Research is tough. It takes dedication, critical thinking, and a whole lot of perseverance to conduct an experiment- and that’s when everything works correctly. Once things stop going according to plan… that’s when a researcher is really tested.
Creative thinking. A bit of MacGyvering. Flexibility.
These are extremely important skills every researcher must use when carrying out an experiment that’s not going as expected.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time in the OTS Tropical Biology course, it’s that there’s one other skill that’s needed to make it as a researcher without going crazy; one that we don’t really think about much or like to acknowledge.
Knowing when to quit.
Quitting isn’t something most researchers like to do, especially when it comes to the experiments we are especially attached to.
“But I’ve put so much effort into this!” “Without it I’ll have to rethink my entire dissertation!” you say.
And those are valid complaints. But, as Kenny Rogers says, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” And sometimes, you have to fold to help yourself in the long run.
I’ve learned that lesson quite well during the last (almost) six weeks. With only three days to design, conduct, and analyze a research project, you have to learn quick how to judge what is and is not working. Nowhere did I learn the importance of quitting so well as at La Selva. After fighting rain for most of the day, I had to accept the reality that my bees weren’t willing to fly (which made examining their flight distances rather difficult). In such a situation, quitting and finding a new project was the best thing I could do. (I did get to give some of them pretty paint jobs before switching projects, though….)
That’s not to say quitting is always the answer.
Having things go wrong is a part of doing research; you’re always going to run into unexpected and daunting problems. Most of the time, persevering and taking the time to find a creative way around the problem is the best course of action. But sometimes, trying to complete an experiment is like ramming your head against the wall- the only thing you’ll get out of it is a headache.
It’s not always easy to distinguish between the two types of difficulties you’ll encounter- those that can be solved with some innovative thinking and those that will never be solved. That’s part of what makes ‘doing science’ so difficult.
Hopefully, knowing when to quit isn’t a skill you’ll have to exercise often. But when you find yourself in a situation where nothing seems to be going right, no matter what you do, remember that sometimes the best way to solve your problem is to bow out gracefully and move on to bigger and better things.
In other words…