Home > General Academia > Ails of a Student: Writer’s block (Part 2)

Ails of a Student: Writer’s block (Part 2)

Problem statement: Addressing some of the issues of why writing a (master’s) thesis can be so difficult, based on my own experience again…
Motivation: Since my last blog post, I think I have found something that can help me get motivated again. Clearly, a lack of motivation is a bad thing that can happen to otherwise productive people, so it is important to explore these issues in more detail.

“All they need to explore is how to get an awesome alter-ego like me in their minds. That fixes everything, like I’ve fixed you!”

Right, anyway, guess I am going back to one other blog for reference: Plausible Accuracy.

I have no motivation or interest to work on my thesis project. Partly it’s because I don’t really believe that it will ever generate results, and therefore I don’t really see the point of even trying. I know that this sort of defeatism is not unusual among graduate students, but I’m having a hard time yanking myself out of it. I can’t even manage to use the reasoning “just finish it and you can get out of here” as enough impetus to apply myself.

“There’s something depressing about you getting your inspiration to write about depressing stuff from depressed people. I thought you were Mr. Creativity.”

Hehe, well, there is something funny about following his blog posts. On more than one occasion, I have found myself going “Hey, I’m like that, too”, or “Hey, I’m interested in that too” while reading his blog. Like his Python/Django thing, or losing motivation to work on a thesis, although in my case it’s “just” a master’s thesis. And of course his interest in scholarly communication, which is currently my biggest focus as well.

“Whatever happened to being an inspirational source yourself…?”

Used it all up on my master’s thesis. Speaking of which, when I started working on my master’s thesis, I was going really well. I was excited, my supervisors were excited, I found a lot of interesting information and made a lot of progress: all was well. Then I came upon the more annoying part of the study, which required me to do something I have never done before, and it was something that was going to be difficult even for people who do it regularly I think, because of the nature of that particular research “exercise”: exploratory surveys. It took the wind out of my sails, and I struggled for months to get it all carried out and wrapped up, non stop wrestling with providing enough information for participants to give the right feedback versus leaving it out to keep the survey short enough for them to bother. I mean, you know you are in for a bumpy ride if you want to 1. explain a concept that does not exist and something they have thus never heard of before and 2. receive enough answers on questions related to that “unknown” concept for it to be useful. Especially when a lot of them feel that even 5 minutes is too much time for them to be spending on a survey by some random master student.

“I can’t say I blame them!”

Me neither, hey wait a minute! Anyway, now I am getting back on the right track content wise, with some decent results from those surveys, but I have since been less motivated to do something. Once you “stop”, it is difficult to get on the right track again. And maybe because I am in the final stages of the thesis, that progress is going slower. Instead of going out to hunt for new information and somehow fit it into my thesis topic and literally see its value “go up” (at least to me), what I am mostly doing is going over old material to make sure I have written it down clearly etc. I guess in terms of activity, it is just a lot less exciting. In my case, I have now accepted (or perhaps reconfirmed) that every minute I spend on my thesis is going to add something of value to my thesis, no matter how little it is. So I have no excuse left to not work on it anymore, even if just for a few additional minutes. And once you start, it is easier to continue. I used to “plan” time to work on my stuff for long periods of hours, going “and now I will spend the next several hours working on it nonstop”. But that kind of thinking is lethal in “working from home” environment. So I think just starting and taking it slowly without any expectations will get me to spend more time on it overall.

“At least having me makes things still interesting for you. Not to mention the originality of whatever the heck you’re doing is also my doing.”

It does help to believe that there is value in my research, so that is definitely a motivational booster for me. On the other hand, if you think yours is not going to be meaningful, I can see how that can be difficult like for PA, who thinks his results are going to suck no matter what he does. That is a deep hole that one needs to crawl out of. On the other hand, going by the theory of “Process of elimination”: there are always usable results, even if you have just found a path that does not work. Sure, it is not as glamorous as finding something that does work, but it is still better than thinking you have and ending up costing others a lot of resources when trying to go down the same path:

For example, the problems with Hellinga’s enzymes were identified by John Richard at the State University of New York in Buffalo, who hoped to use the proteins in his own work. In effect, Richard and his two co-workers wasted seven months and tens of thousands of dollars failing to reproduce the results from Hellinga’s lab. Richard’s subsequent efforts to correct the scientific record thus came at considerable cost, with no discernable benefit to his own career.


So do not give up on your work, even if it might end up not producing any groundbreaking results. Especially concerning the growing significance of OA repositories, your results will help others avoid perhaps losing months of work and tens of thousands of dollars!

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Creativity is back!”

Never underestimate science dissemination! Case in point: if these guys had done their jobs right and go “Oh well, I guess we did not manage to produce any good results after all” and made their work available in at least OA repositories (if no journals want to publish), then this would not have happened, and Mr. Richard could have spent his time working on something else that might have produced good results instead! Indeed, this is not the first and certainly not the last case of this happening. Think of all the resources wasted!

“Alright alright, I get it. Bad results are also good results, as long as they are correct.”

Exactly, that is the beauty of the science. It does not always have to be about groundbreaking results. Every little bit of information to help others advance with their work is useful. And that we can all play a role in that, no matter what the results of our sound scientific work is, is something we should appreciate. In addition, I think one should clear their minds in a case like this, and do whatever they must without thinking too deeply about it. While the scientific method does somewhat tell you to define your objectives and what you expect to find and why that is significant, going at it with a blank mind might be more stimulating. Consider the views of the late Harmon Craig [1, 2], professor of oceanography and geochemistry, who on Nov. 23, 1998 was awarded the Balzan Prize, the first time the Balzan, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the fields of natural sciences, was awarded in geochemistry.

“I’ve never had any goals,” says Craig, who grew up in New York and Boston. “I’ve just wandered through science working on what interests me at the moment. I have some long term studies, but no real goals. I feel if you can define goals, you know what you’re going to find already.”

To illustrate this paradox, Craig says he’s been rejected twice recently by Marine Geology in NSF Ocean Sciences for a proposal to dredge some newly-discovered seamounts in a high-helium 3 gap in the Austral islands at the point where the Austral fracture zone intersects the chain.

“The tenor of the review is ‘Craig doesn’t follow the scientific method. He doesn’t lay out exactly what he expects to find and what it will mean,’” Craig says. “I wrote the Program Director and said, ‘I’ve never used the scientific method in my life’. I don’t know any good scientist who ever worked with the scientific method.”

“Wow. Too cool for school!”

That is indeed a very interesting view. And I can somewhat understand his POV, although having some expectations of the consequences of the work you are doing can help with the motivation, sometimes it helps to be inspired by “the unknown” as well.

Categories: General Academia
  1. May 28, 2008 at 8:05 PM


    My problem is that in my field, it’s not true that you always get usable results. I spend almost all of my time doing work that has zero chance of ever getting published. about 99% of my time spent to date boils down to 2 or 3 lines in the small-print “Materials and Methods” section of a paper.

  2. Wobbler
    May 28, 2008 at 10:45 PM

    Still, not getting published may not equal not being useful to other peeps. As long as there are OA repositories, you can still share your findings with others, even if that is “I have tried to explain concept X using this approach Y, and I have found out that this approach does not explain concept X”. It may be absolutely useless, but it could more likely prevent others who were thinking of trying the same thing from spending the time to do the research.

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