What to do when you’re completely and utterly stuck

This is the second half of my ‘what to do’ two-part blog, sharing my tips for how to cope with two of the major trials of PhD life: feeling overwhelmed, and feeling stuck. Last week I looked at feeling overwhelmed, and shared some of my tips for getting through those tough times (check it out here!). Today, I’m fulfilling the second half – what to do when you’re stuck.

Feeling Stuck

Every PhD student has moments when they just can’t get their brain into gear, and gets hopelessly stuck in a quagmire of data, or a complex problem they just can’t solve. You can spend hours on end staring at it, trying to make sense of it, but all to no avail.

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I’ve had my fair share of these moments, especially when dealing with particularly complicated Old English poems, which, at one point, I couldn’t make head or tail of. As with last time, these are just some things that I’ve learnt during my time as a researcher, but I hope you might find some (or all!) of them useful!

1. Power through. Everyone is different, but I’ve found that in those moments where you’re tearing your hair out, trying to understand something that just doesn’t want to click in your brain, it’s sometimes best to keep going. Often I’ll be working on an analysis of a text, or trying to work out the textual history of a particular poem, and it feels like I’m so close to working it out, but that final light-bulb moment just isn’t coming. At these times, I reach for a pen and paper and just get it all down. When I read my notes back it’s often just garbled nonsense, but the notes themselves aren’t the point – it was the process of writing it all down that helped me understand. Sometimes, working through the problem is the best thing you can do – the eureka moment will come, sooner or later.

2. Talk to (or at) a friend/family member. They won’t understand the intricacies of the problem, and they don’t really even have to listen – as with the last point, it’s about getting your thoughts out of your head so that you can externalise the problem, stop your thoughts from whirling round your brain, and get a different perspective. As I mentioned in the first half of this post, talking is also great therapy – so whether it’s ranting, crying, laughing (the list goes on – I’ve done them all!), find a person who is willing to listen, and get it all out. 

3. Reach out. As well as your friends and family, don’t be afraid to talk to your supervisor when you come up against a problem. Having a quick chat, either in person or over email, can gain a fresh perspective from the person who understands your work the best, and who, apart from you, is the most invested in your research. They’re also invested in you, and want to help you with any and all problems you’re going through, academic or otherwise, that affect you and your research. As I said last time without you, there is no research, so your supervisor will want to know how things are going. Whatever it is that’s on your mind or weighing you down, talk to them!

4. Walk away. A tip I gave in the previous part of this blog was to remove yourself from the situation. This works for feeling stuck as well – getting away from your desk is a great way to change your environment, a way to gain a fresh perspective and to think about your research problem in a different way. A lot of my ideas come when I’m away from my computer and work – just make sure you have something to note them down on! Conversely, it can also provide you with a well-earned break, a chance to recharge after expending your mental energy on the issue at hand. Sometimes you’ll be stuck because you’ve spent too long staring at the problem, so it’s best to just step away from it for a while and clear your head.

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5. Wall of crazy! One of the best things I did when I was in the midst of a very stuck (sticky?) moment was to create a ‘wall of crazy’. This is exactly what it sounds like – picture one of those police investigation boards, with bits of string connecting pictures, newspaper clippings, and pieces of text. I didn’t have a whiteboard, so I made do with a roll of cheap brown paper and a sharpie, but it worked! I was stuck working out the textual history of a fable (which is much easier said than done), and just couldn’t get my thoughts together. Something about having a huge piece of paper and a big pen apparently just spoke to me… and let’s face it, it’s way more fun than writing notes on an A4 pad.

6. Get it out. Ernest Hemingway famously said, ‘the first draft of anything is shit’, and this is a mantra I live by.  Writing well isn’t the point of a first draft – that’s what editing is for. Writing is a great exercise in thinking – the vast majority of my ideas don’t come from reading or planning, they come as I’m writing my first, terrible draft. So, if you’re staring at a blank screen (a fate we’ve all encountered), just write something – anything! Once you get going, you’ll be surprised how easily the ideas and words flow. And no matter if it’s a jumbled mess, or it’s not properly referenced, or the wording isn’t fluid. You got the words out, and that’s the most important thing.

I really hope that these tips, from this post and the last, are helpful in some way or another to all fellow PhDs who’ve encountered the feelings of being overwhelmed, and feeling stuck. I also hope that I’ve been able to show how universal these experiences are, so that every researcher who reads this knows they aren’t alone, and that experiencing these feelings does not mean that you’re failing. In fact, overcoming these tough times makes you stronger, more resilient, and more amazing – and if my fellow PhD students are anything, they are strong, resilient, and amazing.

Images kindly provided by David Jones.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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