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I'm an undergraduate doing research and I have some friends in a similar field who also started in a close timeframe. While my friends have very detailed and concrete tasks (e.g. watch X lecture, do X assignment, read X book to build up to X project/X paper) I don't get quite as much support and feel a bit overwhelmed with having to complete a single large task at a time (e.g. read X paper, do X project).

I would communicate how I feel; however I recently started and I don't know if it would make sense to communicate with my (grad student) advisor about this since of course I should be familiar with content for courses I already took (which for the most part I am but I still feel a bit lost) and it appears that my advisor wants me to learn any new content on the spot.

How can I get over this feeling of being overwhelmed by a large task? It feels rather difficult to break into small tasks, and I can just feel myself falling behind day by day and feeling less motivated to work on my project.

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    You should talk to your supervisor about it (no matter your familiarity with the material; research is a very different beast to coursework). Since they are a postgrad it is likely they don't have much supervisory experience. They need to learn when to provide more help and when to back off. It's perfectly reasonable to say something like "I don't know where to start; can you help me break the task down into steps?" Feb 23, 2023 at 16:35
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    I don't think "read X paper" should been seen as an unreasonable request, though it might depend on field. I had to read a lot of papers just in my undergraduate coursework. "Understand all the implications of every word in this paper", on the other hand, is often too great a task for a senior professor.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 23, 2023 at 17:19
  • Yeah, I guess that's fair to say. I think I mean in the sense that there was a difference in the level of understanding I had and the level I needed to discuss them.
    – Revise
    Feb 23, 2023 at 17:41
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    @astronat Your comment is the answer I would write. You should post it that way.
    – user137975
    Feb 23, 2023 at 18:00
  • @Revise If I asked an undergraduate to read a paper, I'd be very happy if they came back to me with an explanation of what they understood and what parts they are stuck on, especially if they can articulate clearly where those boundaries are and show they've made some effort to understand. That may include looking at other papers referenced by the one you're reading.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 23, 2023 at 18:12

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Your question is how to deal with feeling overwhelmed when approaching a large research task, and you have rightly identified that the best way to do this is to break the task down into small steps. It seems that the root of your problem is that you are unsure how to do this, and it sounds like your supervisor is not giving you much guidance.

A few general thoughts:

  1. Always communicate as openly with your supervisor as you can. Their job is to help you, but they can't do that unless you tell them about the problems you are having.
  2. If your supervisor is a postgrad, they probably don't have much supervisory experience themselves. A more experienced supervisor can usually tell when they need to give more guidance and when they can back off, but your supervisor is still learning how to do this. This makes communicating with them even more important.
  3. Research and coursework are very different beasts. You can be the top in your class at solving textbook exercises but still struggle when it comes to research, precisely because of the difficulty you have pointed out: research has no clear defined steps or known answer. This often makes working out how to approach tasks difficult, so you are not alone in this problem. However, you generally get better at it with time and experience.

In summary, talk to your supervisor. It's perfectly fine to tell them "hey, I'm really having trouble knowing where to start on these big tasks. Can you help me break it down into small steps?".

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