Flexibility of Research: What to Do When You Feel like You’ve Hit a Dead End

Research can be a truly thrilling experience–interesting data, new findings, surprising collections. However, research can also be incredibly frustrating, namely when you feel like your work isn’t going anywhere.

If you’ve ever been really excited about a topic, done a load of research, and still found that you aren’t making forward progress, this post is for you. I’m talking about hitting tough obstacles in your research–walls you can’t seem to get over–reaching what seems like a dead end.

I’ve been there before (oh more times than I would like to admit), and what I’ve found is that normally, this frustrating lack of a solution is not an indicator that your research is ‘wrong’ or isn’t worthwhile. In fact, it might actually mean that there is another question buried in your topic that needs to be addressed primarily.

I learned this after experiencing a dead–end–feeling just last year as I wrote my R3 (that’s right! flashback to everyone’s favorite: Writing Sem!*). My original plan had been to interpret a modern still life––picture the abstract still lifes of Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove––using symbols and traditions from realistic still lifes––imagine a Renaissance painting of a fruit bowl and flowers. Specifically, I had selected Morris Grave’s August Still Life which was currently on display in the Princeton University Art Museum in the exhibit The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from the Phillips Collection. I hoped to use a change–over–time comparison between modern and Renaissance still lifes to discover how modern still lifes may or may not showcase the unique characteristics of the modern age.

Morris Graves, August Still Life, 1952

It was a great plan, but as I dug further into my research, I quickly hit a roadblock…

It was a great plan, but as I dug further into my research, I quickly hit a roadblock: art historians don’t interpret still lifes.

Seriously! I had pulled almost every book in the Princeton library system on still life paintings; they all were focused only on the formal elements of the works (such as compositional balance, technique, color, etc)! I could barely find any instruction on how to interpret a still life painting or any evidence that any one ever had!

I thought back to the exhibit I had picked my painting from; it was entire exhibit of still life paintings. I thought to myself ‘Well, maybe the curator of this exhibit can tell me a little bit more about still lifes! He designed a whole exhibition of them! Surely there was some method to his interpretation of each work that helped him arrange the works.’

I arranged to meet with T. Butron Thurber, the Associate Director for Collections and Exhibitions who had curated the exhibit I was curious about. We got together and discussed the genre. Turns out he had organized the gallery based on formal relationships and style because he too had worries about interpreting still lifes.

This was initially extremely disappointing, but now I had a new motive for my essay:

This was initially extremely disappointing, but now I had a new motive for my essay:

Art historians, including Mr. Thurber, were choosing not to engage in the interpretation of still lifes. I needed to explore why this is the case. I realized the problem wasn’t about art historians not wanting to interpret still lifes. It was about a lack of a method. As Thurber expressed, art historians didn’t trust that there was a method that wasn’t over interpretive (making up meaning out of little evidence). By studying this why, I was better able to develop a method for interpreting these overlooked works of art that––in my opinion––addressed the concerns of art historians like Mr.Thurber.

My experience should remind us that research is a flexible process; you must follow where your evidence takes you. Research is variable; you can not control the answers you will receive. Nonetheless, new information can always push you forward. If you are hitting a roadblock in your research, maybe that doesn’t mean you need to pick a new topic but rather there is a different question, hidden in your topic, you need to explore first!

Raya Ward, Natural Sciences Correspondent

* If you haven’t taken writing sem yet, your R3 is your final research paper in the class where you have almost full flexibility to pick your topic.