3 years’ rule in research

There are people who have one passion for their whole life. They know from a very young age exactly what their purpose in life is, and they devote their entire lives to the pursuit of this goal. I am not that person. 

I am wired differently. My focus is divided between at least a few projects at any given time. As I am interested in more than one topic, I am thriving having an opportunity, and a reason to switch from time to time. It keeps me excited, engaged and motivated. 

As I get better at research and my expertise area, I want to take on bigger projects. This means that not only I am switching between projects, but the projects are also long, usually above a year. The tricky part is how much time to give a new project before deciding whether it is actually really worth pursuing or should just be closed. After all, I can’t realize all the ideas I have.

Any given project needs time to flourish. How much time it is? At the same time, we don’t want to waste too much time on the project that is destined to fail. How to avoid a mistake of killing a valid idea only because it did not work quickly “enough” but also how not to waste time on hitting your head against a brick wall for no good reason. 

After reflecting on the topic, the answer came: it is more or less three years. Give yourself 3 years. The rule gives you permission and freedom to try something for three years without scrutinizing it too much. You give yourself 3 years to explore any big goal which gets you excited without judgment and expectations. The expectations part is crucial. 

Magical things can happen when you do not have pressure to get something out of your endeavors for 3 years. On the contrary, you can just do your new thing and experiment and make mistakes for the whole 3 years. What a freedom, what a relief, what an adventure?

If you want to achieve something special, an ambitious goal, make a worthwhile and substantial contribution, you need to give yourself time. Three years is a minimum and here is why. 

Why 3 years?

Year 1

The first year is a year you have to change yourself and your life to accommodate your new goal. You have to make a decision that you will pursue this new goal, accept that it will change you as a person and change your life in general. You shift your mind’s focus from some other goal or goals you have been pursuing before, to this new one. Alternatively, you have to find a space in your already busy life for this new thing and arrange other tasks to find time for the new one. You may need to pull in some additional resources, learn something new, take a course or some lessons. 

If it is a research project “on Humans”, you will have to apply for a grant, ethics committee approval, gather a team and/or equipment, maybe employ someone. The first year is for asking questions, reading, looking for answers and then some more reading. During the first year, a big chunk of planning and preparation happens. This is the time of thinking.  

Year 2

The second year, you try things out, build something, fail, try again. Some things work, some don’t. You make progress, you learn what is possible, and most importantly, you learn to believe in yourself. You build skills and convince yourself that you are this new person on a path to achieve this new goal. The change in your belief system requires time. New achievement requires new you first. Becoming new you is usually painful, requires commitment, takes time and some trial and error. It is complicated but may be totally worth it. You need this second year to experiment.

In human research, the second year you get to start your project. If the year before, you have applied for some money, now you should have it available for spending. If like me you do research on (and for) humans, you start to recruit your participants. You get to explain your project to all the people who you want help from, including all the participants. You get asked questions about your methodology, your thinking behind the design of the study, what you hope to find out. This is the time of re-thinking your study and the start of doing.

Year 3

Year three shows you whether this is it or not. You know enough to be able to truly try things out. If you still like what you are doing after three years, you may be onto something. This time allows you to get used to a new you. As you had three years to learn something, you became an expert and integrated all this new knowledge into your new you. You have also become fluent in all of the tasks required on a daily basis in the pursuit of your goal. 

Within 3 years you can run a decent research project. Not only you have had an opportunity to learn the research method you are using, master technical skills, and processes or sequences to achieve routine tasks. You also had time to read and think about the topic beyond, and often against, what is commonly known. After three years you may decide that this project is all you wanted to learn on the topic for now, and move on to pursue some other science challenge. But sometimes you discover a rabbit whole so enticing that you cannot resist following it deep down. 

Three years is the time required to learn the technical skills, and the craft required to build this new thing, but also to check whether the pursuit is for you. Three years is roughly the amount of time you need to convince yourself that you are an expert (or very close to being an expert). You need this time to prove to yourself that you are worth believing in, that you are serious about this new thing, qualified and worthy of achieving your new goal. 

Additionally, three years is also the time most people are not willing to spend on one project. Most people will give up way earlier. Most people will convince themselves that they are not good enough because they tried the thing for a month or a year, and it didn’t work out. Or they discard the thing as it “can’t be done”.

What after 3 years?

After three years you are ready to assess your progress and next steps related to your goal. Is the goal still valid, interesting, worth pursuing?

Sometimes you may decide that it was a miss. And that is ok. You did not waste your time. Not many people are able to put in 3 years into a project. Spending 3 years on something is building perseverance and resilience. The mental transformation you have undergone is crucial as you have proven to yourself that you can do something for 3 years, which is a very long time. 

The skills you have developed during that long project are also valuable beyond this project. Even if you decide to close this stage, you can use these skills or build upon them in your next endeavor.

The ultimate proof

The 3 years’ rule is not only my idea. Three years just makes sense. To prove it to you, I will bring up an example of a Ph.D. program. It takes around 3 years for the Ph.D. project to be finished. Of course, some programs have additional course work, but if you exclude that, around 3 years is left. It is a long and challenging time. I would argue that both the time and the challenge are great facilitators of development. I do not know even one person with a Ph.D. who says that they did not develop themselves beyond the project. We all did. And this is a good strategy for research life in general. Not only for your academic career but also beyond it. 

Give yourself 3 years, you will be stunned with the rewards.

What do you think about the 3 years’ rule? Please let me know in the comments below.

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