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Posted on 11 Apr '19

Brace Yourself, the Journey is Getting Bumpy – PhD Life, One Year In

Before starting a PhD, every one of us has probably heard that we need to be resilient and strong when it comes to postgrad study. We know it won’t be easy and that there will certainly be plenty of obstacles on the way to touching that shiny degree.

But that doesn’t necessarily put current students off. And I’m no exception. In fact, I was so ready to take on any challenge, almost pointing one finger at it and saying: “Show me what you got!”.

There is no rose without a thorn

After the first few months into my PhD, everything was going extremely well. For a scientist, nothing is more exciting than getting to produce and examine the data you’ve been anticipating.

I thought to myself: “this isn’t so bad, is it? A PhD doesn’t seem to be as difficult as many have said! Things just work and the scientist is happy!”.

Boy oh boy, little did I know how wrong I was!

One Friday – a normal Friday like any other - I came to the lab, expecting to do some ‘easy’ experiments, which would provide the results I needed to complete my dataset. And to my surprise, the data didn’t match what I expected!

At first I was quite calm I had prepared myself to deal with ‘this type’ of situation. “I’ll redo this again,” I thought. So I did. And, to my surprise once more, the result was completely different.

I repeated the experiment again, and again. Each set of data was inconsistent with the others. My calmness swiftly turned into agony and stress.

If I’m being honest with you, there was time that I felt absolutely exhausted. It was not a nice feeling when you know you have put all your effort and time into something and got back empty handed.

That feeling of disappointment was the probably the worst feeling one PhD student can experience I was surprised how quickly the situation changed and frustrated that I just couldn’t seem to pinpoint what was causing this variation in my data.

The trial of errors

You know when people usually say bad luck just likes to happen all at once? Well, it seems like this theory applies to me. One failed experiment led to another, no matter how much effort I put into preparing.

I’m normally a very cautious person, so the fact that things didn’t turn out the way I want them to be just bothered me so much. Accepting the failures and challenges that come with a PhD can be easier-said-than-done, especially for a new researcher.

From loving my postgraduate project, I went to feeling as if my PhD had “betrayed” me.

From frustration, to acceptance, to “keeping swimming”

Fast-forward a few months since that judgement (Fri)day: things had gone from chaos to chaos.

Some of my mistakes were simply down to chance or bad luck. Others were just ‘a touch of extra salt’ that I ‘accidentally’ added in. But, frustrating as all of this was, I knew I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – give up! Not after I’d made this far to fulfilling the dream that I’ve had since I was still a first-year undergrad.

Instead, I thought about the student retreat I went to at the beginning of my PhD and the experiences other postgraduates had shared with me. They’d told me things can get really difficult at times. Well, now I’m facing those difficulties.

So I feel like this is just the perfect time for me to reflect back what I have learnt and to use their advice as my guide as I work to take back control of my PhD.

Taking action!

I’ll be honest: the first thing I did was complain to fellow researchers. I know, it sounds childish, but venting to other people was a way to help release the anxiety I had been keeping inside.

The two people I’ve talked to the most since encountering these problems are my supervisor and the scientific officer in our lab. Both are amazing: they’ve listened to what I have to say, including my list of frustrations and mistakes. I guess that’s exactly what I needed: someone to listen to.

This released the burden of frustration and stress. Next it was time to get to the real business, troubleshooting!

This has meant drawing on the experience of others in my lab and admitting that, as a PhD student, I don’t yet know everything. That’s not easy and at first I put it off: I always said that I’d ask questions tomorrow, or the next day until I forgot or put things off indefinitely.

But now I’ve learnt to never leave today’s problems for tomorrow! I’ve begun asking for help or advice when I need it, rather than working in stubborn isolation. This doesn’t just help me with the technical aspects of my research. It also gives me a chance to get to know the people from my lab better, and to make myself comfortable with this habit.

…and changing actions

I’ve also changed some of the ways I work.

Instead of cramping as many experiments as possible into one week, I’m now spreading them out more sparsely. This makes sure that I have enough time to complete each set of experiments without tangling myself in a mess.

Also, at the beginning of an experiment, rather than being too concerned about what results I will get at the end, I focus on the actual experiment itself and try to carry it out as carefully as possible. This helps me know how reliable the outcome at the end is and where things might have gone wrong.

Since making this shift, things are getting a bit brighter (at least, my cell cultures don’t act all crazy like they used to).

I still have a long way to go and I know that the challenges I’m facing now will evolve as I get further into my PhD.

Sometimes it will feel whole world is going against me, but I know I won’t be the only one who feels that way. And I can now learn from my own problems, as well as the stories I’ve heard from other students.

I also have another source of motivation, gained from the experiences I’ve had: If doing research is easy, and things are going exactly as predicted every time, then in a way you don’t get the same excitement of discovering something new. It’s the up and down, the dim and bright that makes you value your research even more.

So, to everyone who is thinking about a PhD, or preparing for a tough period in their studies: just remember I and you are in the same boat. But, as I said in my previous blog, we aren’t alone. There are people around to support us both emotionally and practically. All you need is to stay resilient, ask and help will come!

Editor's note: This post was originally published on 17/11/17. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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