HOW TO: deal with failure in a PhD

I’m writing this as I’m sat in the postgrad office of the Plant Science Department at the University of Warwick. This trip, including reagents, time, hotels, food, and travel, has cost well over £1000 for five days. I’m writing this because my experiment, which I’ve been planning for over 4 months, is no longer viable because of an equipment failure. I’m writing this because I need to remind myself not to beat myself up about something outside of my control. I’m also writing this because if I stress eat any more yoghurt, I will become yoghurt.

There’s no two ways about it, PhD’s are no walk in the park, even for the most experienced and innovative researcher. What works one day might completely stop working the next (and for forever), and it can seem completely overwhelming when everything grinds to a halt. Whether it’s writer’s block, literature overload, or equipment failure, there’s nearly always a way to fix it.

I’ve summed up some of my tips for researchers for successfully navigating equipment failure, result crises, and most importantly, the often crippling self-doubt which invariably accompanies research.

Practical solutions to impractical problems

  • The problem: When well-optimised experiments fail.

It is infuriating when a perfectly optimised and easy-to-follow experiment just stops working. It’s very easy to blame it on the direction of the wind, the day of the week, or an undergraduate. It’s definitely a lot less easy to logically trouble-shoot.

The solutions: draw the steps you normally take to prepare your experiment on a blank page in your lab book. The reagent preparation steps, the centrifugation & mixing steps, the volumes you need, and what you do with them. What temperature do reagents need to be stored at? What kits do they come from? This logical flow chart will show you which crucial steps could determine experimental success, and will provide a handy visual how-to for any future students.

Now you know the workflow off by heart, investigate your reagents one-by-one. Are they being stored in the right temperature or darkness? Are they way past their expiry date? Have they mysteriously reappeared after someone else used them? Has the kit changed slightly or call for a new buffer? Logically interrogate every single variable, and more often than not, you’ll find the culprit. If everything seems in order, ask a more senior researcher, or field your question to useful forums like Bitesize Bio or ResearchGate.

Science is about trial-and-error, and there’s almost definitely someone else out there who can help solve your problem. Or, it may be down to…

  • The problem: Equipment keeps breaking.

On an equal par with experimental failure, broken equipment is impossibly annoying. Thermocycler shut down? UV visualiser for gels broken? Spectrophotometer giving you ridiculous readings? Plant growth-room overheated for the 18th time this week? Take a deep breath.

The solutions: Check with other lab members: are you the first person to experience this problem? If not, someone else might have an innovative work-around that doesn’t compromise your results. Is there another version of the equipment somewhere in your department? Contact the people who own it and dialog with them, they might well be able to sort you out. Contact your technician too, they are invaluable in times of need and will be able to arrange a repair. Most importantly, try not to beat yourself up over it, equipment isn’t psychic and doesn’t know when your big deadline or supervisor meeting is.  If you’re in a large department, see if you, or a technician, can make a list of all equipment available for open use with correct training. It’ll save you in a pinch.

  • The problem: You have results (and have successfully navigated protocol failure and broken equipment), but they are either negative, or entirely meaningless.

The solution: A result is still a result. It’s still a brand new piece of information you didn’t previously have, or wasn’t previously known. The gene you expected to see upregulated under your specific test condition isn’t? Well, you know something you didn’t know before. Science is hypothesis driven, and we need to test our hypotheses to breaking point. Believe it or not, any information is better than none, no matter how frustrating it is. Is there a way this result can be applied to your research, can you explain why it’s happening? If not, then tell your supervisor and try and come up with a new way to find your answer, as infuriating as it may be at the time.

  • The problem: You are doubting your ability as a researcher. Nothing you have tried has worked, and your experiments keep failing. You are struggling to stay motivated and keep your head above water.

The solution: Take a break. It could be a 10 minute break. It could be a 10 day break. Whatever it is, gift yourself some distance, reflection, and wallowing. Constructive wallowing (which I am currently doing by writing this post instead of doing the experiments I should be) can be a relatively productive way to process the issue (my experiment didn’t work, but that’s okay, we can do it again, even if it costs another £1000.) Constructive wallowing only works you’re able to pick yourself back up after your allotted downtime. If you find yourself entirely demotivated, depressed and stressed, then it might be time to take a course of more serious action.

It’s very important to open a dialog with your supervisor or a member of your advisory panel in this instance, they can impart their years of advice, and steer you in the right direction. This is a lot harder if you’re also suffering from Absent Supervisor Syndrome, but you should still reach out with those who’ve completed their PhD.

Coping with feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome are very hard to manage, but everyone in their research career has experienced moments of this, even your esteemed supervisor. Try and talk to other members of your lab over a coffee, ask them about their biggest ‘what if I’m not good enough’ moments. Get their advice, and see how you can adapt your practices with peer reviewed techniques.

If you’ve tried all of the above, and are really not coping with your workload or failed experiments, contact your University’s mental health services. Most universities offer a 6-week intensive course to help you manage stress and anxieties arising directly from your research and workload. If you already have a pre-existing mental health condition, you may be able to use evidence from your GP to get you more long-term, university-oriented support. I’m lucky enough to have a mental health advisor who helps me manage my workload and research activities.

These are all well and good, but if you feel like you’re at your wits end and really need an intervention, you should contact your GP. They may be able to refer you to NHS services to guide you on your way to better coping mechanisms through active, intensive therapy. This may seem like a pretty big leap to make, but it’ll help you excel in your PhD research if it’s really what you need.

To sum, PhDs can often feel like a trial by fire, and problem-solving and trouble shooting is naturally part of the experience. But that doesn’t stop us from responding negativelyto the situations we can find ourselves in. So, what tips do you have for navigating failures in your line of work? Are they common or rare? What would you share with your younger self? I’m going to enjoy my break away from Glasgow, the English sunny skies and the really tasty coffee from the canteen.



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