Chaos theory can reveal some surprising lessons for new dissertation students. In the first post in our 7-part butterfly effect series, I share three insights that will help your research get off to a good start. Let’s first dig into this chaotic story.
The unexpected birth of a theory
A softly-spoken MIT professor, much loved by his students, catapulted science in an unanticipated direction. Some sixty years ago, Edward Lorenz entered some numbers into a weather model, then pottered off to grab a coffee while his model ran.
Returning to the lab ten minutes later, he discovered the unexpected. The weather pattern, the model’s output, proved dramatically different from any he’d seen before.
All Lorenz had done differently was to absentmindedly round off one of the model’s twelve variables from .506127 to .506. That’s it. Yet this tiny alteration—.000127 to be exact—drastically changed the weather pattern.
Since his remarkable finding, Lorenz, with the help of many others, carved out the field of chaos theory.
Today, chaos aids our understanding of many phenomena. From traffic congestion to star formations, it is also the stuff of legends. Commonly known as the ‘butterfly effect’, many are familiar with the story that a flap of a butterfly’s wing, let’s say in Brazil, can cause a tornado in Texas.
But what has Lorenz’s story, and chaos theory, got to do with your dissertation? How can this vignette help?
The dissertation experience is prone to chaos
Like many entering a theme park, students often feel a heady mix of excitement and trepidation when starting their research. It’s likely to be the first significant research project undertaken by undergraduates. For masters and doctoral students: the stakes are higher, the end goal further from sight.
Doing independent research, particularly for newcomers, can be unsettling. Largely left to their own devices, students forego the familiar comforts of a structured course environment. Think lectures, seminars and regular contact hours.
Under their own steam, students have to quickly get to grips with the literature, navigate it with confidence, and select and successfully pursue a specific course of research.
Along the way, students come up against what many consider pain points—‘threshold concepts’. According to Leslie Schwartzman, this occurs when students step ‘into the unknown, which initiates a rupture in knowing’.
Crossing these thresholds are challenging, but doing so is when ‘real learning’ occurs.
Coming face to face with a learning threshold can strike at any point. They can happen at the outset—a student struggling to make connections across a growing pile of journal articles, identify a research gap, and pinpoint a research question. Or further down the road—performing statistics, finding meaning in results, or struggling to write up.
Yet hot on the heels of each learning breakthrough come the joyful ‘aha moments’, not to mention the relief and pride felt at submission and completion.
How can Lorenz’s butterfly effect help students avoid chaos?
Let’s get real. We can’t eradicate chaos. Instead, our butterfly effect blog series provides vital pointers to prevent disorder, wherever possible, and how to bring about order when chaos rears its head. Here are three ‘takeaway’ insights to get you off to a good start:
#1. Keep your eyes wide open
One of the best ways to avoid chaos is to expect the unexpected and prepare for the inevitable ups and downs. Start thinking from the outset about what could go wrong. And then put plans in place to avert unnecessary chaos. For instance:
- Always back up – research notes, journal papers and data as you go along;
- Keep data secure – don’t risk privacy concerns by leaving your data unprotected – encryption and password protection is best;
- Develop healthy habits – research is demanding, so keep taking breaks even if your workload is high;
- Build boredom busting techniques – every job has its boring bits – take data entry for instance. Find creative ways to keep alert that don’t drain your motivation;
- Understand your stress response – and invest in techniques, such as meditation, going for a run, dancing in the kitchen (or whatever works for you). Don’t limit this tools to times of stress. Making them part of your daily routine will stave off, or reduce stress, when the bumps on the road inevitably arrive.
#2. Treat mistakes as powerful learning opportunities
Mistakes are inevitable. But in Lorenz’s case, a seemingly minor mistake led to a breakthrough that resulted in a theory that still stands the test of time.
Mistakes often prove to be genuine learning opportunities in the long run. So while it’s difficult not to react in the moment, it’s essential to take time out and proactively seek out the lessons. When we do, the story of our lives often turns out for the better.
There again, read the quote below…
Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of othersBrandon Mull, Fableheaven
This quote brings us back to takeaway #1. We can avoid many mistakes if we put in the legwork beforehand. Find out what could go wrong and adapt accordingly.
#3. You’re not alone
While many frequently paint independent research as a lonely experience, it doesn’t have to be. You’re part of a community.
Lorenz was not single-handedly responsible for chaos theory. And neither will you be in your research area. When searching through the literature, you’ll find many voices in your field. All you’re doing is adding to the conversation.
Students sometimes feel they have to make a completely original contribution single-handedly. Yet, there’s no need to put so much needless pressure on yourself.
Instead, just like Lorenz, think of your theoretical contribution, however small, as taking part in a research conversation. And that’s the topic of our second post in our butterfly effect blog series.
As a new blog, we’d love to hear your comments below. For instance, what’s your experience of research chaos? Or the journey to getting to the ‘aha’ moments…
As you’re here…
Our Applied Self Leadership Course shares how you can deep-dive through painful learning thresholds, flourish in the face of inevitable chaos as well as increase the number and quality of ‘aha’ moments. That is, our course helps students shift from surviving to thriving, from start to finish and beyond your dissertation.