Arts vs Science: Let’s Talk About Failure |
Posted on 28 Oct '21

Arts vs Science: Let’s Talk About Failure

As a PhD student you’ll face failure all the time but that definitely doesn’t mean you’ll fail your PhD. Mistakes happen! In this edition of Arts vs Science, we’re on a mission to discover whether the kinds of failures PhD students face are different between disciplines. Naturally, we also hope to make you feel better about any failures you might have had!

Jennifer has only just started the second year of her Biology PhD, but from her first year and her time as a research Masters (MRes) student she’s experienced plenty of failures to share with you.

Hannah has just begun her third year studying a History PhD. Bumps along the road have become a natural part of the process and the funnier they are, the better.


Jennifer: I made this mistake at the beginning of my MRes, and I tell you, I’ll never make it again. My project involved growing cells in an antibiotic-free media (I’m sure you can see where this is going!). The bottles of media were huge, so we all used one bottle and once a week someone poured small volumes of media into separate, smaller tubes so we didn’t have to fight over the bottle.

Well, one day I transferred some media from the big bottle into tubes for everyone. Little did I know I’d managed to contaminate the main bottle and therefore, all the tubes. About a week later everyone had cells contaminated with bacteria and they all had to go in the bin. I felt terrible. Not only could I no longer do the lab work I’d planned, but I’d also ruined everyone else’s experiments. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t let me do it again for a while, and now we have a whole bottle each – oops!

Hannah: This mistake will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. If any of you have been keeping up with the PhDiary series then you will have heard this one before, but it all takes place during my Masters. In short, I made a serious geographical mistake in my research. For some reason I got it in my head that New England was on the same latitude as England. It’s not…

Thankfully, my research and conclusions were not obliterated by this mistake. But it wasn’t good. Now I check everything I say religiously before submitting. It’s so easy to get things muddled in your head when you’re in the reading stage of research. But my failure didn’t conclude there, so if you want to see how this then became my most embarrassing mistake, read to the end!

Most frustrating

Jennifer: This wasn’t such a bad failure, but it really irritated me! In our lab, we have to pre-book equipment because instruments are so expensive that we can only afford one or two of each.

On this occasion, I’d planned out a three-day experiment and booked all the equipment I’d need. The first two days went smoothly but at the end of the third day when my samples were ready for analysis, I arrived at the machine to find someone already using it.

It turns out, I’d accidentally booked it for the following day. I was pretty annoyed with myself and had to throw away my samples. The worst part is, it took three days to set up so I couldn’t even repeat the process and use the machine the next day. Never mind!

Hannah: My most frustrating mistakes are when I misread a source. A lot of the texts I work with are printed in lettering that can be a nightmare to read. Whether it’s the shape of the letters themselves, abbreviations, smudges or the printing is too light, I can spend a significant amount of time squinting at a screen in confusion. And even after, I might still get a word wrong.

Usually, I catch the mistakes myself during a reread. I then have to go back into my notes and any pieces of writing I’ve done to change it. But the other day my supervisor caught one, noticing that the quote I used didn’t really make sense. Now I’m back staring at a word in confusion.


Jennifer: I don’t think I have a particularly funny failure, but if I had to pick it was probably the time I spilt some methyl blue stain on my gloves. Somehow, I didn’t notice it was on me and I proceeded to leave little blue fingerprints over the lab.

Hannah: Whether this mistake is funny or just plain stupid, I’m not sure. At the beginning of my second year, I had the opportunity to teach on a module. I had two seminar groups a week and, because of the pandemic, they were run online. So, before our first meetings I sent out an email to everyone introducing myself and letting them know how the first session would go.

Me, thinking that everyone would be at home, asked if anyone with a pet could bring them along. I hate icebreakers so I figured this would be an easier way to ease into conversation. It was only an hour before my first seminar that I realised not all modules were being taught online so most students would be in halls. Unsurprisingly, nobody had a pet. Stupid as it was, I’m glad I made that mistake because I got to show first-hand to new students that we all mess up sometimes!

Most embarrassing

Jennifer: I feel like almost everyone’s most embarrassing failure involves some kind of public speaking. Mine certainly does! For the final assessment of my MRes I had to present a poster summarising my work then defend it to the examiners.

The poster presentation went well, but when they started asking questions it started to go a bit downhill. The first questions were what I had prepared for, but one of the examiners was a structural biologist (not my area at all) so she started asking lots of more structural questions and I just couldn’t answer many of them. My project didn’t really involve investigating structure, but I felt so embarrassed not to know much about it from the literature.

After this experience I always find out what area my examiners research, so I hopefully won’t be caught out on questions like that again! Having said all this, they must have been happy with my other answers because I did pass the viva.

Hannah: My worst mistake then transformed into my most embarrassing when public speaking got involved (I think you may be onto something Jennifer). Thinking that I had written a pretty good Masters thesis, I applied to present it at a couple of conferences. Yes, you heard me right, I presented my research to fully-fledged academics with a glaring mistake in it. But it gets worse.

After I had given my talk for the last time I got called out. Sitting on stage ready for questions a man enlightens me of my error in front of everyone. I then do the worst but probably most natural thing to avoid being swallowed by the ground, I blunder and try to justify my error. Obviously, it doesn’t work and I just made myself look even more of a fool. Oh, and the cherry on top. That man who called me out was the same man who interviewed me for one of the PhD positions I applied for! I didn’t get it.

Hopefully you have found some solace in reading these two PhD students’ mistakes. No matter how small or large, funny or just plain cringe, we all stumble along the way. Learning to accept that failure is part of the process but not letting it stop you is one of the best things you can do as a PhD student. And what’s even better is sharing them with each other so you can all have a good laugh.

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Last Updated: 28 October 2021