The Impossible Puzzle of Research: An attempt at explaining the beast


I recently completed the first milestone of my Ph.D journey. While I’ve given myself a little space to breathe, I’ve also been thinking a lot more in analogies (because that’s what I do in my free time, apparently). So, here’s an attempt at explaining ‘research…’ via a jigsaw puzzle.

This jigsaw puzzle is not like one you’d usually find in a shop. Rather than the pieces coming in a sealed box with a picture, there are pieces scattered everywhere, and the picture is one that you have in your mind. Perhaps it isn’t fully formed, perhaps it looks really fuzzy, but you’ve got some idea of what it might look like.

You go around collecting these pieces, examining each one to understand where it might fit. Sometimes one piece might fit perfectly with another, or it might need looking at a little differently in order to find its place. You might even have a piece that fits, only to find another piece later on that fits even better, causing you to get rid of the former piece.

Eventually, you end up with something resembling the picture you had in your mind… but there are gaps. You’ve searched for the pieces to fit these gaps, but they are no-where to be found. However, you want your puzzle completed. At this point, you get creative, putting a sheet of paper behind the puzzle and trying to draw something in between these pieces to make a complete picture.

Soon, you have combined the pieces to make a somewhat complete puzzle. While you stand back and marvel at your creation, you realise something. Those pieces that you drew in… sure, they look ‘okay,’ but wouldn’t they be better as actual pieces? So, you get even more creative and start making pieces to fit these gaps. As you improve your technique over time, you improve your puzzle piece-making abilities, and after many attempts, you have your completed puzzle.

But there’s just a few more things that you notice. For example, you might want to show your completed puzzle to a friend, who has a remarkably similar puzzle to you with many of the same pieces, but some are distinctly different to yours. When you put the puzzles side by side, they seem to tell a similar story, but perhaps from slightly different points of view.

With all of the completed puzzles you find, you start to realise something else… none of the pieces are edge pieces. In fact, everyones’ puzzle could technically interconnect into a much bigger picture, and could expand ad infinitum. Just like the smaller pieces, these can be rearranged, adapted and removed. The whole picture therefore continues to grow in clarity, but in the end, we never get to see the full thing.

So what does this mean?

When you start your research, you do so with an idea and perhaps a few pieces of literature. Over time, you gather more literature, noticing patterns and contradictions, and trying to figure out how they all fit together. You might find a piece of research that seems perfect, only to dismiss it later on in favour of something else.

When you’ve got your research done, whether it be theoretical, empirical, or whatever, you will see gaps that can be filled in by your creativity and critical thinking. Sometimes these are ill-developed (the drawing on the paper), but over time they become more tangible and robust (creating the individual pieces yourself).

Gradually, your research grows and becomes almost self-sustaining. When you have it all completed, it’s a real accomplishment… but yours isn’t the only one out there. There are numerous other bits of research, sometimes extremely similar, and sometimes in complete contradiction to what you’ve created. It doesn’t make your research any less important, but it begs the question: how do these pieces of research connect?

And that’s the crux of research overall: to form the bigger picture, you need to contribute to overall knowledge, but as we continue to add research, we create even more questions, each with their own myriad of approaches and results. As such, we’ll never get to know all that there could be to know, because we will forever expand the puzzle. The picture of this omni-puzzle will continue to sharpen and blur over time, but we’ll never know the final image.

To quote Professor Farnsworth from Futurama: “The pursuit of knowledge is hopeless and eternal. HOORAY!”


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