Problems with Perfection

Something that’s troubled me throughout my PhD is my obsession with achieving perfection. As I touched on in last week’s post about editing my writing, I can get stuck for so long trying to make something ‘perfect’; the ultimate unachievable goal.

It’s not just in my writing this has been a problem. Though actually, for writing, I appreciate this sometimes-irritating part of my personality, as it only improves the finished result! Across all areas of my PhD, tasks have taken me so much longer than they needed to because of my attempts to make things flawless.

The first time I encountered this was way back at the start of my PhD when I was planning experiments. I’d test some things out, run some spiders around, adjust the camera, alter little bits here and there. I wanted to optimise the protocol so I could collect the maximum amount of data in the minimum amount of time, with no opportunity for errors or bad data. I was fretting over this so much that it took ages, and I was losing confidence in myself. My supervisors repeatedly told me to “just collect some data!” so I could play with it and improve the protocol for the following round of data collection. In the end, after many weeks, I did just that, and immediately felt much better. But it wasted a lot of time. I guess the one benefit is that for the next round of data collection, I didn’t have to alter my protocol much, and the data are therefore directly comparable, which is ideal. In the meantime though I wallowed in self-doubt, and for a long time I was pretty miserable.

The next time that happened was when writing code to analyse my data. I’d written code a little bit before my PhD, during one of my rotation projects and at undergrad, so I was familiar with the general principle, but by no means a proficient programmer. I appear to be utterly useless at writing pseudocode too, which doesn’t help… So I’d write my line or section of code, and debug it as I went, line by line, constantly trying to improve it or speed it up. Couple that with a serious case of wanting to learn and do everything myself without any help, and I was working at a snail’s pace. After several meetings with my frustrated supervisor, who just wanted to help me, I eventually relinquished my obsessive control over this area and accepted help – we now have regular meetings to go over code, which has sped things up no end.

I think striving for perfection, on the whole, is a good thing; it tests us, keeps our brains sharp and improves our work. But there is a time to admit that nothing is ever going to be perfect – ‘good enough’ will often do. There are almost always chances to alter something after a deadline or meeting. The first draft you hand in is just that, a draft – it doesn’t have to be perfection itself.

So I think my advice for any prospective PhD student would be just that: don’t be afraid to aspire to perfection in your work, but recognise when just having some work to discuss with your supervisor will do… And always accept help with coding!

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like: The Magic of Deadlines




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