Let me begin by telling you that this is not a story. This is not a tale of PhD woe or despair, nor a romanticized tale of scientific discovery. I could sit here and tell you about every experiment that has gone wrong in the lab. Every contradictory result, every embarrassing contaminated flask of cells and every miscalculated dilution. But I won’t bore you, because let’s face it, I want you to read on (and if you’re doing a PhD then you probably don’t have much time to read this). I guess you could call this an honest account or nugget of advice that may benefit you when you feel like your PCR machine is possessed by a poltergeist (this actually feels like a logical explanation when it turns off mid-experiment).
What I’m here to tell you as a PhD student and professional skeptic is that sometimes things go wrong no matter how hard you try or how well you plan, and that is okay. Sometimes things go wrong for days, weeks, and maybe even months. This is okay too. Remember that YOU are completing a PhD in something new, exciting and cutting edge – you are boldly going where no one has gone before (live long and prosper). You are inspiring others, and you will eventually contribute a tiny piece of knowledge that could potentially make an impact on the entire population of Earth (no pressure). It’s not easy (understatement), but it is so unbelievably worth it, no matter what path you choose to take after your PhD.
So, when it feels like things are not on your side, no one understands, or you feel like you’ve actually been cursed by higher powers and are destined to fail (superstitions run high in a PhD), here’s my advice. Firstly, make an action plan; think of a plan for every possible outcome, and troubleshoot. Secondly, it might sound cliché but talking to others also really helps as it gets the entangled ball of fuzzy thoughts out of your brain, or if you’re friends with some smart cookies, they might even be able to offer a solution.
Also, take a break! PhD determination is relentless, but the last thing you want is to burn out; taking a short coffee break (or something stronger) or holiday can offer some clarity or allow your subconscious to tick away. Finally, don’t sweat – remind yourself that these things happen to everyone and instead of trembling in the shadow of a gigantic task, just try to take small steps to chip away at your ultimate goal.
Personally, I feel that the heart of a PhD is failure, and it is how you adapt and learn from these failures that mold your research (not to mention that failure is extremely ‘character building’, right?). Great things take time, and if you have got to the PhD stage then you are most definitely capable of great things. You just have to fall over a few times, have at least one existential crisis and get a bit lost on the way.
Nicola Faramarzi is a PhD student researcher at the University of Westminster investigating the genetic basis of breast cancer using bioinformatics and molecular techniques. She is also the creator of the science communication and academic blog, Fresh Science. You can also follow Nicola on Twitter.