Success in research depends on many factors other than just talent.
One major factor is the academic environment in which you work, and the way you interact with your colleagues.
Why environment matters
There is a huge difference between undergraduate study and postgraduate research. You have to think in different ways, because you are conducting original research rather than learning an established curriculum.
If you are surrounded by other researchers on a daily basis, you can learn a huge amount from the conversations around you as to how researchers think.
You also have people to talk to about your own research, people with a vast range of expertise you can tap into, or people to bounce ideas off.
Breakthroughs often occur when you make connections between previously disconnected ideas.
If you have ever watched an episode of House M.D., you will have seen the scene near the end of every episode where Dr. Wilson makes a comment unrelated to the case which triggers the flash of inspiration just before the final commercial break.
It’s the connection of previously unrelated ideas that’s the key to solving the case, and it often happens by accident.
A healthy environment for generating ideas
In a healthy academic department, people meet for coffee every day. People throw ideas around and ask questions. People take an interest in others’ research and help each other out.
In a healthy environment, there should be enough trust that you can admit when you don’t know the answer, or to ask a stupid question or suggest a crazy idea.
In a healthy environment, this is an informal interaction… a weekly research group meeting rarely allows for the same freedom of discussion.
The biggest mistake…
The biggest mistake you can make is to try to do everything on your own, and never discus ideas with other people (see the 10 commandments for PhD failure).
If you are doing a distance PhD, then you don’t have the same opportunity for academic interaction, so you have to make extra effort to seek it out, whether that’s through more regular contact with a supervisor or other students.
Do you have a healthy academic environment?
And if not, what are you going to do to create one?