strange new reality.

Let me start by saying that that’s 100 percent OK. In the midst of all this chaos, it is both natural and understandable that work on dissertations or other research projects should get deprioritized. The challenges that we are all facing at the current moment are unprecedented, and it’s important to make sure that you are taking care of yourself and treating yourself with empathy. Making progress on research is not worth sacrificing your wellness.

That being said, I have been talking to a lot of graduate students who are interested in picking up with their research in some way, shape or form but aren’t quite sure how to approach it. Our research is something that many of us are deeply passionate about, and returning to it after some time away -- and only when you’re ready -- can be good and can help to provide at least a little bit of a sense of normalcy in the midst all of the stressful upheavals that we’re facing. While many of us don’t have access to the labs, libraries, archives or research subjects that we need to fully engage with our research, there are some strategies that we can all adopt to renew our research when and if we’re ready for it.

Take It Slow

If it’s been a while since you’ve opened up your most recent draft or pulled up your data, it can be a good idea to ease back into your research slowly. It can feel overwhelming to spend an entire afternoon catching up on where you were, and it might well be more effective (and certainly less stressful) to spend a little bit of time refreshing your memory and focusing on revisiting small pieces of your project. It will come back to you, and you might be pleasantly surprised by how much perspective a little time away has given you. Yes, the issues with that draft or the error somewhere in your code will still be there (at least they were for me), but a little time away might well help you reapproach it with fresh eyes. Whether or not this is true for you, make sure to transition back into your research work gradually and to an extent that feels healthy for you.

Check In

While many people are dealing with overflowing in-boxes and what can seem like an endless stream of Zoom meetings, you might also find it helpful to check in with people about your project. This could be your adviser or other members of your committee, members of your lab or your writing group, or a research librarian (many of whom are continuing to offer consultations and support remotely). Checking in and sending updates can help you to feel more connected and can also help mitigate the worry that some graduate students might have about communicating with their adviser about their progress (or lack thereof). Chances are good that your committee and your writing group members are also in the same boat, and reconnecting with them can help you feel both grounded and more connected to the research project itself.

Reread

Like many graduate students, I have a stack (OK, stacks) of books and a rather large file of articles that I have long intended to read … someday. Revisiting these and focusing on reading and annotating these sources, rather than jumping right back into the process of writing can be a good way to ease back into the research and get a sense of forward momentum. Depending on your situation, now might be the perfect time to chip away at that to-be-read list and focus on engaging with the work of others rather than feeling an imperative to focus in on your own work. I’ve also found that it’s a great time to catch up on some of the articles that have come out in the last few months that had piled up rather precipitously in my Browzine library.

Block Out Small Spaces to Start

Depending on what your approach to writing is and the kinds of commitments and responsibilities you currently have, one possible strategy is to block out small chunk of time throughout your week when you’re going to work on (or possibly take refuge in) your research. In line with the idea of easing back into things, try to avoid the temptation to try to carve out massive chunks of research time and instead try to commit to a couple of 45-minute or one-hour sessions just reacquainting yourself with where your research projects stand and making a little bit of headway. Similarly, make sure to take stock of how things are going as you go through. If things feel good, maybe add some more blocks to your calendar for next week. If not, that’s useful information to have, and you can adjust accordingly.

Be Patient. Be Kind.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to cut yourself slack when thinking about your research in the current crisis. While research- and writing-related guilt are quite common in academia, it’s important to make sure that you’re focusing on your own health and well-being first and engaging only to the extent that you feel comfortable. No one needs to add burnout or guilt on top of the isolation, stress and worry that are so common in the midst of this pandemic. Cut yourself some slack and focus on the parts of your research that most energize you, most excite you, or even the parts that bring you joy as ways to reconnect with your research, and only do so when you feel ready.

Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature and an M.L.I.S. student at the University of Iowa, where he works as a graduate careers and fellowships adviser in the Grad Success Center. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.

Image by Unsplash user Hope House Press - Leather Diary Studio and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.

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