The PhD Process, Measuring Progress, Procrastination, and Unlocking the Next Research Step

Tadayoshi Kohno (Yoshi Kohno)
7 min readOct 27, 2022

Research productivity can’t — and shouldn’t — be measured while doing research. Or, at least this statement is true under a natural definition of “research progress.”

Understanding the above paragraph and adopting a different definition of “research progress” can help researchers unlock the next step in their research and overcome (what might seem like but may not actually be) procrastination.

How Research Progresses.

For many things in life — eating breakfast, writing an email, giving a talk — it is easy to measure progress. For example, while eating breakfast, I might know that I’ve already taken three bites and I can reasonably estimate how long it will take me to finish.

Open-ended scientific research is different.

For research, much of the progress happens through “failure.” (I also talk about “failure” and my dislike of that word here.) Speaking for myself, I often have to “fail” many times in my research before I eventually discover what process or procedure might finally enable me to successfully answer my research questions.

Visual overview of the research process. After completing activities A1, B1, and C1, the researcher must figure out which activity to do next. That process might involve doing activities D1 to DN, each of which is not successful (from the metric of being included in the final paper), until activity D(N+1) is tried (which is included in the resulting paper).
Visual overview of the research process. After completing activities A1, B1, and C1, the researcher must figure out which activity to do next. That process might involve doing activities D1 to DN, each of which is not successful (from the metric of being included in the final paper), until activity D(N+1) is tried (which is included in the resulting paper).

Consider the figure above. In this figure, after formulating research questions, a researcher performs some activity A1, gets some results, performs activity B1, gets some results, performs activity C1, and gets some results. After completing steps A1, B1, and C1, the researcher now needs to answer the following question: what activity should they do next toward answering their underlying research questions? For me, the answer often is: I don’t know. I must try (and “fail” at) N different next steps (D1 to DN) before I find the D(N+1)th step that is actually successful.

The above process — of not finding the successful step D(N+1) until after completing steps D1 to DN — is why research progress can’t be measured while doing research. Or, perhaps it depends on one’s definition of “measure progress.” To me, trying and failing at steps D1 to DN is progress. Those efforts may not be part of the final, published research paper. But they were part of the progress.

In short: If you spend time trying things that didn’t work, you have made research progress. I encourage researchers to avoid the temptation of measuring research progress only by how much time, energy, and effort has been spent on activities that yielded results that will be included in an eventual research publication (which is, actually, unknown while in the middle of a research project, e.g., see my earlier post).

In Hindsight, Things that Were Not Obvious Might Seem “Obvious.”

After I’ve taken the D(N+1)th step, then in retrospect, it might seem “obvious” that the D(N+1)th step was the obvious next step to take. But the D(N+1)th step only made sense after I took it. This is the “obvious in retrospect” phenomenon.

I mention the “obvious in retrospect” phenomenon because the steps D1 to DN are often not visible when reading published papers. The fact that steps D1 to DN are invisible in published papers means that if one develops an idea of what the research process looks like only from reading papers, then they might develop a (false) impression that the research process is highly linear and that each step in the research process follows naturally from the previous steps.

Connecting Back to “Procrastination,” Measuring Research Progress, and Unlocking the Next Step.

Early in one’s PhD research career, it can be very challenging to have completed some phases of a research project (having completed steps A1, B1, and C1 in the figure above) and be stuck with the question: what should I do next to answer my underlying research questions? This situation can be challenging because (as noted above) there is often an impression that the researcher needs to know the right next step before they take any next step. There is also often the impression that time spent on the “wrong” next steps is not time well spent.

Referring to the figure above, a researcher might feel like they should be able to logically derive that steps D1 to DN would not work and decide to do steps D(N+1) directly and without ever actually trying steps D1 to DN.

Being in the above-described situation can feel overwhelming, intimidating, and stressful! And, if the researcher is trying to figure out the right next step before taking any next step, they might even feel like they are procrastinating (or worry that their advisor(s) think that they are procrastinating), even if they are spending a lot of brain power and energy on trying to figure out what to do next.

My advice here is the following: become comfortable trying steps D1, D2, D3, and so on even if it is not obvious or clear that those are the “right” next steps. They may not be the steps that are included in the eventual research paper. But they might be! And, if those steps help the researcher learn more about their research problem and help them eventually discover step D(N+1) (which will be in the published paper), then they are the right next steps to take.

On the Intuition and Experience Gained from Multiple “Failures.”

The PhD process is not just about producing novel research results and writing a dissertation. The PhD process is about growing as a researcher. Experiencing and reflecting upon “failures” is part of that growth. It is easier said than done, but instead of trying to avoid “failures,” I encourage new researchers to welcome and embrace “failures” as part of the learning process.

Over time, and after experiencing and reflecting on multiple “failures,” a researcher begins to develop an intuition for what a “right” next step might be. Consequently, “failures” may start to occur less frequently over time. Still, even with increased experience, I encourage researchers not to try to avoid failures but to embrace “failures” as a critical part of the research and learning process.

Indeed, no matter how experienced a researcher is, it is important to note: research will always have “failures” along the way. (Please also see this post about “failures.”)

A Little More Complexity.

In the above discussion, I wrote that the researcher did steps A1, then B1, then C1, and then was trying to figure out which step to do next. And, in that discussion, the step D(N+1) was the “right” next step. Naturally, this discussion is overly simplistic. The researcher might need to try (for example) multiple steps C1 to CM before finding the right step C(M+1) after step B1. Also, as the research progresses and new knowledge is gained, the underlying research questions may change.

External References.

I saw this post about a book titled “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work.” I have not read that book yet, but takeaway #1 from that post relates to my comments above. The title of takeaway #1 is “There’s no such thing as writer’s block.”

Whether you’re a novelist or not, it’s comforting to think that we are blocked, that we’re just not in the right mood to deal with something. But people who say they have writer’s block actually have a fear of bad writing, so they’re not willing to do any writing at all. What I say to somebody who has writer’s block is, “Show me all your bad writing. Go sit down and write badly as much as you can, because sooner or later, some good stuff is going to slip through.”

That post also includes this quote as part of takeaway #1.

Indeed, the job of someone who’s creating is to create, not to be perfect.

Also, there is the following quote from Ira Glass. There are a number of potential takeaways from the quote below. The key connection to this post about research progress: the effort spent on steps D1, D2, and so on, until the “successful” step D(N+1) is found, is valuable. And, stepping even further back, the time and effort spent on one’s first few research projects, and the resulting learning and growth, will contribute to a foundation for the researcher’s subsequent research projects. Research is difficult! But if you have a passion for it, keep at it!

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.


I learned so much about the PhD process from my own advisor, Mihir Bellare. After obtaining a faculty position, I continued to develop my own philosophy on advising and the PhD process through the advising my own PhD students. Much of my thoughts on advising and the PhD process have also been shaped through the co-advising PhD students with UW Security Lab co-director Franziska Roesner. Thank you to all the students and postdocs that I have advised, past and present! And, thank you to Franziska Roesner for being the first person to teach me about Ira Glass’s quote and to Miranda Wei for discussions and for observing the connection between Ira Glass’s quote and my comments.



Tadayoshi Kohno (Yoshi Kohno)

Tadayoshi (Yoshi) Kohno is a professor in the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. His homepage: