Dr Abi Pinnock is a Post-doctoral Research Associate – and thesis mentor in the School of Clinical Dentistry, University of Sheffield.

We can start off life thinking that perfection is attainable. From an early age it is fairly easy to achieve 10/10 on spelling and arithmetic tests, but by the time you’re in high school getting anything more than 90% seems impossible and as you progress through undergraduate degree this seems to decrease. So by the time we get to postgraduate level can we ever achieve the perfection that we once experienced as normal as children?

As a post-doc who has recently completed their PhD, I have had the opportunity to mentor PhD students during their thesis writing.

One of the sticking points for them is the idea that every sentence, every paragraph has to be perfect before submission. But, the more you write the more you realise that there are things that can be interpreted differently, data that can be analysed differently, concepts that can be explained in different ways. So if two different ways of looking at something are right, are both perfect?

If we use dictionary definitions of perfection, it is a state of completeness and flawlessness. But what makes something complete or flawless if there are no outright correct or incorrect answers/solutions. Perfection is extremely subjective. A PhD is either a pass or a fail, a paper is either accepted or not, a research question is pursuable or not. Each of these examples, as much as you try, can never be ‘perfect’ to everyone. There will always be an aspect of a piece of writing or an aspect of research that you, or others, think could be done better. And perhaps it could. This desire to achieve perfection can have detrimental effects on the timely submission of work as we chase better and better and better. The trick to completing a piece of work is to know when to stop tweaking.

starI have recently taken up needle felting. This is a technique where wool fibres are matted together using a thin sharp needle that entangles the strands of wool to produce a 2D or 3D piece of work. As a beginner project I started out by making a 3D decorative star. The only problem with this technique is that I find it extremely difficult to know when to stop. Not enough needling and your project is too loose and might lose its shape, too much you risk over working it and compacting the fibres too much. Even now, after I’ve finished it, I still see places that could do with a bit more work. But my husband looks at it and doesn’t see the imperfections that I see, so are they really there? As with any piece of ‘completed’ work, the areas you might be worried about might not necessarily be those that are picked out by someone else. Therefore if that’s the case, and imperfections cannot be predicted then there is no need to spend so long trying to tease them out – you’re only doing it to please you!

Through years of trying, I’ve realised that ‘perfection’ can be achieved but it’s not about setting an unrealistic target, it’s about realising what’s attainable, what you have to do to get there and realising when you’re there and have done enough. These realisations set the threshold of perfection at an achievable level and so can be reached.

The perfect ending to the story is that whatever you are trying to accomplish will eventually happen when you’re not trying to achieve the impossible.