Gradualism or no Gradualism?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the PhD process and the timeline from the embryonic stage of a project to completion- the thesis. And at the same time the concepts of gradualism versus punctuated evolution keep popping into my head. So I thought there must be some juice to squeeze out of this analogy that presented itself to me.

Gradualism is the notion that change is incremental over time. I think it has become the paradigm through which we are taught to expect change in many aspects of our lives. Growing up, we are encouraged to ‘take one step at a time’ in learning things. We see ourselves and others around us aging day by day, and we are aware that biological changes in our bodies are slowly accumulating to change our appearance from baby to elderly.  Time itself is gradual ; we experience every second as it passes until it becomes an hour, a day , a month, a year… We cannot skip years and suddenly end up in 2100 ( at least not until time travel is invented ;). And gradualistic ideologies can be found embedded in political policies, religious doctrines and so on…

In science, gradualism’s most prominent voice was probably Darwin’s, who argued that evolution of species occured by a slow but ever-present accumulation of changes to adapt to environmental pressures. However, evolutionary theory also has an arguement- known as punctuated equilibrium, whereby speciation is believed to have occured relatively rapidly in geological timeframes, hence explaining the absence of many transitional fossils that gradualism otherwise predicts. This punctuated speciation is accomponied by long periods of inactivity.

But hey, I’m no evolutionary biologists ( although at one time I used to like the idea of studying evolutionary genetics) and I’m not here to teach you about it either! What I do want to think out loud about is the analogies that can be drawn between these two evolutionary theories and the evolution of an individual’s PhD research…

I attended a talk hosted by the Science Innovation Union recently, and the professor giving the talk was quite excited and unashamed to share that during his PhD, he only obtained significant results in the final two weeks. To me, that sounded like an extreme case and rather catastrophic ( catastrophism is another geological concept that I drew on to make this pun here…. I digress :D) . But I completely appreciated him sharing this. It solidified the thought in my mind that result output during research is not linear and not gradualistic.

Having completed more than one year of my PhD at the time of writing this, I understand now that gradualism is not the ideal model to fit to scientific research. I have spent many weeks and months with result statis, troubleshooting and making alterations without impressive outcomes. But then suddenly one day, one thing works and boom, the result is there! Now to me, that sounds very punctuated!

Of course, the effort to get these results is intense and continuous. Perhaps it can be argued that the punctuated research output (PRO) ( I just made that up)  is only possible by a constant input and gradual acquisiton of bits of information and knowledge with each passing day. Can mistakes and failures be considered as making progress in the path to finishing the research story? Yes! I think the actual process of learning during the PhD is very gradual. We learn everday from the literature, from failed experiments, from colleagues, from supervisors etc.

But result output, now that is usually punctuated. In some way, knowing that other researchers also experience PRO is reassuring, especially during times of experimental inertness because there is that inner belief that the there will come a time when the stasis will be over.

To established academics and researchers, what I’ve said here is probably so obvious to them. It’s probably as obvious to them as the sun is hot….

But I think it is worth sharing with early stage scientists or even just students thinking of starting a PhD.  Be ready to experience PRO.

Embrace gradualism in learning but embrace punctuation in research.

Thank you for reading!

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