If there’s one question I really don’t know how to answer, it’s this:
“How’s your research going?”
Some days I think I’m doing well, that I might just publish some papers in well-respected journals and get a sensible thesis written up in time. Some days I actually think what I’m doing is pretty cool. But there are other days, the ones when it all seems useless and pointless, when I don’t think I’ll publish anything in any journal at all, when the graphs don’t work out, the equations won’t solve, the list of “to read” mounts up and I realise that I really have no clue what I’m doing. Those days. What do I say in response to the above question on those days?
Usually, my response consists of a shrug, followed by some noncommittal answer (and possibly a Mathematica-related anecdote): “oh, alright I suppose”. What I really mean by this can range from: “I think I’ve found something new but I don’t want to tell you what it is because I might be wrong” to “right now I hate my PhD and don’t want to talk about it, OK?!” It’s a little like “how are you?”: “awful” is not a socially accepted answer unless something really terrible has happened.
It can be difficult to separate out the questions “how is your research going?” and “how is your research going today?” I.e. do I talk about my progress over the last few months or the last few hours? It’s very common to get bogged down in the micro-detail, and when I’ve had a bad day, then it feels like my research is going very badly, even when the bigger picture says otherwise.
Part of the difficulty in honestly answering the question is that I really don’t know how my research is going. I’ve found some stuff out that I didn’t know before, I’ve learnt a lot, and I’ve produced lots of graphs. But have I made enough progress? I have no idea, and that’s terrifying. One of the really difficult things about going from an undergrad to a PhD is that during the undergrad, I got lots of feedback about my progress – tutorial sheets, workshops, reports and exams. I could see my marks building up, leading towards the degree. A PhD isn’t like that: everything rests on the thesis. There’s no progress bar. Possibly that’s the most frustrating thing of all.