transcript: The other day someone asked me how I get through the tough days in science – those days when nothing – and I mean nothing – seems to go right and you start to doubt everything. So I thought I’d make a post on it. Because it’s normal. Super duper normal. That might sound discouraging and/or jaded – but knowing that and keeping it in mind is actually really liberating because it means that everyone around you understands and can commiserate. It means that if you make mistakes they’ll (hopefully) be understanding because they’ve made (and still make) mistakes too. It means that your boss (PI) (hopefully) will be understanding too and you don’t need to be as weighed down by the feeling you’re letting people down. Those feelings might never go away (I still fear constantly that I’m letting my lab down), but if you let them paralyze you you won’t be able to function.
So how do you function through the rough times? Because there will be rough times. Even as someone who loves science as much as I do, there will definitely be days, even weeks, when you feel hopeless and want to quit, but there are many more days and weeks when you can’t even imagine leaving. Grad school in science is definitely an emotional roller coaster. And it isn’t easy (and I’m not saying it’s worth it for everyone). But it can be super rewarding so today I thought I’d give you some thoughts and advice about my perspective and how I’ve coped. (note that this advice might not be completely generalizable and some people might be in unhealthy lab environments that definitely aren’t worth just being resilient in and ignoring the problems – I’m not going into that today but know that I know that I’m fortunate and privileged to be in a supportive lab and that’s the perspective I’m writing from because it’s my personal experience).
I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately – and not just because of that DM. As I’ve been working on writing up my thesis (a gigantic report about all the work I’ve been doing in the pursuit of my PhD) I’ve been going through my old lab notes a lot. And seeing all of those sketched-in frowny faces and the red ink I use to add notes about what went wrong. But also seeing all of those smiley faces and happy exclamation points. And looking at that up and down reminds me that for every down there was an up. The bad times never went on forever. When I have a bad day I remind myself that I’ve had a lot of bad days in the past. And I got through them. And knowing that gives me hope and strength to know that I will get through this one as well.
The other main thing that helps me get through hard times in science is remembering that it’s not “just me.” Science is full of failures and false starts, dead ends and wild goose chases. But the only way never to “fail” is never to experiment. And the great thing about experimenting is that even “failures” can be informative. If something “didn’t work” you can often learn a lot about trying to figure out *why* it “didn’t work” – and I put “didn’t work” in parentheses because sometimes things truly don’t work – like when your protein crashes out (clumps up and un-dissolves (precipitates). But sometimes things just don’t work out the way you thought they would – like if you thought a mutation would cause a protein to be more active but it turns out to make it less active (at least for what you’re testing) or if you thought a drug would cause some effect and it doesn’t. Such “negative results” are common in science but they’re also super duper underreported because they don’t make as compelling a story. But they might tell you something interesting about why your theory was wrong. Sharing these results, whether just with lambastes, or with the world, may be super beneficial because they might not make sense to you but they might make sense to someone who has another piece of the puzzle.
And sometimes, you will make honest mistakes. You’re a student. You’re training. Trainees make mistakes and that’s totally normal. And expected. So never try to cover things up and don’t feel embarrassed to ask for help. You aren’t expected to be perfect – at least not by others – you might be expecting yourself to be perfect and trying to “undo” that expectation is one of the most useful things you can do as a trainee.
Science tends to attract perfectionists and high-achievers – especially at the grad school level. Which can make all the failures even harder to cope with. One of the reasons why grad schools want applicants to have research experience is that they want to know that you know that it’s not always smooth sailing. They want to know that you know how to cope with failures – and it’s really great if you can talk about how you’ve faced obstacles in the lab and figured out a work-around – gotten “stuck” experiments “unstuck”
Sometimes doing that “unsticking” involves “unsticking” your brain – take breaks if possible to get some fresh air, do a quick workout, distract yourself and approach things with fresh eyes. Speaking of taking breaks – I’ve gotta go rehearse for my sister’s wedding – yep, I made this post from the car on the way there but I want to give my family my full attention now.
But remember – experimental failures are not personal failures and they don’t reflect on your worth as a scientist – and definitely not your worth as a person.