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Getting Unstuck
Lisa Rossbacher

A younger colleague asked me recently how I had “dealt with periods of feeling stuck or blocked” in my research. She added, graciously, “if you had any.”

My first reaction was “doesn’t everybody get stuck from time to time?” Since, then, I’ve discovered that the answer is “apparently not.” Whether some geologists really have never encountered the feeling, they don’t want to admit it, or they have a totally different definition, I may never know. I do know that I have no trouble admitting having gotten stuck myself sometimes. When I shared the question with a sampling of geology colleagues, some interesting patterns appeared that I think universally apply to all professionals. Here are the primary categories of advice for how to get “unstuck” in research.

Walk it off.

Sometimes research benefits from a change of pace — literally. Walking, rock-climbing, cycling and swimming all provide a rhythm that lets the mind work on subconscious issues. Yoga and tai chi offer mind-clearing options, too.

Dan Merriam of the University of Kansas quotes Charles Babbage regarding the power of the subconscious: “I occasionally arrived at conclusions which appeared to me to be new, but which from time to time I afterwards found already well known” (Passages From the Life of a Philosopher, 1864).

And if the exercise doesn’t help with the research, then the stress release is valuable enough.

Talk to colleagues.

Many geologists deal with research roadblocks by talking to other people, both in their discipline and outside of it, for insights and ideas. Allan Ludman at Queens College, for example, credits the “fraternity/sorority of Maine geologists” with getting him through difficult times in his research. Cynthia Burek of the University of Chester believes in having coffee with colleagues and then “back to the computer.” Pamela Burnley at Georgia State University finds that talking with colleagues who may have encountered similar problems is helpful. Sometimes just hearing herself explain the problem aloud provides a new perspective on the problem.

Keep several projects going.

A popular response to feeling stuck is to shift the focus to a different project. Many geologists engage in multiple simultaneous projects, shifting focus among them as interest and opportunity dictates. Fred Rich at Georgia Southern University found this approach useful while his lab was unusable during its renovation.

Experienced researchers also caution against spreading oneself too thin by participating in too many projects. Lisa Pratt of the Indiana University notes that this is a particularly common issue for younger researchers: “This is a temptation that every researcher must confront if they are to succeed in the U.S. system of peer-review and proposal-driven research funding.”

Get some different creative juices flowing.

Some geologists advocate using a different set of mental muscles to move the research forward. If you’ve been crunching numbers, switch to words. Sketch something. Paint. Play or listen to music.

Learn something new.

Ludman of Queens College looks for new topics, new research areas or new technologies that stimulate him to learn new information and new tools. Eric Liebes of Chevron agrees: “Every time I have thought that our work had become routine, new tools and techniques have shaken me out of a possible block. Keeping up with technology and applying it to harder and more complex imaging challenges makes every day a new one for me.”

Draft your conclusions.

Even if you’re just starting the work, imagine that you can see the results. Ken Deffeyes of Princeton University remembers that Harry Hess gave this advice: “List your conclusions first. Then include only those topics, positive or negative, that are relevant to your conclusions. Don’t try to write the title or the abstract first, leave those for the cleanup round. Don’t start with a summary of everything else that has ever been done on the topic. Begin by telling the reader what the problem was and how you solved it. At the end you can paste in the abstract and cap it with your triumphant title, ‘Yet Another Occurrence of Quartz in Granite.’”

Adjust your time management.

Sometimes, changing the time you work on the problem can help. Many people find that the self-discipline of writing every day — even if it is only drafting a new paragraph or editing yesterday’s work — is vital to making progress. Pranoti Asher at Georgia Southern University notes that “The important thing is to be engaged with the subject each and every day.”

Tom Jones of Armstrong Atlantic State University also found that setting aside specific blocks of time helped him make progress; breaking down the project into smaller components saved him from feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project.

Being sensitive to the time of day that is most conducive to creativity and productivity can also be helpful. Ellen Wohl of Colorado State University knows she thinks most clearly in the mornings, and she schedules her most “thought-intensive research” then. She saves routine analyses for other times of day.

Know when to fold ‘em.

Sometimes, being stuck really is a dead end. It may be a sign that you’re asking the wrong questions, you truly have hit an insurmountable barrier, you don’t really care about the research or the outcome, and you need to think about cutting your losses.

As the old cowboy saying goes, “If the horse is dead, dismount.”

Remind yourself why you’re doing this in the first place.

One of the approaches that some people find helpful is to remind themselves of the reasons they undertook the project in the first place. They even make a list: The Top Ten Reasons Why I Started This Project. Remembering the initial motivation, excitement and sense of wonder can be a great catalyst. After all, if we don’t care about our own projects, who else will?


Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

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