This article was written by Chloe Warren, our Communications Officer. She’s also a freelance science writer, comedian, PhD have-er and all round struggling life- attempter. She wrote about her PhD experiences on her blog, Let’s Try This PhD Thing.
There can’t be many people whose entire PhD experience is a joyful frolic in the park, but mine definitely resembled more of a crawl through a fiery hell-scape.
Whatever could have gone wrong did go wrong. Halfway through my studies, I had to take a medically advised leave of absence – the constant stream of failures knocked out most of my energy and motivation. Perhaps the general sentiment around my project is best represented by the fact that when I finally got one particular experiment to work, my supervisor took my entire lab out for Champagne.
Every time an experiment failed, it felt like a personal insult. Even worse perhaps, I began to interpret my colleagues’ successes as insults too.
While it’s important to never try to reject your own emotions or experiences, it’s probably worth mentioning that my interpretation of events in this context was complete bullshit.
The fact of the matter is: research is unfair. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many hours you work, or how many papers your read – things will just go wrong. There are plenty of things you can do to reduce your chances of failure. But some projects are fraught with more problems than others – and you just have to deal with it.
1. Stay in touch with your supervisors.
Keep them informed of what you’re up to, and be honest about how you are going. It’s not just your research they can help you with, but all aspects of your professional development – and that includes mental health.
It’s true that you can come to expect too much from your supervisors, and you do need to learn how to be an independent researcher – but you have to look after yourself.
While it can be a tough conversation to have, keeping channels open regarding your wellbeing is important. If you feel unable to have these sort of conversations with your supervisor, that’s definitely something we can help you with. Drop us a line, we’d love to hear from you!
2. Don’t be scared to reach out to others in your field.
If you’re trying to use a methodology from a published paper, and you’re struggling to make it work – ask the guys who published it in the first place!
The worst thing that can happen is they say, ‘no’ – the best thing that can happen is collaboration and network building. What fabulous outcomes!
3. Beware the echo-chamber of shittiness.
I had lots of great friends in my lab while I was doing my PhD and was really valuable to have people around me that I could talk to about my work. But it’s important to diversify your social life! Academic culture can get a bit…cult-y – so it’s important to do things OUTSIDE of your studies, or you might accidentally create your own little chamber of research doom.
4. Remember that everything you are doing is valid.
This can be hard to remember when you’re not generating any data. But everything you do can be learned from – it’s all part of the journey. It might feel like the 18 hour layover part of the journey, but it’s a part of it nonetheless.
5. Don’t blame yourself when things don’t go as planned.
Whatever your research project is, it had to start somewhere. It might feel as though you’re moving too slowly, or even backwards – but that’s the whole nature of research. It’s all new! And weird! And unpredictable! If it was old and boring predictable, you probably couldn’t call what you were doing, ‘research’ in the first place.
6. Don’t take people’s success stories at face value.
People don’t like to talk about their failures. Instead, they spew out their sickeningly polished Facebook-eque version of events. This can make you feel like shit – as though you’re the only one with problems. Guess what?! You’re not!
When you’re facing a mountain of experimental failures, it can feel very lonely. Please remember that anyone with a PhD who never had to face a similar mountain probably doesn’t deserve their PhD. It’s all about problem solving, dude.
7. PERFECTIONISM IS BAD.
Your PhD isn’t the best thing you’re ever going to do in your research career- it’s just the first thing you are going to do in your research career.
8. Just move on.
If you’re struggling with one specific task, and you’ve been stuck for a while – give it some air. Skip ahead to the next thing. Do some reading around a different subject. Bashing your head against a brick wall is not going to help anyone, so you might as well make progress with other aspects of your project.
A PhD can feel like a race to get data – when you’re not generating data, it can feel like you are wasting your time. I can guarantee you are not. You’re learning how to learn – that’s what a PhD IS.
10. Go for a walk. Go for a swim. Go to the pub. Go to the movies. Go away.