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Why does my research look so different to my colleagues’?

Although the nature of PhD research and study is very different from other taught degrees, and our individual progress and results vary widely, it is still common for PhD students to compare the progress and results of their work with others.

It can be helpful to talk regularly to your peers to learn new perspectives and ideas, or to debate theoretical or methodological approaches. However, comparing the specifics of your research process with each other can often end up being more harmful than helpful.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to determine your own best rate of progress, without feeling the pressure to compare your work with your PhD colleagues.


Discover what works best for your project


Remember that every PhD project, including the way that you plan and execute that research, will be unique to you.

After consulting with your supervisor(s), you will make your own decisions about the methodological and theoretical approaches you will take for your project. Then, the actual process of doing the research will unfold and progress at the rate that is most effective and sensible for you. The methods you choose will affect your data collection in diverse ways that can differ significantly from colleagues who are using other approaches.

Your research will unfold at the rate that it needs to, and produce the results that will come from the methods and approaches that you have chosen. Even if you are researching something similar to someone else, the data and results you get from your labwork or fieldwork may differ significantly. This is not unusual – how you execute your labwork/fieldwork, the methodological approaches that you engage and the theoretical perspectives and tools you bring to your data analysis can produce very dissimilar results and conclusions from someone else’s research.

This does not mean that one person’s research is more ‘correct’ than another. This variability occurs across all forms of research, which is why there are such contrasting debates and differing schools of thought in all disciplines. What is most important is to ensure that your own research is executed with rigour, good ethics and consistency. Be sure that you can defend and justify the decisions you have taken throughout your research. You should be able to explain why you did what you did, and how these decisions have led to your unique results and findings.


Focus on your own journey


With all good intention, some colleagues or friends may try to offer advice and suggest ‘better’ ways for you to do your research. Listen to their advice and consider if it might work for the circumstances of your research. If it does not, you do not have to feel bad for not working and researching in the same way, or at the same pace that they do. It is very important to find a working rhythm and a research style that is optimal for your academic progress and growth – even if that looks very different from anyone else’s journey.

It is also important to note that just because someone is further ahead or appears to work faster than you, it does not necessarily mean they are a ‘better’ researcher. People work at very different paces in the PhD, and can produce very different quality of work at each stage.

In all respects, it is always more useful to discuss your plans and progress with your supervisor, than to compare with others. Set milestones with your supervisors that you can realistically work towards – for example, think about what you can accomplish by the end of each year; or what analytical tools would be best for your set of data.

As long as you meet the official deadlines and meet the requirements for a PhD, it does not matter whether you took longer to work through one specific phase during the research, or whether you have different methods and results from someone else. Stay on track with your supervisor’s guidance, focus on your own journey and let others manage their own.

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