This week in academic research was filled with thought-provoking activities and conversations that I couldn’t wait to share with you. The best part was that it was a fun week, not very typical for an academic researcher.
My thesis advisor proposed that we leave the seriousness of paper reviews for a day in exchange for a nature walk. We had no idea what the plan was, the only thing we were instructed to do was bring a water bottle with us. My labmates were anxious. I was excited, as usual.
The activity was that we needed to fill a bowl of water as much as we could and walk up and down a hill with the bowl. The instruction was clear: we needed to walk with the bowl and avoid any spilling of water. It seemed like a very easy activity, but my first question was “what does this have to do with research?” Is this a race? Nothing more was said, and we were told to start.
While going up the hill, with my bowl of water in one hand, I began to think about the physical nature of water. I thought that no matter how hard I tried to balance the water in the bowl, some water would still end up spilling from the bowl. So I decided that my plan was simple. I would walk up the hill, pay no attention to the water and the bowl, and just enjoy the scenery. That’s exactly what I did. The result was bad, but the experience was revealing.
By the time I was heading back down the hill, I had forgotten what the goal was. I arrived first at the finish line while my other colleagues trailed behind me. Some showed frustration and anxiety. Others were too serious, holding their bowl of water with both hands. So many different situations for a simple activity.
The end result was that I spilled half of my water, while all my other colleagues kept their bowls almost full. I panicked at first but then realized that I had learned a lot of valuable lessons from this simple activity.
Since my bowl had the least water left in it, I was asked to share my experience. I explained to everyone that the activity brought back childhood memories. We used to play a similar game that required a lot of focus and balancing — lime and spoon.
I went on to explain that it wasn’t a frustrating activity as others had remarked and that I had enjoyed it because I didn’t pay too much attention to the end result. Instead, I focused on the experience itself.
Another interesting thing that happened was that I knew that I was going to spill some water from the bowl because that is how water operates — you just cannot fight against the physical behavior of water. Water always tries to follow a particular pattern, which is always the same regardless of the situation. Water always finds a balance.
So I was explaining to my other colleagues that this natural phenomenon we observed from the water in the bowl is very similar to how a paper is structured. So naturally, there is something to learn about paper writing and the activity of balancing water in a bowl.
In paper writing, there is a specific format that we all need to follow, and there is nothing wrong with that. No matter how many students complain about it. Just as there was nothing wrong with how the water behaved in the bowl — it kept spilling no matter how hard I tried to keep it inside the bowl.
As it regards to paper writing, the first mistake all students do is that they try to follow a strict sequential format, and this makes it difficult to properly write a scientific paper. In my paper writing, I tend to work with and around this strict format rather than obsessively follow it. Instead of following the sequential order, I move around the different sections of the paper and write without following any particular order. This allows for free flow of ideas from the mind to the paper. It’s very important!
If you follow a strict format when writing your papers, you tend to regularly get stuck. It happens all the time. So my suggestion for beginner researchers is that you work on different sections of your paper first and then later on work to organize your paper. This helps for when you are stuck in paper writing.
So the “balancing water in a bowl” activity reminded me of paper writing and how we should look at objects and life situations that follow a specific routine or format. You work with and around it instead of strictly following its structure. You avoid frustration and you are more open-minded.
See you next week for more stories and guides about academic writing.