Have you ever walked into your monstrous walk-in closet and wondered, “Hm, what can I wear?”

Or, as in that LG commercial, where the guy stands in front of the multiple-door refrigerator and can’t seem to find what he’s looking for.

For many graduate students, trying to establish an appropriate theoretical framework or narrowly define a research problem falls into the Can’t Figure Out category.

There are too many options and, to the uninitiated, it is much easier to take the big picture than to keep narrowing the options until it becomes a trickle.

In Grad school, that’s exactly what is expected of you… keep on narrowing…

You’ve likely heard your professor or adviser say exasperatedly,

“That’s not narrow enough! Go back and try again.”

Week after week, you try and try, but never seem to get “there.”

When you hit that stress point, you know it’s time to take a break (or a trip back in history)…

Imagine what it must have been like panning for gold in California 200-plus years ago… or painstakingly sifting for tin in Malaysia’s Klang Valley in the mid-1800s… or wandering around the hills of Britain’s Cornwall looking for metal…

If you think it’s tough trying to narrow your research question, or deciding what you should “do” for your thesis or dissertation, try this…

Go to the Dollar Store (or, if you’re in Asia, a two-dollar store such as Daiso) — or dig around in your kitchen — and assemble a shallow pan, a sieve, and a large bowl (or a small pail).

Grab your sunglasses and hat (or cap) and let’s go outdoors for the next hour.

If you live where there’s sand, clay, gravel, mud, or have access to a mix of those, fill your bowl or pail with that. Scoop or pour some of that mix into your sieve and place the shallow pan beneath the sieve. Ideally, the sieve should sit nicely on top of the pan.

Pour water slowly into the sieve, and see the mud or sand s-l-o-w-l-y dribble into the pan. What you’re looking for is treasure… some gold, silver, tin, or something sparkly…

As you’ll discover… what you want to find [whether it’s gold, silver, tin, anything of value] vs. what you actually find left behind in your sieve [gravel, pebbles, etc]… encapsulates the world of difference between what your Doctoral Adviser expects from you, and what you present to him or her.

The next time you’re stuck on your research, stop staring at the computer screen, and go outdoors.

Whether you choose to go on a 5-mile bicycle ride, chase butterflies in the day or fireflies at night, toss frisbees at the park, pick wild berries on your stroll, or chisel emeralds embedded in a rock, you’ll find the change of pace (and scenery) goes much further.

If there are remnants of a mine or stories of buried treasure in your area, go check it out. With a pan (or pen), patience, optimism — and luck — you never know what you may find.

Or offer to help your roommate de-clutter or “make sense” of her closet.

Here’s what I did on Summer Solstice today, the longest day of the year…

I took a break from my research and editing, went out to the wooded backyard with my daughter and her friends, pitched tent while they scouted for a nice tree to climb (on which they plan to build a tree house, perfect for sleepovers on warm summer nights), gave each of the kids a basket, and watched as they skipped merrily into the woods to pick wild berries.

When we got home, I peeked into my overstuffed walk-in closet, then walked over to my home office, where stacks of research material, grant proposals and student queries await, and closed the door.

I changed into T-shirt and shorts, went to the kitchen and baked wild blueberry pies for supper, then settled in to happily edit for the next couple of hours.

Life is good.

Copyright 2014-2019.  Dr. Serene Lim, PhD and The Thesis Doctor.  All Rights Reserved.