The pursuit of excellence in research and writing

October 26, 2015

"Done is better than perfect", they say. But like so many sayings, it's more memorable than it is profound. While it's true that you have to finish your work in order for it to have value to the wider world - and it's true that pursuit of undefined perfection can make some people afraid to produce anything - it's also true that, especially in academia, there are tough standards to be met.

"Done to a standard exceeding the specified requirements is better than perfect" doesn't quite have the same ring to it. "Done to the highest standard possible given the time and resources available", likewise. However cumbersome, these phrases at least acknowledge that just "done" might not be good enough, and that it's OK to take some pride in and care over your work.

I've written before about how some perfectionism is a good thing, provided you know what standard you are aiming for and have some way of assessing your work. But it's also important to develop a sufficiently high level of skill in your research and writing to meet the standards you, or others, set.

There is always room to improve beyond the minimum standard of success

A rock-climbing-problem-solving analogy

About 10 years ago I took up rock-climbing, or more specifically, bouldering. Bouldering involves short climbs without a rope, often called "problems". These problems vary in difficulty; some are as easy as climbing a ladder, others require levels of strength, flexibility and balance at the very limits of human ability.

The problems aren't purely physical though—the more difficult they get, the more you have to think about how to approach them. The aim is to figure out the most efficient way of climbing, as this allows you to climb the hardest routes possible within your physical limits.

If you start with something easy to warm up, then do harder and harder problems, eventually you'll find one you can't do (gravity always wins in the end). What I find interesting is watching how people react when this happens.

Some people just walk away and do something easier, or maybe they try one more time then walk away. Others stay with the problem, trying again and again and adapting until they get it. Some stay with the problem even longer, not moving on until they have done the problem twice (partly to reinforce the pattern of movement, partly because there is always room to improve beyond the minimum standard of success).

By taking this approach consistently over time, you can build up a range of solutions that can be adapted and applied to different problems, while also developing confidence in your ability to overcome difficulty.

Those that walk away from the problem usually end up being reasonably at skilled certain types of climb, but develop a habit of avoiding those that they find more difficult. The limiting factor here is neither talent nor hard work, but attitude in the face of a challenge.

Taking care over the easy stuff

It's not just at the limits of your ability that you can improve, and it's interesting to watch how the best climbers approach easy problems when warming up. If you approach a problem that's easily within your ability, you don't have to be efficient to complete the problem so it's easy to just rush through, warm the muscles and move on to something more difficult. The best, though, tend to slow down and focus on accuracy of basic technique.

Problem solving in research and writing

As you carry out your research or writing, you will continually encounter problems to which the solutions are non-obvious. You will probably spend most of your time in this situation, because the obvious problems don't take long to solve.

How do you react when you face such problems and when your first attempts fail? Do you give up after a couple of attempts? Do you switch to doing something easier? Do you stick to the kind of work you like? Do you check email?

All of these are avoidance responses, when really you should be engaging with the problem with intelligence and and enthusiasm. It's only by applying yourself fully that the problems you face become opportunities to improve.

And how do you react when you succeed? Do you rush on to the next task, or do you just go over it once more, taking the time and care to seek the marginal improvements that, over time, add up to excellence?

And when you do the easy stuff, do you rush, or take time and care to do it as well as you can?

A final note: If you still can't find a solution...

It would be easy to say "never give up, no matter how many times you fall", but even if you stay with the problem and try every solution you can think of, you might not succeed. Some problems might be beyond your current ability, or require resources you don't have, and some may be simply insoluble. In such situations, maintaining a rigid refusal to give up isn't helpful.Instead, you should probably take a step back and consider:

  • Is there something else you need to learn or figure out or practice first?
  • Can the problem be broken down into smaller, simpler steps?
  • Are you just trying the same thing again and again? If you remove this as an option, are there other approaches you may not have seen?
  • Are you just tired?
  • Is there anyone else who knows how to do this, or someone to discuss the problem with?

Finally, consider whether the problem is essential to your research. You may have to give up on some problems (or at least defer them for later in your PhD or your research career). Sometimes you may find that through doing something else, you find a solution to a problem you previously abandoned, but this really only works if you invested enough time and effort to understand the nature of the problem before leaving it.

If you found this post useful, click below to share!

For more detailed guidance and support...

The PhD Academy

Weekly calls with James

You don't have to do it all alone! Get the All Access Pass for weekly group calls and Q&A sessions with James

Online courses

Build your skills and confidence with our detailed video courses. Go at your own pace and get advice and support when you need it

Writing groups

Meet other students online for company and accountability

Support community

Post questions, share resources and connect with other members

Get the book!
PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life

order now on amazon