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Highway to Help – What to do When Things Go Wrong on a Science PhD


As well as the mental demands associated with it, a PhD can also be physically challenging or even occasionally dangerous - particularly in some Science subjects. Sofia draws on her own lab experience to look at the things that can go wrong and explain how new students can properly deal with them.


Frequently, while I am in the lab performing experiments, or in front of an instrument running samples, I catch myself silently singing 'Highway to Hell' by AC/DC. I don’t know whether this song comes to my mind because the tempo and the rhythm keep me energetic and focused or because, after a busy day in the lab, I actually feel like I’m in hell and the lyrics speak directly to my soul. . .

This may sound dramatic, but a PhD in Science is full of everyday tasks that can go amazingly wrong. One should be constantly focused and alert when working in a 'wet lab' environment or even outside of it. Not every single day of your PhD is going to be a stroll down the park. Some incidents may happen that can cause panic and frustration, especially to less experienced students. But, when they do, you won’t be alone. In fact, you’ll be part of a community of more experienced students. I’m now one of them and here are a few tips I’d offer a new PhD researcher in a lab like mine.

Knowing about the problems you could face during a PhD is a useful way to prepare for one. But don’t worry! If I am safe and sound today to share my experiences, you too can make it through!

Trouble #1 – Safety comes first

For those of you working in a wet lab environment this kind of trouble may soon sound familiar. Someone spills something contaminating, or even carcinogenic, on the bench or the floor. Or someone accidentally breaks glassware, with pieces ending in every possible direction. Or, if you work with animal or human samples you’ll find it’s surprisingly easy to prick yourself with a needle or get bitten by a mouse (trust me, those cute little devils often seek revenge).

So, what do you do if when an accident happens?

To the rescue!

If you do spill or break something, don’t try to cover the incident. This wasn’t your mum’s favourite vase and you are not seven anymore. Accidents happen in labs and there is absolutely no problem if you take responsibility and tell the right people.

Immediately report the problem to the staff responsible for the lab. They will know how to help you clean and treat the contaminated area. At the same time, inform your colleagues who work there about the incident, so that they don’t walk around touching things for a while.

If things are a bit more serious and involve trauma with needles, razors, sharp teeth and so on, then immediately contact your supervisor and the biological safety personnel. In every lab there are safety rules. Someone should be there to guide you through.

Trouble #2 – Hardware is hard

Stepping a bit out of the wet lab, another common everyday frustration comes from dealing with hardware. And by hardware I refer to any kind of device or instrument that belongs to a group or is part of the core facilities for your department or institution.

When you have the first contact with a new instrument it is most likely that you will receive hands on training. But this is not always enough. Depending on the nature of your individual experiments, different tasks may need to be performed. Or even worse, you might find yourself in front of a device that suddenly stops working properly, either because you did something wrong or just because. . . no one knows why!

To the rescue!

Don’t be afraid to report a problem or difficulty you may face. There is no reason to be ashamed if you don’t know everything yet, particularly when you’re new to your PhD. It’s much worse to leave a device broken for the next person to discover.

As I mentioned above, PhD students are part of a community working together and respecting each other. You may think that you will get in trouble if the problem makes its appearance during your 'shift'. But it’s quite the opposite. The only right thing to do is to call the responsible person / specialized operator or technician immediately. Don’t try to bypass the problem or fix it on your own as this can only cause more harm to an instrument that is most probably pretty important to the lab (and expensive to replace).

Trouble #3 – Dr. Messy

Another thing that has happened to me and everyone I know working in science, is messing up with an experiment. Thankfully, this has nothing to do with your own or your coworkers’ safety. But it can have a big impact on your mental tranquility, your time management and your project’s progress.

What does messing up mean in this case? For example, adding the wrong antibody or in a false concentration in a mix. Or mixing up samples that shouldn’t be combined. It could also mean missing boxes in the liquid nitrogen tank or thinking that you caused or observed a contamination in the cell culture.

These are all the sorts of things that can go wrong in my Bioscience PhD, but I’m sure there are plenty of similar issues for the future Physicists, Chemists and other scientists among you.

To the rescue!

Don’t panic if an experiment goes wrong, but don’t just continue either. Pretending that a wrong concentration is not a big issue or that the pipette’s tip won’t totally contaminate your sample if not changed, will definitely end up messing up your data. But you can still try to save the day!

If you have materials left, you might think of starting from the beginning. It will cost you some time now but save a lot later. Or, you may be able to record the mistake and take it into account later while performing your data analysis. You may observe uncommon patterns or differences but at least you will be aware of where they probably come from.

If you think you might have damaged or contaminated materials or media, then never risk putting these back! Throw them away immediately and ask a research technician, more experienced PhD or post doc for advice on decontamination steps. Don’t forget that other people’s work is also in danger when a contamination occurs.

Trouble #4 – To rest is a test

Finally, I would like to refer to a different kind of situation that might occur. Since I started my PhD I’ve observed that I get sick easier and more frequently than I used to (and it’s not only because I’m an early ‘90s kid simply getting older). After discussing it with other PhDs we reached to the conclusion that our immune system might be a bit weaker due to the constant anxiety and exhaustion caused by our PhDs’ high demands.

To the rescue!

The worst thing you can do when you feel tired or run down, is to ignore it and stick to your schedule. A cold can easily go away in 2 or 3 days if you take your time to properly rest. It’s not the end of the world if you skip work for a day but imagine coughing over your samples for two weeks (true story). So please listen to your body and talk to your supervisor about it. They should support you and always put your health as a priority. And don't forget that PhD students need holidays too!

As you may have noticed by now, all the different challenges you may face can be solved by the same core idea: Communicate! Share your problems, don’t be shy or feel guilty. Everything comes down to a state of mind. You feel part of a team. You feel supported. Moreover, sharing is caring. You may save others from a similar problem in the future. Or who knows - you might well write an article about it.




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Last Updated: 25 April 2019