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8 Things to Do When You’re Stuck In the Black Hole of Your PhD

During the first year of life as a grad student, you’re supposed to do a literature survey on your topic, and discover a hole in the research which you can turn into a suitable thesis. Somewhere in your third year, you realize to your dismay that the hole is actually a Black Hole with a gravitational field so strong you can’t escape from…

So here are 8 things to do when you’re stuck in the black hole of your research;

1. Look at your problem from a different angle
I’m not asking you to step onto a desk and look down at your problem statement; though, you never know, that might work. Change your perspective about your problem. Instead of going down the same path you’ve been working on in the last few months or so, try to forge a new path and see where that gets you.

2. Simplify and go back to the fundamentals.
Steve Jobs was a big advocate for simplifying. One of his famous quotes is, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Try to simplify your problem statement and then build it up from its skeleton. Most importantly, go back to the fundamentals of your topic. Do you know everything there is to know about the fundamentals? A lot of times, when we’re so deep in a PhD, we tend to glaze over the fundamentals because we’ve encountered them a bit too much in the past. But being in the middle of our PhD gives us a new pair of glasses to look at them. We get to ask smarter questions about them, and our understanding of those fundamentals. How did the fundamentals come into being? What basic assumptions were made? Are they correct or is there room for improvement.

3. Have coffee with friends from different fields.
So when we’re stuck, sometimes we just procrastinate. I don’t know the logic behind it; maybe we take the whole the-subconscious-mind-is-still-working-on-the-problem idea too seriously or maybe we’re too inspired by Archimedes’ Eureka moment. Instead of just relying on Mr. Subconscious Mind, another thing is to have coffee sessions with friends from different fields. Research and development is all about creativity. Creativity is all about playing around with ideas in your head, blending them, and coming up with something new. So you need to be bombarded by as many brilliant ideas as possible. One way could be talking to friends from different fields about their research, and if you’re a loner and like to keep it that way, then listen to TED talks and podcasts. You never know, maybe as an engineer, you’d be able to adopt an idea from the medical field.

If you exercise regularly, you’ll realize how exercise helps you come up with a lot of brilliant ideas. Sometimes it gets a bit annoying because you need to stop the treadmill to take note of it on your phone. A lot of studies have been made to show that exercise helps enhance cognitive functions. One such study[1] shows that exercise highly activates the hippocampus – a part of the brain that’s crucial for learning and memory. So keep exercising, not just for your physical wellbeing, but also for your mental wellbeing.

5.Read novels
I know a lot of PhD students find it really hard to read non-work-related material because they do a lot of reading as part of their PhD, so they’d rather lounge in front of Youtube at the end of a long working day. However, a study conducted by researchers in Emory University titled, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain’ [2] found that reading novels enhanced brain connectivity and improved brain function.
The researchers found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function.

6.Take notes of everything
If you’re sustaining an inflow of ideas by talking to people or watching TED talks, keep a written record of it all, as you never know when you might want to come back to it. Unfortunately, focusing on a PhD tends to switch on a filter in our minds as something being relevant to our research or not relevant, but when it comes to creativity…every idea that crosses your path is relevant.

7.Switch to Diffuse Mode of Thinking
As suggested in a coursera course called Learning How to Learn, you need to switch to the diffuse mode of thinking occasionally instead of keeping your focused mode of thinking perpetually on. A famous scientist who did that was Thomas Edison who would nap in his chair carrying ball bearing in each hand. When he fell asleep, the ball bearing would hit the saucers underneath and he would be in a state of hypnagogia – between wakefulness and asleep – where he would write down his ideas.

8.Stay Positive and Keep your Motivation Up
Getting stuck really sucks up your motivation levels. It’s very easy to get into a spiral of doom of frustration when you’re stuck, so you have to do everything you can to stay positive and keep your motivation level up. This could be done by reminding yourself why you’re in a PhD program to begin with – maybe you want to contribute to science because you’ve been a geek for so long. It could also be by visiting the counseling office in your university to talk things through with a therapist. Don’t let your emotions and negative thinking get the best of you.
The main goal of all this is to keep your brain in a receptive state, continuously chewing on ideas – even if they’re not relevant to your research – so when the big idea hits, it takes off like a rocket and doesn’t die out like a smoldering cigarette butt that eventually gets stamped on.

Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

[1]      “Why Do I Think Better a er I Exercise?,” Scientific American Mind, 2013. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 20-Jun-2002].

[2] Berns Gregory S., Blaine Kristina, Prietula Michael J., and Pye Brandon E.. Brain Connectivity. December 2013, 3(6): 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

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