Walking Backwards, Blindfolded (Crying)

During my last few chaotic weeks of mysterious experimental hiccups, I found it really hard to leave work in the evening with anything on my mind other than failure. To leave a day of work unfulfilled, with the weight of wasted time and energy, is never a great feeling. But, if you’re emotionally intelligent and in control, it’s somewhat possible to talk yourself down from a mountain of negativity. Usually, there are lessons hidden in our mistakes and ‘wasted time’. Usually, a rest and a new day can do wonders to shake those feelings of guilt.

In the instance of research however, we can go through really long periods of (perceived) failure and wasted time. Not only can it take a long time to progress forward, but you tend get very frequent reminders of just how stagnant you/ your work/ your progress is along the way. Each day brings new mysteries to be placed between you and your goals.

For example: you have samples for which you want to collect data for using an experimental method. You might think that Step 1 of this progress would be:

1. Collect data for your samples using an experimental method.

You dive in with all good intentions, before quickly realising that Step 1 is actually:

1. Read everything you can get your hands on about the experimental method.

Then, you think you’re ready. Back to the lab, let’s run the protocol. Ooops. Those results can’t be accurate. Maybe you were wrong…

1. Correct experimental method so as to control for numerable variables.

As you start to tweak the protocols for your specific needs, you realise that maybe you need to make changes to the work flow BEFORE this experimental method can even be performed. For example, the way you collect or store or prepare your samples…

Before you know it, you are weeks into a project and you haven’t even carried out the Step 1 which you thought was the Step 1 back when this whole nightmare began. Far from moving forwards, you’re walking backwards, as you keep illuminating just how much work actually needs to be done before you can reach your original goal. And every day brings more ideas and mysteries that need to be consulted; despite all the work performed, your workload is actually GROWING. Even though you might achieve something in a day: answer a question, shed some light, perform one step of a hundred step protocol; it feels as though you have achieved nothing, or at least nothing worth feeling good about. When even success feels like failure, it’s not a great place to be as far as mental health is concerned.

My supervisor often tells us (her four students) off for comparing ourselves to each other.

I suppose the same goes for comparing our actual successes to our target successes. It’s a waste of time and it’s really an invalid process to go through. Sometimes, those original targets were envisioned many months, many papers, many experiments ago, before the scale of the task at hand was truly understood. While it’s great to have targets for your research, sometimes unanticipated mysteries of science can get in the way of achieving them. The only thing you can do is give these mysteries the space and time and energy they need: and stop beating yourself up about it (it’s really not your fault).


Learn How To Do a PhD, In Just One Easy Step!

Earlier on in my PhD, I developed a bad habit, though I didn’t know it at the time. As well as habitually googling, ‘reasons not to do a PhD’ (although I knew that was a bad idea from the outset), I also tried ‘advice for a PhD student’. Though seemingly harmless, asking the internet this question actually had pretty terrible consequences for a worrier like me.

Every blog post or web page I stumbled upon described, in minute detail, all of the trappings and pitfalls a supervisor, department head, administrative team, piece of lab equipment, software component or even partner could conceivably lay out for you to stumble upon throughout the duration of your studies. Reading these posts was, understandably, a terrifying experience. How on Earth could I insure myself against ALL of these perfectly feasible ordeals? Maybe I should try and delay my enrolment and take time out to ‘prepare’… maybe, if these things intimidated me so much, doing a PhD was not the right choice for me…

It wasn’t long (thank goodness), before I found a blog which wasn’t quite so intimidating, but was still realistic about all the challenges which lay ahead of me. The blog offered up this sobering “advice”:

The only way to learn how to do a PhD is to do one. All advice is therefore useless.

Back then, I took some comfort in these words, and have since stopped trolling the internet for vague PhD “wisdom”.

I hadn’t thought about the quote for a while, but after last week with its repeated mysterious experiment failures, I retreated back into the depths of my brain for some explanation as to why I couldn’t shake this feeling of PERSONAL failure every time an experiment failed.

The past few weeks have felt pretty slow and pointless because I am just not getting any results. I have been trouble-shooting and reading a lot, and trying to figure this all out on my own. Every time I cave and ask someone for advice, it makes me feel stupid. Why can’t I just be as smart as these people, and have as much insight and expertise?

Then I remembered that sodding “advice”. I can have the smarts, and I can have the insight, and I can have the expertise. I just have to learn how to do a PhD: and we all know there is only one way to do that.

In other words:

  1. Asking for advice is OK (the good, specific kind, not the vague, horror inducing, tell-me-all –the-ways-I-could-fail kind)
  2. Sometimes things don’t work, and that’s the only way you’re ever going to figure out how they do work.

In other, other words:

  1. Shut up and get on with it.