Jenny Beth Johnson: Finding your focus

By Jenny Beth Johnson.  Posted February 28, 2014.

The biggest challenge for me in graduate school has been finding a focus and maintaining motivation on my chosen research topic.  After spending hours, days, months, and years researching a single topic, burnout can easily occur.  The following five points have helped me immensely over the past five years.

  • Read, read, and read.  Not only should you read journal articles from peer reviewed journals, you should also read other news and industry articles.  You never know when something will spark a question that will become your passion.
  • Draft research questions and potential methods for a research study.  This stage will help you to determine if the study is feasible regarding the resources you have available.  It will also bring to light who you will need to ask for help, how much time and money it will take, and if you have the knowledge to be able to complete the study.  This stage could also help guide you to focus only on a certain phenomenon or set of variables, greatly enhancing your study.
  • Step back and take time away.  To regain a sense of motivation and increased focus on your topic, sometimes it is best to take time away from the topic.  This may include a couple of hours or even a week until you feel refreshed to tackle the topic and concentrate on current issues.
  • Tackle the topic head on.  After a period of time away from the topic, sit down, set both short term and long term goals for the research topic, and put the plan into action.  This may require you to force yourself to sit in a library and hammer things out. 
  • If you are stuck, create bullet points.  To help with writer’s block, I have been known to write bullet points instead of full sentences.  This helped me to get ideas, or even partial ideas, out on to the paper so they are not forgotten.  Later, I would go back and write a sentence addressing the bullet point, which was a lot easier to do once the idea was thought through.

Remember that research projects, theses, and dissertations are written one word, one sentence, and one paragraph at a time. It is possible to walk away with your sanity!