Conquering the Scientific Rut

Stuck in a rut? Photo by Darren Hester.

Stuck in a rut? Photo by Darren Hester.

Although scientists often embark on research questions full steam ahead, there are times along the way where they may encounter a classic “scientific rut,” especially after dealing with frustrations associated with research. Symptoms of this rut may include lack of new ideas, enthusiasm, and/or excitement about their research topic. Another contributor is fear of the future, or how to move forward when negative thoughts seem to dominate.


The good news about the scientific rut is that it can be overcome. One way is to remind yourself why your research was interesting to you in the beginning. In other words, try to remember why you were motivated to pursue your respective research path when you first started. To broaden the scope of remembering why you were initially interested, it may also be helpful to participate in community outreach. That way, you could meet members of the general public who are indirectly impacted by your research. Interactions, such as networking events or community service through charitable organizations, with other people outside of your day-to-day routine can be gentle reminders of the significance of your work and inspire you to advance.


Another helpful tactic to defeat the scientific rut is to ask yourself how your current research impacts various timelines in your career. Chart how your research will influence your career directions for the next one, five, and ten years and how this may be impacted by other factors. Visualizing personal timelines may motivate you to meet particular deadlines or achieve particular scientific goals you were struggling to meet before. Assessing your personal attributes and goals through use of the Individual Development Plan (IDP) is another example of a useful tool to track your personal career progress and development.


Besides thinking about the broad impacts of your research, another way to conquer the scientific rut is to completely change your daily routine to rejuvenate yourself both physically and emotionally. This may include starting a new hobby, alternate methods of exercise, or even something simple like changing when you reorganize your results or immerse yourself in literature. Break your research goals into smaller, more readily attainable goals to help to ease overwhelming feelings and/or anxiety. A change in the monotony of your schedule may be just the fuel you need to finally break out of your scientific drought.


Most importantly, don’t be afraid to talk to others about your rut. Many people have experienced disenchantment with their research or struggled with motivation. Anyone who has will have their own testimony and will likely have some useful advice to share.




About the Author:

Jamie King is a PhD student at Emory University. She is currently studying the roles of mitotic kinases in breast cancer cell proliferation and metastasis under the mentorship of Jin-Tang Dong. In addition to her passion for cancer research, Jamie is actively involved in mentoring and developing useful professional development activities for undergraduate and graduate students.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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