So I've decided to write a few blog posts on the subject. Partially to get some of these thoughts out of my mind to keep them from festering and driving me insane, but also because when I was going through the hardest of times I always wished I could find some words of encouragement. I found plenty of books and blogs about how to write your thesis, or how to talk to your advisor, or jobs outside of acadmeics, but I found very little about how just to survive graduate school day to day. Because honestly, this is hard. This is by far the hardest thing I've ever done. And not because it's hard work or demanding. I double majored in two challenging fields in college - I'm used to studying and long hours. What I wasn't prepared for is how challenging research is emotionally. Nothing messes with your mind like daily failure.
I spent most of 2011 being incredibly depressed about my research. At home and on the weekends I felt fine, but I dreaded going to lab every morning and I hated being there. I love the people in my lab and in my department, and thank goodness for them because without that support structure I don't know if I would have gotten through it. Regardless, I wish that it hadn't taken me so long to get over my post-quals slump. If you are in a similar place, here are a few of the things that got me through:
- Don't give up - things will get better. It may take a few weeks or a few months or (god forbid) a few years, but eventually you will crack this problem and something will work. For example, I have spent the last 18 months of my life trying to perform one experiment. We have mountains of data that says this experiment should work. In every other cell type it does work, but just not in mine. I've tried approaching the problems from dozens of angles and failed again and again. And again. And again. But last week, finally, it worked! Surprisingly, I'm not as happy as you think I would be (I am just too mad at this damn experiment to be happy about it) but I am so relived to put this b*tch behind me. And I'm happy that I never gave up on it. I heard once that even though grad school is hard and grueling, that when you finish you will be happy you put up with it. Kind of like running a race. While you are doing it you're thinking "WTF?! Why am I doing this?!" But then you finish and you are proud that you stuck it out.
- Don't put all your eggs in one basket. I think it's really easy for younger graduate students to make this mistake. This is partially because of how you have do research up until you are in your thesis lab. As a summer or rotating student you are generally given one tidy project and expected to work on that. One task, one goal. But as a thesis student you have to learn to juggle multiple projects at one time. Not only because this gets you out the door faster, but also because it keeps you sane. Don't get stuck on banging your head against that one experiment that just won't work. At the same time, work on a few other things that may be less ambitious and are more likely to give you results. Having a steady stream of data, even if it's not the exciting, sexy data you wanted, is much, much better than having no data at all. Trust me. If you can't think of any little projects to do that fit with your project ask your advisor if he has any ideas. Often, most labs have a few little side projects just waiting for someone to take the time and finish them up.
- Read. If you are in a funk, try tackling that never-ending stack of papers you have to read. If it is an especially bad day, get out of the lab, grab a cup of coffee and a few papers, and head to the library. Focus on trying to really read and understand a couple of papers. This will enable you to cross a few things off your to-do list, which helps you feel productive and makes you feel a bit better (I promise). Plus, reading papers always fills me with ideas and scientific excitement. Who knows, maybe the idea you come up with after reading that next paper will be the one that cracks that tough problem.
- Talk to other people, especially other grad students. I really wish I had done this earlier. Jason is the most wonderful and patient listener in the world, and he has listened to me complain/cry about my research for literally hours. Having someone to talk to is invaluable and I appreciate his listening to me completely. At the same time, having another graduate student in a similar situation to talk to is also incredibly helpful. Not only does it let you get things off your chest, but it lets you know that you're not the only one going through this. Everyone struggles with these problems. It's not just you and it's not just your lab.
- Appreciate failure where you can. This is a piece of wisdom I just heard this week. A visiting professor was telling me about how much fun he had in grad school. I shook my head and said, "yeah, except for all this unrelenting failure, this is really great..." Then he told me one of the most optimistic things I've heard on the subject: appreciate the fact that you can fail in science, and then try again tomorrow. Where else in life do you get unlimited do-overs until you find the answer? If you fail a marriage or a friendship you can't just say "hey, let's try this again tomorrow using a different cell density, yeah?" Science may be a demanding mistress, but she is forgiving and endlessly patient. And that's pretty cool.
So that's my two cents, for now. I've got a lot more to say on the subject, but these are the few things I think are the most important. If you are having a hard time, hang in there. You are smart enough to do this...you are getting your PhD after all, right? You're not exactly a dunce!! Just tough it out. At the end of the day, you will be smarter and stronger for getting through this.
I'd love to hear any thoughts you all might have on the subject. I don't know how many readers I have in the sciences, but I know there are least a few in humanities subjects. Do you deal with similar problems? Or is it a whole different breed of beast that you have to deal with? Any general tips on how to motivate yourself at work when things just aren't working out?