Mastering Your PhD: Dealing with Setbacks

Life is good. You’re comfortably settled into your lab routine, you’ve established your scientific objectives, and your research seems to be percolating along. You get along well with your labmates, and the lines of communication with your adviser are open. You feel good about your progress and are pretty sure you’re on the right track. So everything is wonderful. Right?

Wrong. Because one day you realize that nothing is working.

For several weeks–or months–your carefully planned experiments haven’t given you the results you need. Your cell cultures have been contaminated for the umpteenth time. The PCR machine or the HPLC or the UV spectrometer breaks down–again. You can’t get your chemical compounds to crystallize. All your mice mysteriously die. Weeks or months of data are lost. To top it off, you discover you’ve made a mistake in your statistical calculations, and 6 months of experiments are worthless.

Gather together a group of seasoned scientists, and they will tell you horror stories like these–and more.

Perhaps you are one of the chosen few who have experienced few obstacles in life. You’ve succeeded at everything you’ve ever tried. Now, suddenly, you’re beset with doubt. What do you mean my experiments failed? Nothing I do ever fails. How could this happen to me?

When something like this happens to you–and in all likelihood it will–what will you do? How will you cope?

Platitudes may be the last thing you think you need to hear as you struggle in a pool of quicksand, but we’re going to offer one anyway: Think of your setbacks not as failures, mistakes, or wrong turns–but, rather, as a chance to learn and grow. We know it’s a clich√©, but if you take it to heart you will be prepared to deal with setbacks more effectively.

Write down this old adage from Nietzsche (from Twilight of the Idols, although he may have taken it from someone else), and tape it to your computer: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Trial, error, and patience

With things looking grim on the experimental front and your sense of panic ballooning, this might be a good time to remind yourself that science is all about trial and error. You will make plenty of errors and endure lots of trials before you uncover even a glimmer of truth. If all research proceeded without a hitch, scientists would be able to skip the endless rounds of experimentation and go straight from hypothesis to publication without breaking a sweat. Science progresses in fits and starts and proceeds in its own sweet time.

It follows that in science patience is an important virtue. And by “patience” we don’t mean sitting in a corner waiting for something to happen. We mean, rather, having realistic expectations and not forcing matters. When things go wrong, don’t panic or question your own competence. Stay focused and don’t rush. Cultivate a fine sense of balance: Keep the big picture in mind, but take satisfaction from small successes.

Your lab’s goal may be to find a cure for cancer or to understand the underlying mechanisms of a genetic disease, but this goal is not going to be reached overnight or even next year–and probably not in 5 years. Most major breakthroughs occur after decades of hard, painstaking work. Scientific satisfaction comes from those important small strides along the way. Stay focused, work hard and smart, and believe that they will come.

Another thing to remember is it that experience matters. As a beginner, you are bound to make mistakes that a more experienced scientist wouldn’t make. Take heart–you won’t be a novice forever. Practice, experience, and the willingness to try and to fail will nurture your intuition and your technical mastery. Here’s another favorite mantra (this one from Beckett): “Try again. Fail again. Fail better .”

Even when they’re true, words like these can’t keep setbacks from affecting your confidence. Your best weapon is focused, methodical, patient effort. A logical approach to identifying problems will put setbacks in perspective, turn them into learning experiences, solve them, and boost your confidence.

Take action: Tips for bouncing back

Once you’ve blown off some steam, identified the setback, and sought moral support from friends and family, it’s time to get yourself back on track. Recommit to getting round the obstacle that’s holding you back. Here we offer a few practical tips:

If bad goes to worse: Should you stop all together?

What if you’ve tried our suggestions, and tried them again, and things still haven’t gotten better? Maybe you lie awake night after night, and a single thought careens like a boomerang through your mind: ” Things are not working out. Grad school is not what I thought it would be. I don’t really want to be a scientist after all. Maybe I should just quit.”

Before you do anything hasty, examine your situation very carefully. Your project may have been poorly conceived and doomed to failure. Or maybe you just don’t have the skills or training to make things work. Both of these scenarios occur far more often than they should–and both can be solved. You can learn a new technique. You can convince your adviser that your project is a dud and start working on something new. Wanting to quit after a setback is a common and justifiable emotional response (What’s the point? It’s just too hard, etc.). Actually quitting is something you shouldn’t do without giving it a lot of thought and talking about it with other people, including your adviser.

The decision to stay or go will depend on your resilience, your goals, and how much you’ve invested already in your Ph.D. If you’re in your first year and having serious and persistent doubts, you can leave without losing much time. If you’re more than halfway through, your decision is more complex. You may decide that it’s worth toughing it out even if you don’t anticipate a career as a bench scientist.

Setbacks happen in the lab. Recovering from a setback takes time, ingenuity, fortitude, patience, and–occasionally–the courage to make a major change. Hone your coping skills at the first sign of trouble. You’ll be much wiser–or at least have a thicker skin–when the next rocky stretch of road threatens to break your stride.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700024

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