When I first began working as an undergraduate researcher, I found myself lost within the topic I was studying. Prior to the summer, I did not have any exposure to the area, which meant I had to climb the steep learning curve that blocked me from being able to contribute.
It was frustrating. For a long a time, I wasn’t sure if I was even going to make it to the other side. I would stare at pages of a textbook and ask myself what in the world was going on. How was I supposed to help with research if I couldn’t even get the basics of the textbook?
The textbook seemed unyielding. It felt like I may have hit my upper limit in physics. I just couldn’t see any way to move forward with the ideas. I would spend hours stuck at one spot, angry that I couldn’t do things that seemed to others to be obvious.
Suffice to say, it was a rough period.
It was my job though, so I persevered. I didn’t know if I would ever truly understand, but I was determined to keep on working at it. No one would be able to claim that I didn’t put in the time and effort.
Slowly, I started to glean understanding from those pages. At the very least, I would recognize bits of mathematics here and there, and it would help me keep going. I got unstuck. Each bit of progress was hard-won, but the satisfaction from learning was a strong motivator for me. I wanted to get to the bottom of the topic.
The first summer as a research assistant was difficult, there’s no doubt about it. One factor was that I hadn’t even taken courses in the subject I was researching, so I had to learn everything from the ground up. This included all of the mathematical theory in addition to the physics (I was working in gravitational theory). I don’t think it changed the fact that beginning was difficult, but it did make for a steeper hill to climb.
Throughout that summer, I would often feel overwhelmed. When I couldn’t understand a step in a derivation, I would beat myself up, saying, “Why can’t you figure this out, Jeremy? You’re supposed to be good at this!” I would get frustrated with myself, and when this happened learning became even more difficult.
Reflecting over this first year of research, I realize that I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. Yes, I had difficulties, but these were to be expected. Getting into research is difficult, and having to go through background material first means you have to spend even more effort before you get to where you want to be. I didn’t cut myself enough slack then, and it’s something I wish I did differently.
I’m reminded of something one of the other students I worked with told me when I first started. He had already worked in this research group for a few summers, so he had gone through the same process I was going through. He said, “Don’t try to force things. If you’re studying a topic and it’s just not sinking in, don’t keep on working harder to get it. You will just tire yourself out. Instead, take a break and let your mind recharge before coming back to the problem.”
Of course, he was correct. Since that first summer, I’ve started giving myself some slack when I work. If an idea from a paper I’m reading isn’t sinking in, I don’t just stare at it for hours on end. I’ll give myself a break and then come back when I’m recharged. This might seem like wasting time, but the alternative is just as bad. Staring at a research paper looks productive, but if you’re reading the same lines over and over again without understanding, then it’s not useful.
Above all, I try to remind myself that feeling overwhelmed is normal. Doing research involves pushing new ideas to the forefront of what has been done before. It’s not easy, and it requires effort. It’s expected that you won’t breeze through it. Therefore, having setbacks and roadblocks is just a natural event while being a researcher.
If you are beginning to do research for the first time, don’t worry if you aren’t getting everything immediately. This doesn’t mean you are stupid. Give yourself some compassion, and take a break to let your mind recharge.
It takes time to absorb new ideas. Sometimes, it feels like you will never understand. That’s mostly an illusion. If you spend enough time working in a subject, you will gain some understanding. It might be slow, but it will come.