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What to do when things go wrong in your research

What on earth do you do when things go wrong in your PhD and research?

I feel that panic reverberating off you! But before you freak, take a big, slow, mighty inhale, and maybe consider some of these things to get you back on track:

It’s not about creating ‘perfect’ research

First: Supervisors & examiners don’t expect you to do ‘perfect’ research where everything goes exactly according to plan. Things going wrong is par for the course in research life and they will understand.

In fact, what you think is a disastrous, terrible thing is probably something that will not faze your supervisor at all. Remember that mess-ups are to be expected in research!

HOW you respond is more important

What’s perhaps more important than ‘the thing going wrong’ is HOW YOU RESPOND to it.

Remember: You’re not just being assessed for WHAT you research. You’re also assessed for HOW you do that research. That necessarily includes how you respond to things going wrong.

You’re not an established senior researcher (yet). You’re a PhD student/candidate on a program. This means that learning + education is a vital part of what you’re doing.

You demonstrate via the PhD what and how you’re learning, and that includes what it means to do good research and to respond well when things go wrong.

Mess-ups are a chance to flex your skills

So, When things go wrong, see it as an excellent opportunity to flex your skillzzzz, capactities and abilities. It’s a chance to demonstrate:

  • versatility
  • lateral thinking
  • resourcefulness
  • how you pivot/adapt/take new directions
  • creativity
  • deep understanding and insight of your subject

Get curious about the mess-ups

Also, when things go wrong, don’t just see it as automatic failure to be thrown out.

Instead, consider what that ‘wrongness’ could be telling you about your subject or research design. For example:

What could it say about your dataset/participants?
What could be tweaked in your methods?

Get super curious when things go wrong in your research. This is literally what it means to be a researcher! Probe, question, investigate what’s going on; explore other possible insights, perspectives and results that you could engage.

So, reflect:

  • What other theories/debates could you draw on?
  • What new hypotheses/research questions might this open up?
  • What alternative data-collection methods might be used? How to improve/adjust existing methods?

You never know what magic and discoveries you will find in that mess! There’s so much opportunity for expansion, new directions and growth in your research, from the very thing that has ‘gone wrong’.

The ‘thing going wrong’ is an opportunity

In the PhD context, things going wrong can provide you with the excellent chance to show in your thesis and to your examiners:

i) How much and how well you really understand your field and similar studies/debates. And how you incorporate/consider these other studies when things go wrong in your own study.

ii) How rigorous your chosen methods/methodologies are and how thoroughly and thoughtfully you have designed, planned and executed your research.

It’ll also prove how well you’re able to justify and defend the decisions you have taken around those methods/methodologies at every stage.

iii) How resourceful, insightful+thoughtful you are as a researcher to be able to extract what is important, telling, valuable, relevant from what seems like a mess; and how you’re able to still drive the research forward in novel, interesting directions

iv) How you’re literally continuing to generate and contribute new knowledge, insights, perspectives; open new areas of inquiry via your research and make recommendations for future research in spite of (or precisely because) things have ‘gone wrong’

Expect surprises

How boring it would be if everything went exactly according to plan.

Think about it: if we could control and predict all outcomes, there wouldn’t even be a need to do the research!

How much more interesting and complex it is when there are unexpected surprises to enrich and expand your research.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that that when nothing goes wrong, or if everything goes ‘perfectly’, that probably means you’re doing something wrong.

Things going wrong are more the norm than the exception. Because guess what? Research is rooted in life, and life is FULL of things going wrong, shit hitting fans and waking up to weird, wonderful, horrible surprises.

Life – and research in all its forms – IS MESSY. Expecting anything less than that is only to set yourself up for some mega annoying times.

Embrace the messiness

So, instead of dreading the messiness and the occasional fuck-ups, EXPECT IT. Give yourself permission to roll with the punches.

The magic is in the mess.

That’s where the real gold of the research happens. You’ll be a better researcher for it, and so will your research. I promise.

It’s also a hell of a lot more fun. Keep rocking, rolling and crashing into things.

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