Sometimes, in doing a PhD – or, in fact, in doing any kind of academic work, one finds a problem which seems insurmountable, or the results of which it seems impossible to express to the people around you.
Have you ever had it happen where you have wonderful ideas and thoughts, and they seem beautiful inside your mind, but when you have to put those thoughts into words, they come out wrong…messy, shallow, and not at all what you meant. Has it ever happened to you that you have found a problem, and you just can’t solve it, but you don’t want to give it up, or give your agency over the problem away to others?
These problems can make you solitary – lonely, even. Particularly when you just can’t explain what you mean. The two issues above combine, at times, when you can’t solve a problem, nor explain what it is. This can be frustratingly trapping: you and your idea get stuck inside your mind, and the pressure builds until the situation is impossible.
I get ideas almost intuitively. What I mean is, when they first appear, they don’t tend to do so in words or rationalised thought. They’re more like a feeling, pushing at the edge of my brain, and that feeling resembles the mild hysteria that accompanies a myclonic twitch, but is more drawn out, less sudden. Yet it still makes me want to laugh, inanely and for an extended period. It’s the excitement of being on the edge of a cliff. Something you didn’t know, and maybe no-one else does, lies just below you, and all you have to do is take a step…
So it’s frustrating when that hysterical discovery turns into a lodestone: central to what you want to say, but impossible to express. I found that with lots of ideas in my PhD, largely because many of them are so abstract. I found that the trick was to write them out – however disappointing the result – break them down, and rewrite them again and again until they worked. Usually, that enabled me to sort out the wheat from the chaff: the way I think means that often, pseudo-ideas sneak in when I’m not looking, and deceive me for a while before I can get rid of them. When you write things out, break them down, and really try to get to the bottom of them, usually it is possible to work out which ones are valid, and which ones are obvious, old hat, hackneyed, or just plain wrong. It takes time, but it is doable.
The crucial thing with all academic work is that there’s very little point in having an idea you can’t share. The point of doing research is to share – where would we be without Marie Curie?* The joy of discovery, even something less important than the properties of polonium and radium, is a joy which multiplies the more people are able to discuss it. So, tempting as it can be to squirrel away your ideas, don’t. They aren’t yours: they belong to the world.
I am one of those who think like Nobel, that humanity will draw more good than evil from new discoveries. Marie Curie.
*Today is the anniversary of her receiving her second Nobel Prize.