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Currently, I am a part-time research assistant in the field of physics. My supervisor is brilliant and very nice. He always encourages me and says that I have done a great job so far. I don't know why I feel like I did not do a good job and I am very bad at research. I got stuck on something for almost three months with no progress at all, which made me start to dislike doing research.

I was dreaming about doing an MSc. and a Ph.D., and because of those feelings, I am having doubts if I enjoy doing research. Is it that I did not learn well how to do research, or that it is not meant for me? Is it possible to like doing it again with time? I want help in answering these questions to know if a Ph.D. is the right path for me...

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Two ideas that might help.

The first is that you are new at this. Like any skill it is likely to improve with practice and time. As you progress you get insights that lead to further insights. But those insights don't come at regular intervals, can't be scheduled, and are harder for beginners. Frustration is common.

Second is that if you are really doing research then you are exploring the unknown and it is, well, unknown. Three months on a problem without success is not very long really. It is hard to predict how hard any given problem is. It might take years to crack any given nut. But it is also true that it isn't helpful to become so obsessive about a given problem that you ignore the possibility of progress on other, related, problems. That other work can lead to the insight you need on the harder problem.

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” ~~Albert Einstein

  • 2
    Yeah, there's some unrealistic expectations at play here :) Even as a mere software developer, I've spent years untangling particularly complex unknowns and fleshing out designs. Just because the result is simple doesn't mean it's easy to get there - really, finding a simple solution is usually the hard part. – Luaan Nov 22 '19 at 11:06
  • That other work can also lead you to more significant solvable problems, be useful to publish on its own and help others better understand the domain and solve problems they're working on. – NotThatGuy Nov 23 '19 at 13:36
  • Did Einstein really say that? – NotThatGuy Nov 23 '19 at 13:41
  • @NotThatGuy, well, I didn't actually hear him say it, but it is probably accurate. It is a pretty good summary of research. It is widely attributed to him anyway. Do a search for the phrase. – Buffy Nov 23 '19 at 15:48
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You should and have to find out yourself if you want to do this lifelong. Being a researcher is very different from many other jobs:

  • you have to show high integrity and autonomy your whole work life, breaking your integrity (e.g. academic misconduct) can break your tenured position and the possibility to be ever hired again as researcher (see cases jan hendrik schön, marc hauser).
  • investigating if for example some predicted particle really exists can take your whole life time or you may just work on a small sub-problem to verify the hypothesis and will be retired/dead when there is finally outcome (this pushed me away from astrophysics)
  • You might have great ideas and impetus for a distinct question//problem, but your topic is simply not trendy/important enough to get much funding and can be come very repetitive to get money writing and submitting proposals on and on.
  • Same issue with publications, I had colleagues who had to submit articles to over 10 peer reviewed journals to get it published finally. This are extreme cases, nonetheless repetitive work is happening in academia, especially because reproduction and reproducibility of results is one of the most important corner stones of research, especially in academic and fundamental sciences.

This all can become very frustrating. There are of course also very positive things, but I will not list them as you should find them on your own to judge yourself. If you don't find or see them...don't work in academia if you don't love the job and working more than 40 hours/week

  • I would point out that many of the (very good) points you make apply equally well in non-academic, industry careers. They are clearly different, and yet integrity, autonomy, creativity, red tape, dealing with failure, or seeing year's worth of work burn in front of your eyes... yes, they all matter/happen outside academia! – Bennet Nov 22 '19 at 11:04
  • @Bennet but sometimes on a much higher scale: patience to testify a hypothesis can take decades and your integrity/profile is public in academia in comparison to a work testimony in industry. – user48953094 Nov 22 '19 at 12:39
  • all true. My point is merely, if your list is a deal-breaker for working in academia, as it stands, it is also a bit of a deal-breaker for worthwhile non-academic jobs. My intention is to convey to the OP that the alternative to a challenging academic job isn't an easy, instant-gratification, short-hours, yet somehow rewarding industry job. Levels of adversity and competition vary, but pushing through a career outside of academia has all the same hallmarks. YMMV. – Bennet Nov 22 '19 at 13:21
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Is it that I did not learn...how to do research or that it is not meant for me??

No it isn't: It sounds like you're experiencing imposter syndrome,

[a] psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments 
and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud",*

which needn't prevent good research.


* Source: Wikipedia.

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Undertaking scholarly research almost invariably involves periods where you do a lot of work and then hit a dead end, where what you have done is not publishable. This means that it is not uncommon to "waste" several months pursuing leads that don't pan out. It is also common for a research assistant to struggle to make rapid progress through research tasks assigned by a much more experienced (and in your words, brilliant) researcher. Neither of those things sounds to me like strong evidence of any defect in your capacity to develop into a capable researcher. Moreover, the fact that your supervisor feels that you are doing a good job constitutes pretty good evidence that you are at the level where you are expected to be right now.

Since your post says you have dreamed about doing an MSc or PhD, I am assuming that you only have an undergraduate degree (or perhaps are still an undergraduate student). At that level, probably every research assistant is "very bad at research". Becoming competent in scholarly research takes immense amounts of learning, time, and practice, which is the whole reason we have PhD programs. Most academic researchers do not get to the point of being "good at research" until several years post PhD.

In short, you are probably correct that you are "bad at research" (almost all undergraduate-level research assistants are), but it is also likely that you are no worse at it than you are expected to be at your academic level. The feedback of your supervisor shows that you are meeting expectations at your current level, which suggests that there would be no inherent impediment to developing into a capable researcher. However, there is one giant red flag in your post, which is that you are not enjoying your research even under conditions that sound extremely desirable (nice supervisor who treats you well and gives you positive feedback). If you decide to pursue a career in research then you will not always work under such desirable conditions, and so you should make sure that you find the work sufficiently interesting and fulfilling to endure periods where you have to struggle through bad times.

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Do you like doing research? You'll know better than anyone because you must be the best-positioned on the planet to tell what you like and what you don't.

That said:

I got stuck on something for almost three months, so there is no progress at all ...

This happens quite often in research. You've encountered it now, and if you stay in research, will likely encounter it again in the future. It's virtually inevitable that there'll be points where you don't know what to make of your results and/or what to do next. If this discourages you, you might not want to stay.

As another example, here's something that happened to me during my Masters. We were working on duplicating another group's measurement of [effect]. After one year we succeeded. Now we were going to use that method on a new dataset, and then we find out that the original group had used a definition that was nonstandard (e.g., they used N=6 when N=4 is the "industry standard"). This throws their entire measurement of [effect] into doubt.

Faced with this situation, do you think "Oh boy, we're going to discover something new!", or "Damnit, I've wasted one year of my time"? If the former, you might want to stay; if the latter, you might want to do something else as a career.

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My own story:

I'm a software developer not a researcher because while I like solving problems (I've programmed for fun starting when I was 12 and continuing for the last 26 years because it's fun to me), I don't feel a strong enough drive for my solution to be novel. It's something I fought with for a long time, especially since I left a PhD unfinished and thought about trying it again years later. I mean I like the idea of coming up with something new and groundbreaking, but when it comes down to it I don't care enough about that novelty to do the research to find out what others have done, the things they've tried, what worked, what didn't, and where the gaps in the research are. So while I'm perfectly happy to think up "brilliant" ideas, I'm not motivated to do the actual research. And so I've learned research isn't for me.

Do you like learning everything there is to know about a problem?

So one big question is: do you like reading paper after paper and learning everything there is to learn about a problem so you can make a (in the grand scheme of things) small (while still valuable) novel contribution to it? Is it something you'd do for fun? Actually is it something you do for fun now, even if in a limited capacity (e.g. reading books and working on new approaches after soaking in everything you can from those who went before you)? If so, research may be for you. If not (and remember novel ideas are almost worthless because most turn out not to work; viable solutions are what is valuable, and that requires hard work), then research may not be for you. But you'll have to make that call. And it's okay either way. It's not for everyone (it wasn't for me), but I'm glad some people follow that path. But if it's not for you, I wouldn't push yourself down that path. It's a demanding career with long hours and relatively low pay (when you compare hours worked to total salary)--not something to do if you don't love it; you can make more money with less stress doing something else if your heart isn't in it.

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