Campus Life the secret life of researchers

The emotional rollercoaster of literature review

As suspenseful and terrifying as reading a horror novel

Imagine this: you have a brilliant idea, a question that no one has ever dared asked, a new way to study the cosmos, a ground-breaking theory.

Well, it’s probably brilliant and groundbreaking, unless someone else already did it.

Enter the literature review. Literature reviews are both exciting and terrifying. Science is all about building on the shoulders of giants, so figuring out how and what the great minds before you did can be exhilarating. I always learn so much in the process and think about new ways to approach problems. Sometimes I find an easier way to approach something or an idea for a better question to ask. The literature is the compendium of scientific progress, and I love taking part in the sacred tradition of reviewing it as part of the scientific process.

However, once I have my heart set on a question — and the fact that I am going to be the one to solve it — it can become a scary process too. Searching the literature can lead to great stuff — stuff that suggests why my question is important, stuff that helps push my work forward — but it can also lead to uncovering stuff that suggests your question has already been answered or your method is deeply flawed (there is a PhD Comic that describes the sinking moment when you’ve found out someone has already done your thesis —

For one problem I worked on, it started innocently. I wanted to find out how to measure the volume of complicated planktonic shapes. I read through paper after paper, tried new search terms, looked through journals far outside my comfort zone, and came up with zilch. After a while, I decided to start working on a solution myself. At first, it was half and half — I worked on my own solution and checked back in the meantime to see if there was an off-the-shelf solution I had missed somehow. However, as time passed, I spent more time on my solution and became more invested and excited about my approach. And overnight, searching the literature took on this new pallor; I was at once desperately trying to find the paper that already did it, but secretly hoping against hope that it didn’t exist.

As time went on and we prepped it for publication, I was almost filled with dread to keep on searching. What if a new paper had just come out and they’d already done the same thing? Would I really want to know? But as a scientist, as much as it might hurt, my answer is always yes. In the end, I never ended up finding anyone who had already approached the problem like I did, and only yesterday I met someone who recognized my name because they used my method (I promise I didn’t do a dance of joy), but the experience reminded me of how hard it is to be objective as a scientist.

So, the moral of the story is — when you see a graduate student reading papers and looking sad — try to be sympathetic. It’s much more difficult than it looks!