“I didn’t do enough”

One of the frequent lines spouted by lots of grad students (including myself) is “I didn’t do enough” usually followed by “today” or “this week” or “this month” and so on. However, it’s kind of an interesting statement when you think about it. Mainly, because it often feels like it’s used when it’s really not our fault. That it’s not that we haven’t been working. It’s not that we didn’t put in enough hours. It’s not that we aren’t smart enough for what we’re working on (and that’s why it’s taking longer).

Instead, I think it’s usually a combination of factors coming together. From unrealistic goals, to solutions that turn out to not be solutions, and to tasks that are just more time consuming then expected. It’s time to realize that these things happen. And, that they aren’t your fault (at least, not always). That we (grad students) need to stop beating ourselves up for things that aren’t under our control to start with.

For example, what are your goals for this week (assuming you even have any). Have you thought them over and compared them to how your week is shaping up? Will you have time to actually work towards them and solve them? Hopefully they’re not as broad as “finish all my research,” which is probably highly unlikely to be do-able. And you also need to be careful with ones that seem like they have a solid target (“figure out what’s wrong with x”) but don’t give any indication of how much work that might take. What if this turns out to be a huge problem? It may be at the end of the week that you’ve solved three others problems that arose from your investigation (progress to me), but not the original problem.

And some paths that seem to lead to progress end up being actually more of a black hole, where you have to convince yourself to turn around and back away as progress always seems to be just there at your fingertips, but never in your grasp. These situations are the most frustrating. And I’ve been down that road. I think I’d be a year farther in my degree (maybe even two) if I hadn’t gone down the original research path we chose. Sure, it wasn’t a complete waste of time (most things rarely are), but it has definitely held up my degree.

It’s also worth remembering that some tasks are just going to take double or triple (or even more) time then you originally planned. In fact, a lot of (or even most) tasks are going to do that. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, is that I’m really terrible at estimating how long it’s going to take to do stuff. And this seems to be a combination of not realizing how many unexpected problems may come up, how long it’ll take to solve those problems, and just how much other, unrelated, stuff ends up cutting into that time you hoped to use. And I’m talking about unrelated stuff that is still important and related to your degree (meetings, papers, etc), not unrelated work that could’ve been put off.

Of course, there is always the chance that it is your fault. That you didn’t put much (or any) time in on what you’re suppose to be doing. And that happens. In those cases, yeah, brush it off, and realize that tomorrow’s a new day. If this is happening constantly (always?), then it’s time for some serious reflection over what you’re doing and why. Such as, what is it about your project (or life) that is keeping you from making progress and/or working on it?

Do you find you use this phrasing often? If so, is it ‘true’, or more a way of expressing that things are taking longer than expected?

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2 thoughts on ““I didn’t do enough”

    • Yeah, I think academics are generally quite hard on their(our)selves. Lots of ‘grand plans’ and lots of follow through, but time and skills and funding and such aren’t always on our sides.

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