Positive constraints

December 10, 2018

Research requires resources.

Whatever your subject of study, your access to equipment, money, information and technical support will put some constraints on what you're able to do.

You might think that the more resources you have, the better, but sometimes constraints can be helpful.

Constraints can help you make decisions by ruling out some courses of action (there isn't enough money to buy that equipment, there isn't enough time to carry out that experiment).

Constraints can also make you more creative. When you can't do things the way you would, this can force you to get creative; to go beyond the obvious and look for another way forward.

And, sometimes, they can help you learn. During my own PhD I spent several months fixing an old piece of equipment that was going to be thrown away.

For a long time, I blamed my lack of progress on having to work with obsolete kit, but the constraint was a blessing in disguise. It was slow, inconvenient work, but because I had to take the thing apart and rebuild it countless times, I ended up with far more knowledge and skill than I would have by pushing a button on a brand new machine.

I had to learn to improvise—a skill that would be essential during the rest of my PhD and my postdoc projects.

Constraints are a challenge, but they are necessary. It's by accepting them and working with them that progress is made.

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