I am at the point in my PhD where I am truly becoming a researcher and am no longer just a student. How can I tell?
I just finished a project I worked on basically since I started my studies more than two years ago. It was my supervisor’s idea to study this particular problem, even though some of my ideas also helped shape the result, especially in the last half-year.
Now, I have to find something new to work on. Yes, I have to. It is no longer up to my supervisor to do that for me. I will now dig through the literature, see what has been done, and try to find a blank spot in knowledge I could fill.
This is not a task I could have easily done when I started my PhD. I could have gone through the literature back then, of course, but it would have been much more difficult for me to identify a problem that is worth solving and that can be solved by a graduate student. But after two years of cracking problems, reading research papers, and generally being immersed in the academic world, my view is very different from when I started. I know better what I can achieve, what problems are worth solving, and what means I should use to tackle them.
This discovery is, of course, rather encouraging. It means I can see the progress I have made since starting my PhD. Not only expressed in the number of publications that appeared on my CV but also in the less tangible ways — I am more independent than before, I can orient myself in the body of research, I can understand what others are working on, why they are interested in this particular problem, and how they go on about solving it. Still, every new situation is scary — at least up to some extent — and this one is no exception.
Doing a PhD is a lot like climbing a mountain. As you start, all you see is the large pile of rock you have to climb and nothing else. The path is long and tiring and never leads to the top in a straight line. And once you are on the top and a view opens, you see everything around you. Suddenly, you are aware that there are many more mountains around you could climb. And some — maybe even most — are higher than the one you climbed to. So now you can decide which mountain to climb next. But you must choose carefully. You have to find a mountain that is not too hard to climb which can be difficult to judge from a single look from afar.
The situation is the same with my next research project. I can see what I have done — that is the mountain I just climbed –, what others have achieved, and what has not been done yet, i.e., the mountains I can see around me. Now, I have to find a problem that has not been addressed before but is interesting, important, and relatively easy. How can I judge that? Especially since I never did that before?
Naturally, I do not have answers to these questions. But I also know that I do not necessarily need them. For start, my supervisor would not let me go looking for my next project if he did not believe I can find one, and that is an encouraging thought. I also do not need to go and find the next problem all by myself. As I progress through the works of others, I can discuss with my supervisor and colleagues what I found and what I think about it. My goal can thus develop over time and others can help me make sure that I stay on the right track. Finally, I know what my first little steps in this direction will be. Consequently, there is no vast sea of unknown research waiting to be explored but several smaller, manageable pieces.