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Death Valley of the PhD Project by Kim Patokoski

Updated: Apr 11, 2018

As fallen in and working to climb out

As a result of working in the lab for four years in prior to PhD I have already seen a generation of PhD students do their work. Some of them performed with ease or never showed their difficulties to others. And I must say that is admirable but at the same time annoying.

At the same time there were students who had their difficulties and slow starts but still got their thesis done. That is actually more admirable to me. Now as my own project has turned into a one-year-old, I can recognise the phase that I have seen from the side previously.

The death valley phase. A very well describing name for apparently quite common situation when you are working hard but the results are not as expected and it seems that there is no cure for the situation since nothing is working as expected.

So how do you fall into the death valley? Probable reasons might be fast speed at the start, miss calculations in steps or maybe the project is a bit heavy or there is something extra to carry. What was my reason for falling? Well, when starting this kind of a new project I like to dive directly to the problem and solve the problems as they appear. O’ boy did the problems appear… Now thinking back, I checked all the boxes mentioned above at some level.

One key point, and actually quite hard one, is asking the correct research question. The difficulty in creating new information does not appear when you are familiar or expert with the topic. But it certainly appears when starting a completely new topic for a research group.

As I was quite new to my topic, I could not tell if the research question was good or bad but I tried to answer that anyway. Unfortunately few other guys had answered the question before. It just took me a good eight months to get in speed just to notice that the question is quite dated and well discussed already.

Eight months is quite a long time as I look back now. But that’s how long it took to get up to speed and realise the state of the art techniques in theory. And then it took few more months to figure out how to get our own research up to speed really.

Besides asking the wrong questions I have to admit being proud not to ask the stupid questions fast enough. I mean how do you even know if the questions in your mind are relevant? You might figure it out by reading books and doing research or then just ask when there is a chance. But then you might reveal yourself stupid?

Well, that’s one way to fall in to the valley. Not by doing the wrong things, because in research you will certainly do mistakes. Not correcting them fast enough as you go and not changing the direction in dead ends is what drops you deep. And it really hurts to fall into the valley…

Since I am currently in the valley and not trying but working myself out of there, I have no good tips to share. If I had good tips I would have already climbed out. But I have regular tips.

Realising that work you put on did not lead to a publication, which actually is the goal when preparing a doctoral thesis, hurts bad and wasted. After free falling you should start something. Just start doing and preparing some new things for potential publications. Make a plan? Certainly it helps. Even though there is no way of knowing if the plan is good or not. At least it guides your thoughts. And most importantly if you start doing something, it will open the mind and keep the thoughts going for the next good ideas.

Needless to say that failing with multiple ideas is better than failing without any ideas. Without ideas there is nothing to succeed with. I will stop here, otherwise this post turns into a motivational jargon, that has no real use until you realise it yourself.

It is important to notice that the valley is also a mental state and applicable not only to PhD project but in any target-oriented projects related to work, sports or other hobbies. Falling to the death valley just means that you realise how far you are from the level you would like to be and don’t know how to get there. And the fall can be a good thing if you realise it and start working on stuff.

If you don’t then the death valley does its job, while you go work and in circles not even trying to climb out. Finally an unintended add, hogged by my supervisor as a new group philosophy: Just do it.

Written by Kim Patokoski

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