‘Obsolete’ (Chapman, 2010).

Starting a project is an exercise in hope.

Sometimes you have an idea, or several, and spend some time at the beginning working out which ones to pursue and which to discard. Sometimes your topic or project outline is quite vague, and it can take some time and reading and thinking to work out what you are wanting to find out. But once you have a research question and/or a working hypothesis, then the [cautious?] optimism comes in. You try to decide how you are going to investigate your topic, you may read about how others have done this before, and have meetings with your supervisor to discuss different options. Once you’ve decided what you’re going to do, you set about doing it or develop a careful project plan outlining what tasks you want to achieve by when, oryou might test out a few options to see what works. Each project and each investigator is individual so what happens and when will vary, but hopefully you’ll come out the other end knowing more about your topic than you did at the beginning.

But what happens when you don’t find out anything? Or rather, you don’t get enough results, or the results you do get don’t really tell you anything. Or you figure out that your methods/experiment design/data collection is fundamentally flawed. That nobody fills in your survey, or the software doesn’t work like it’s supposed to, or you couldn’t figure out how to use it and no one could teach you, or you couldn’t get access to the equipment/resources/primary sources that you were counting on. That the person you were counting on to help you out becomes inaccessible or unavailable. Or, as in my case, that you realise the whole responsibility of taking on a project right now is completely beyond your current capabilities and capacity.

There are so many things that can go wrong with a research project. And it’s all the worse when people around you are apparently doing really well, meeting their goals, being really organised, achieving tasks well within their set time frames and generally winning at Project Dissertation, all the while you are dealing with obstacles, frustration, or living in the land of denial. I’ve definitely been there!

But all hope need not be lost.

An important fact that many project supervisors and university types don’t tell youis that the vast majority of academic research is in fact mostly null results, knowledge cul-de-sacs, methods that don’t work, ideas that are no-gos. This is really important , as for all the lightbulb moments, the amazing discoveries, the exciting creations, there are tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours of research into things that didn’t work. And in fact we NEED these, to find out what doesn’t work so we can then concentrate on finding out what does. Of course, it’s often much more externally satisfying if your research is one of the success stories, but don’t discount the importance of the seeming-failures either. Remember that for those of you undertaking a dissertation for your degree, it is carrying out the project itself that is important, and you will be marked for doing that, as well as for showing your understanding of what did or didn’t happen and why. Your critical evaluation is what counts, not the results that have failed to go the way you may have hypothesised they would. And if there were fundamental flaws in the design or methodology, if you can explain what the problems were or might have been and suggest alternatives, then great, that gives a direction for projects to try in the future. (And is also a good place to start when trying to work out what project to carry out in the first place).

In fact, some researchers are publishing their research failures, showing how important this aspect of academic research is. Since 2013, the AllTrials campaign has pushed for the results of all clinical trials to be published, in the interests of better knowledge about effective and ineffective drugs and pharmacology, and there is also now a whole Journal of Trial and Error (JOTE), both initiatives dedicated to the pursuit of better science. For anyone involved in research at any level, this editorial about research failure in the first issue of JOTE is well worth a read.

And even if you fall into the latter camp, as I did, that the failure is of not being able to carry out the work, not organising the tasks, not even being able to recognise or admit your inability until it is almost too late, even then there is a way back. For me, it was finally asking for help, acknowledging that I was being overwhelmed, that (due to circumstances – some beyond my control, some of my own making) I was not able to continue with my project at that time. I was encouraged to apply for mitigating circumstances (the critical voice in my head told me that I was lazy and disorganised and needed to be punished for my failings as a student, not given a possible way out) and though I never did complete my project, having those experiences of failure has meant that, many years later, I am much better equipped in my job to support others who may be experiencing something similar and to help them to not be ashamed or overwhelmed by these circumstances, but to find a way to move forward and to move on.

References

Chapman, S. 2010. Obsolete. [Online]. [Accessed 22 September 2020]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com