Research is “Me-Search”

Research is “Me-Search”

For the last two months, I have been working (almost) exclusively on my Master’s thesis. As a research layman, I had the chance to learn most of the methodologies from scratch. This taught me some of the most valuable lessons in my six years of studies. None of these lessons has to do with what I’m researching but rather with the process of doing so.

Your Topic Finds You

I had quite a hard time finding the “perfect” topic for this six month project. I was looking for something that is challenging, interesting, cutting-edge, future-oriented, … and much more. Well, such a topic does surely not exist. Besides that, I had computer science that I excluded in the first place (e.g. API documentation, Oh irony). While searching for a topic I quickly realized that there is a need for research in basically everything. Further, I found that research methodologies don’t have to sound like this: “Using Artificial General Intelligence to Improve Retraining Machine Learning Models”. A good thesis can also just do: “Qualitative Analysis of Developer Needs in Agile Development”. Allowing myself more degrees of freedom I quickly found an interesting topic with the help of advisor and professor.

Research requires Deep Work

Researchers often work at the limits of their mental capabilities to deal with hard problems. I’m sure that my scientific problems are as hard as those of “real” researchers but I’m also sure that the Master’s thesis is among the mentally most demanding works I ever did. Basically, I had to classify and cluster qualitative data with the research questions and existing literature in mind. It turns out this is hard if you get distracted by other parts of your thesis that might be concerned by your findings. Seems like a perfect use case for “Deep Work”. Cal Newport wrote a book about it. It is a methodology to explore the limits of your concentration. It helps dealing with distraction and the “deepness” of concentration you can reach. Just recently, I started working with more of the “Deep Work” principles in mind (more about this in a separate blog post).

Master Your Self-Organization

The thesis is a six-month project which is quite long considering that you are doing almost the entire work. I generally take productivity very serious (http://arif-cerit.de/wp/general/time-management-surprisingly-easy/). So, I also took this opportunity to reflect the way I organize myself. There are a couple of elements that I refined during the last couple of weeks:

  1. Find a proper place for your thoughts. You will have lots of them while researching so make sure they are organized.
  2. Schedule time for your hardest tasks. That’s where you will work deep.
  3. Do something other than the thesis. Not focusing on your thesis is almost as important as focusing on it.
  4. Use metrics to reflect on your performance. I want to know whether my feeling of productiveness matches the numbers.
  5. Build some artificial pressure. The deadline is quite far away but you will definitely regret procrastination. Make your own deadlines.

Divide (a lot!) and Conquer Research

In the beginning it is very intimidating to see the finished work of other people. If you see your friends’ finished 80-page thesis, you feel the sheer amount of work waiting for you. This is probably the #1 thought that gets you demotivated. There is no doubt that it is a lot of work. But at the same time, the thesis is a structured project and the work can be divided into packages that can be finished in just days. Starting with your research questions and methods you can create an initial outline and work off the chapters step by step. Even if the chapters might still seem big, they also contain lots of small work packages. The way I scope my work packages they seem doable in a day: “Code the interview of participant X”, “Summarize the findings for category A, B, and C”, …

Last Project

For many graduate students the Master’s thesis is the last university project. Thinking back to my six years of studying Information Systems, I appreciate the student’s life much more now that I’m about to finish it. Surprisingly, that’s something that gave me more drive in my thesis.
It’s not only the last big project, but also the last phase of the best time.

Enjoy your thesis! 🙂