Stop and Smell the…Citations? Keeping Sharp Even in Stagnation

We all get into a lull sometimes.

Starting out on the path to research is always exciting. Poring over annals of literature and getting a taste of a mere fraction of the boundless knowledge the Internet and the library have to offer is very satisfying, and sometimes it feels like the stream of productivity and knowledge will last forever.

But what happens when you come to a roadblock? As the semester progresses, things can start to get slow, even feel like they’re coming to a standstill – that one piece of evidence you need to cite your argument just remains elusive, you end up waiting a week for a shipment for equipment you need to run some new experiments (as I currently am). Sometimes, you simply start getting tired of spending endless hours reading, writing, thinking, and then reading and writing again about the same topic. It can be difficult to maintain motivation in the face of those slow-moving moments.

The first thing to realize is that it’s okay to have a lull once in a while. Sometimes, all you need is a step back from your work. Remember why you’re doing this, what got you interested in the topic in the first place. Watch some TED Talks about related subjects, just so you can contextualize your work again after spending so many hours with your nose against the grindstone. Read op-eds that remind you why this research is significant and what you’re trying to achieve. Set aside some time for yourself to not think about your research or your thesis, but make sure you also set a plan for when it’s time to get back to work.

The second point to remember is that a lull doesn’t have to be unproductive. One immensely beneficial thing to do during the slow moments is to take some time to keep your data and literature search organized, and to go through your bibliography (or even start one if you haven’t yet!). If you’ve marked some areas that need to be cited but haven’t actually gone through to find the quote or page numbers, go find that exact line! In fact, this is a perfect time to do so – when you’re knee deep in new findings or data, it can seem too tedious to sort your data in a comprehensive manner. It’s only when it comes time to compile your findings and put together your data that you realize how easily it piles up when you’re not paying attention.

And if you need a jump-start for some good papers to cite for an important piece of evidence, as always, talking to your professor or other students is also a good way to possibly jump-start your ideas. Sometimes when you feel so close to finding what you need, it seems needless to bother them for such a small issue. But just like any other time when you’re stuck, working alone could easily take another hour or five, like the one detail you just can’t understand on a problem set. Talking to other people could give you a pointer in the right direction. And perhaps after reading a few papers you’ll realize there’s a new section you can add in and find out about a whole new area that needs to be researched – and you can add even more to your list of growing citations!

So if you’ve come to a stop along the road, you could stop to smell the roses, but remember, if it ever strikes your fancy, you could be smelling your completed bibliography instead.

— Stacey Huang, Engineering Correspondent