doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.19 Published online 11 February 2016

How to overcome research rut


Doing science is ‘cool’ as researchers get to do interesting things, come up with ideas and solutions to problems in creative ways. It’s all the more compelling when results are promising. But when these bright things don’t happen, there’s every chance that a researcher might end up in a research rut. Perhaps the scientific question was not framed well, or the experiment is coming undone, or more importantly, the results are not promising enough. 

Nature India talks to people who went through such pangs and can offer authoritative advice on how to overcome research rut.

Milind G Watve

Like his peers, Milind G Watve, a professor of biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, gets stuck once a while in his research work. “Sometimes it is short lived if we are particularly lucky. But at other times it goes on for years.” 

What is striking, however, is his personal reason behind such rut. “For me, the most common (but not the only) cause of getting stuck is that my thinking is too different from mainstream thinking.” He says people often find it hard to accept his ‘different’ views, despite the fact that they are backed by sound concepts, good data and a good scientific argument. 

Watve says getting funded and getting published at the same time is difficult. “It is hard to publish good science if you are an off-beat thinker. The good thing is that you know your product is good and the bad thing is you fail to understand why many people don't like good science.”

C. S. Unnikrishnan

Watve has found two solutions to overcome such research rut. He focuses on teaching so that he can spend more time with undergraduates and always works on multiple things. “Young minds keep you fresh and provide new questions to wonder on. This makes you forget the frustrations of research. Working on many things together means when one gets stuck, another keeps you going.”

Nobel Laureate physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s philosophy to turn towards superior creativity when faced with rut is what inspires C. S. Unnikrishnan, a professor in the department of high energy physics at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. “He (Chandrasekhar) once told me how to deal with rut. He said he did not care because he was reading Newton's Principia!”

Unnikrishnan, who has been developing a paradigm for dynamics and relativity called Cosmic Relativity, says there is no occasion for internal rut intellectually since there is mounting empirical evidence in his field of work. “The rut is outside, with incompetent science managers and the tendency to succeed as commercial science workers.” 

Dipankar Chatterji

The overriding misconception among policy makers, he says, is that remarkable researchers are most suitable as directors, even though they might not have any management experience of dealing with people, funds or infrastructure, let alone have a vision. “The results are often pathetic,” he says adding there’s also an “underlying, almost colonial, subservience to the West, which blocks freedom and courage of original thought”.

Many times the stumbling blocks are financial, administrative or family-related, says Dipankar Chatterji, a professor in the molecular biophysics unit of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “Whatever be the case, one can get out of the struggle with help from mentors and colleagues. The worst rut is, of course, when experiments do not work and researchers don’t get meaningful results for years together.” 

Chatterji says the best way to counter rut is to go back to the drawing board and start the experiments from scratch. Reading basic text and heavy teaching engagements can also rejuvenate researchers at such times, he says.

James Chelliah

James P. Clement Chelliah, a faculty fellow at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore, says critical planning of an experiment, especially for students or post-docs, could prevent researchers from falling into ruts. 

“I noticed that many students do not plan their next day’s experiment properly and jump into it as soon as they come to the lab. They tend to make mistakes while doing the experiment,” he says. 

It is also important for principal investigators to follow-up the progress of the experiment every two days with the students or postdocs, especially if they have just started the lab. “In addition, speaking to colleagues about experiments or techniques may help researchers not get into a rut in the first place,” he adds.