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Striving for progress, not perfection

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Striving for progress, not perfection

These past couple of weeks have been pretty quiet on the PhD front. I made a list of things to do in my last meeting with my supervisor and have since done them all. So, I’m just trundling along until things fall into place for me to progress. I worked much more efficiently than I anticipated!

Interestingly, I was having a conversation on the weekend with someone who did a humanities PhD and we were comparing experiences. The thing that has stayed in my mind is that for a humanities PhD, you are your own limiting factor a lot of the time. It’s up to you to do the reading/analysis/methods/write up etc. On the other hand, for a science/engineering PhD, there’s a lot of relying on others because it would take multiple lifetimes to gain all the skills needed for the whole research project.

Sometimes, I wonder whether I could do a physiotherapy and/or prosthetics degree alongside my PhD, because then, I could work on the prosthetic socket design and look at the impact on rehabilitation from the clinical perspective. Perhaps that would help me reach my perfect solution more quickly? Obviously, this is not going to happen, and naturally, if I used myself for everything (if I even had all those skills!), my research would be prone to much bias and would lack robustness. Although for interest, it would be great to learn the clinical side of what I’m doing, more formally.

As things have been a little slow, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection and some writing. I feel like I say that a lot really… lots of planning and reflection… but I think it’s better in the long run. I’m really feeling comfortable with my project now: it’s MY project, I know what I want to do with it, and I’ve got a real grasp on the specifics of why I’m doing/planning what I am.

When I first started, I was determined to solve all problems and by the end of my PhD, I would have a fully functioning prototype of a perfectly fitting prosthetic socket. I was going to achieve perfection (Sometimes, one has to giggle at their own naivety and appreciate the progress in understanding a concept over a relatively small period of time!).

I’ve come to realize that actually, in the course of one 3–4-year PhD, perfection is out of the question. Not because I’m being pessimistic, but because I’m working on a project that is really still in its infancy, and trying to aim for perfection at this stage would be a fruitless task. How can we achieve perfection without understanding?

The whole process of my assessment and the aftermath of it has been eye-opening for me, and I’m still figuring out new bits and pieces, and it all feels like it’s coming together more and more. Whereas before, I felt like every new thing I figured out would cause my aims to diverge.

Getting the experience and knowledge of a variety of end users and clinicians, which allow for different perspectives and testing opportunities, is allowing me to make meaningful progress in this area of research. Whilst I always have on my mind that I want to get a solution to help people, actually in the long term, it’s better to take the time and make progress little by little, starting with understanding and then moving on to the perfected solution. There are many established companies and start-ups manufacturing “solutions” to a problem that no one actually understands well, so really, are any of them the “perfection” we so often strive for? Taking that step back will (hopefully) lead to a more successful solution in the future.

Shruti Turner (@ShrutiTurner) is a PhD Researcher at Imperial College London. This story was published on October 6, 2018, on Shruti’s blog, Shruti’s PhD (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.

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Published on: Jun 04, 2019

PhD Researcher, Imperial College London, having previously done an MSc Biomedical Engineering and BEng Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Southampton
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