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Walking on Thin Ice by Miikka Jaurola

Updated: May 11, 2018

How did I get here?

Students at universities start their learning from the basics and build a flatbed for their latter studies. At bachelor phase they start to find the stuff they are interested in and start making their own choices how to proceed in the studies. They choose their major and start to learn more specific and detailed things. At master's thesis, they focus on even smaller and specific field and start to become experts in something.

After graduation, they might even start their doctoral studies on a topic that the student has possibly been working before. Or if the topic is not exactly sprouting from the past projects, then perhaps something fairly close to their prior expertise. A triangle-shaped graph is sometimes used to illustrate, how the field of expertise gets more narrow and specific by the time spent on the academic track.

Having been in DSII for little over three years and following the progress of my fellow DSII star members, I've witnessed the benefits of such track. However, I was ended up on a different track.

The tip of my triangle had been sharpened towards one direction, when the DSII position opened up for applying. I ended up getting the position knowing that I would likely not be able to use my very expertise here. Nonetheless, I thought I could offer my case something from my prior studies and knowledge.

Well, after few meetings with my industrial case partners, I realised that was just wishful thinking. The research questions are not always crystal clear at the application phase, and in this case, the shape of the problem evolved into a direction which was completely unfamiliar for me. Which just meant, that I needed to start building myself a new triangle from the bottom.

Slow down, rabbitholes ahead

This, however, was not completely new to me. Being in a weird place, that is. You see, I had walked on hazy territories on my past work life by working with unfamiliar topics in smaller scale and smaller projects. Hence, from early on, I recognized that gut-wrenching feeling of knowing you are walking on thin ice. You should start moving towards solid ground but you hesitate taking the step in order to avoid falling through the ice.

In my case the uncertain feeling came from the idea of having to start answering questions I have no clue of. In other words, I got overwhelmed of the scale of the research problem. And I felt being in the situation alone without my colleagues being able to help me.

I feel I haven't walked in the death valley in my research topic yet, but I've fallen in rabbitholes many times. By rabbitholes I mean loosing the bigger picture and focusing too much in smaller and often irrelevant or even faulty details. I admit I'm prone to fall in rabbitholes as I try to execute a vision. I learn by doing and trying out things. With complex problems I tend to go too far to find the solution and walking on thin and slippery ice, the journey to the bottom of the rabbithole is long.

It's important to be able to recognize the potential falls beforehand. To stop, take a step back and look around for a minute. In absence of colleagues who work with me on this project, I've had the fortune of having an active supervisor from the industrial partner Wärtsilä, Anders Hedin, who has been guiding my way in the research. By keeping in contact frequently, he has offered me that second opinion or a slap in my forehead, when I've started losing focus on the right things.

Lessons learned

It is intuitive that large problems need to be sliced in smaller chunks. As I now faced the biggest problem in my life, I learned (from the very same supervisor), that I need to create interfaces between the smaller chunks. "Connecting the dots" allows me to process problems, which actually fit inside my head, and lets them better communicate with each other.

My research questions are not really scientifically new, like spearhead-kind-of-new, as I learned, when I did my literature review. So, you should do yours sooner than I did, early in my third year! So why did I wait so long?

I felt considerable pressure and stress when I was trying to produce concrete results at the same time I was trying to learn the very basic skill-sets needed for the case. Kind of trying to keep one step ahead in my weekly reporting of progress. It took me a looong time to reach that plateau, where I can stop to catch my breath and start pleasing also the academic side in this project.

If I had started with a thorough literature review, I would have learned to formulate my optimisation problem more efficiently. But it also makes me wonder, if certain small-scale innovations in my work would have been blocked by seeing how other people had approached similar problems.

As I've struggled in my work, and believe me I have, I have perhaps learned to embrace the good feeling I get from completing a task. I've especially learned, that the sensation of accomplishment is indeed brief and is soon replaced with steady dullness and misery. So I try to enjoy it, while I can.

If I end my day at the office in a sombre tone, it often haunts me when I go to sleep. I wake up in the middle of the night feeling angry for knowing that an unsolved problem still waits me at the office next morning. Plus, it's harder to shake that feeling off my shoulders when I'm dead tired and not being able think clearly.

Therefore, I try to end my day at the office with a positive vibe from getting something done or making something work. I have often pushed it by touching the next subject in my todo-list and ending up feeling miserable as I turn off the lights at the office. So I've learned to enjoy the small victories and quit the day once I'm still winning. Even if it's early.

Oh yeah, positive thinking also helps. Walking on thin ice gets you a faster access to the fish underneath you.

Written by Miikka Jaurola

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