[A note from the editor: Maha is the winner of our Tipbox writing competition. She decided to become a Marine Biologist at the age of 14. Today she is in the final stretch of her PhD at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia, working on climate change impacts on coral reefs using –omics tools.]


No one ever warns you of the challenges of a PhD. You know it’s not going to be easy, but no one ever finished saying they regretted their choice so how bad could it possibly be, right? Wrong. This short article explores the 8 steps that most PhDs will go through during their time. It is also a reminder to all that they are not alone in their mad relationship with science.

1. I love science!

You are totally, utterly, absolutely fascinated by science. Somehow science seems to be calling to you and you feel the urge to respond. You are motivated, full of energy. You consider yourself a hard working, curious, and ambitious person. Full of excitement you decide to embark on the quest into the realm of the unknown.


2. I don’t know what I’m doing

You read papers to familiarize yourself with your topic. Silently you are panicking inside as you Google half their contents. Don’t even bother with the methods.

In lab meetings, you are a shadow hoping no one notices you. Everybody seems to be speaking a different language and assumes that you speak it too.

Your PI thinks you’re doing fine. Your postdocs have other problems.

When it comes to practical work you read instructions 10 times trying to work as meticulous as you can, while still wondering what you’re doing.

You haven’t even considered questioning why you’re doing what you’re doing. As you progress you start noticing things don’t really go as smoothly as you expected. A faint, quiet little voice in your head begins wondering about your life choices.


3. Science hates me

Nothing is working. You are praying to the gods of science to let something, the slightest hint, just anything work! All the publications you’ve read and protocols you’ve followed must be lying because you cannot make things go as intended.

You are still reading everything multiple times to ensure you’re doing it right. Enough papers have been mentally ingested to prevent you from searching Wikipedia on an hourly basis while at the same time overwhelming you.

The other nerds appear to be doing great: starting new projects, publishing papers, and going to conferences.

Your PI thinks you’re doing fine. Your postdocs are annoyed at your incompetence but willing to teach you a fundamental of science: question everything.

Still, you’re determined and convinced you can tame the wild beast of science. You go back to the drawing board; now trying to understand what you’re actually doing. And why.


4. I hate science

That quiet voice in your head is now a loud scream, confused as to what compelled you to make this horrible life choice. You sacrificed time, sweat, tears, relationships and potentially some animal lives but the Gods of science still don’t consider you worthy.

You question everything: papers, protocols, results, and your own sanity. While you can now decently present your work to the lab and hold a conversation, you realize how magnificently naïve you were at the start of it all. Your illusions are all being crushed.

Your PI thinks you’re doing fine. Your postdocs can only help so much.

That positive attitude you had turns into rage and frustration. You hear science laughing in your face as the significance of your results renders p ≥ 0.05.


5. I give up

You are dead inside. You wake up every day wondering when this will all be over.

Opening Excel has become a painful experience. Reading papers is a chore. Don’t even go in the lab, you might set it on fire. Or yourself.

Your PI starts noticing you’re slacking. Your postdocs have no pity for you. After all, they’ve been there, done that.

The good news is you have mastered the art of procrastination to a level you didn’t think possible.


6. I have data?!

On a regular day of self-loathing, you are working on something when it appears to make sense. I have data?

You run to the nearest window to check for flying pigs. The sun is shining for what appears to be the first time in months.

Your bitter and cold soul reminds you that you’re a fool to trust science. You check over everything. With shaking hands, you decide to show your output to your PI.

As your PI confirms your work you fall into a trance, virtually seeing Elsa’s ice castle melt away. I have data!

Your postdocs are just glad you stopped being a whiny little…


7. I can do this

A shimmer of hope has returned and you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Not all life has returned to your body but you have enough to push through this.

You read papers and the puzzle pieces begin to fall together. Through it all, you grow more familiar than ever with your work. You are on the grind and it doesn’t seem impossible anymore.

Your PI is glad you’re progressing. Your postdocs have bigger fish to fry. The voices in your head (by now plural) no longer scream slanderous words at you. You return to a healthy work routine containing only 80% procrastination.


8. I love science!

You finished the project, maybe the PhD. You see the results of your labor and are proud of your achievements. That curiosity for the unknown and the motivation for challenges has returned.

However, you will never be the same person you once were. Through all of sciences’ mockery, you grew a new thick layer of skin. You may have left shards of your mental sanity along the way, but you replaced them with survival instincts that no Bear Grylls can teach.

You now begin speaking the same gibberish as other nerds and you love it secretly.

The satisfaction that you’ve completed the seemingly impossible makes you believe you’ve tamed the science beast. Your PI and postdocs will tell you you’re far from it. After all, we are never done learning.


Maha J Cziesielski