Surviving setbacks in graduate school

Research shows that passion, perseverance and happiness are keys to success. Conventional “success” for PhD students means graduating. Setbacks and obstacles that delay “success” are common in graduate school, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to endure. I’ve found that reading about others’ perspectives and talking to peers can ease the sting of setbacks and help me move forward with perseverance and (eventually) happiness.

Last month, an experiment that I’d been intensively working on for about a month failed. The algae cultures I was growing were contaminated with a different kind of algae, making the data useless. Prematurely ending the experiment was a painful decision, and I sought advice from my advisor before pulling the plug.

This was stuff of my nightmares. Over the first few hours upon realizing and then confirming the contamination, I could only fixate on my wasted time. Time that I could not get back, that would require me to shift my research timeline to accommodate a redo of the experiment with this finicky algae strain.

It took hours to escape my own head to see the bigger picture, to realize this was a setback but that I needed to pick up the pieces and move on. It took days to slowly re-emerge from a low place where I couldn’t see the value of my work. I owed this restored perspective mostly to others’ setbacks and experiences which I’d previously read about or talked about.

My experimental algae cultures in the incubator (not all algae are green).
My lab bench during a portion of experiment sampling.

At MMISS the next day, a fellow PhD explained his own setback after I told him about my failed experiment. He needed to rework his analyses with new methods after spending a month using the outdated methods. His shared experience lessened the burden of my own, simply by knowing I was not alone.

Other setbacks in graduate school can take a range of forms, and some can set students back much longer than months: the -80 freezer malfunctions, they don’t find any whales, their DNA sequencing results are mysteriously bad, their study organisms die, a hurricane wipes away their field site and more. Sharing experiences can ease the sting of delays and mishaps, as long as they don’t enable discouraging thoughts like I’m not good enough, I’ll never finish my dissertation, and my research is not worthwhile.

In addition to sharing experiences with other students, I thought of certain books and articles to help me see the bigger picture. Stories like those of Hope Jahren, the scientist who authored Lab Girl. One of the many adventurous, raw accounts depicted in the book includes the time that Hope and her lab manager Bill spent days in Ireland meticulously collecting a thousand plant samples, which were confiscated at airport security. I cringed while reading this, fixating on their lost time in the same way I recently fixated on my lost time when terminating my experiment. But Bill saw things differently- he planned to get a permit as soon as possible, and comforted Hope by insisting that the information they recorded was still useful. From that point on, Hope makes sure that time itself is not the valued commodity in her lab, it’s the ability to keep moving forward. She even adopts a practice of intentionally wasting potential lab members’ time on a monotonous task to evaluate their reaction (although this seems a tad dramatic and wasteful to me). She explained further:

“There are two ways to deal with a major setback: one is to pause, take a deep breath, clear your mind and go home, distract yourself for the evening, and come back fresh the next day to start over. The other is to immediately resubmerge, put your head under and dive to the bottom, work an hour longer than you did last night, and stay in the moment of what went wrong. While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries.” (pg 252, Lab Girl)

Although Jahren’s opinion about dealing with setbacks is to ‘stay in the moment’ of failure, going home to refresh could be more fruitful for many people. While reading this quote, my own intuition was that I’d choose the “refresh” option, but when my experiment failed I resolved to do a combination of the two. I stayed in lab to start new cultures, but also went for a run and watched Netflix with my housemate later that night.

Jahren’s stories depict raw moments of perseverance in the face of obstacles and setbacks.

In addition to Jahren’s views on setbacks, I thought of Angela Duckworth‘s stories in her book GritDuckworth explains that passion and perseverance, and not natural talent, are what matter most in reaching our goals. She shows the importance of a growth mindset, or the belief that you can always improve as opposed to the belief that you have a fixed capacity to achieve. Setbacks are inevitable, and it’s our mindset to keep persevering that matters. Moreover, we can always improve our ability to persevere.

Another relevant article is The Thesis Whisperer’s piece The Valley of S***, which was required reading for Professor Mohammed Noor’s professional development course in my first year at Duke. I re-read it the night of my failed experiment and it reminded me that I was not alone in my doubts. There’s also Maryam Zaringhalam’s guest blog in Scientific American about failure in science, which I recommend.

Lastly, I recently learned about the podcasts Hello PhD, which was started by a UNC researcher, and The Story Collider. Hello PhD‘s anecdotes are most relevant for PhD students who do lab-based research, but the overall theme applies to all grad students. Their episode ‘When Research Sucks‘ is helpful for dealing with setbacks, and they emphasize the importance of stepping back to see the bigger picture. Similarly, The Story Collider‘s episode ‘Heartbreak‘ shares a story of setback in grad school.

Setbacks are painful, but dealing with them through shared experiences and perspectives can soothe our wounds and help us move forward. Our education in graduate school is not purely academic, we also learn to rise each time we fall. Hurdles are especially difficult when you can’t see the finish line, but each hurdle will hopefully make graduating that much more celebrated.

One thought on “Surviving setbacks in graduate school

  1. Great post! I’m sure those long set backs are frustrating, but they’ll certainly be valuable experiences when you look back on this in hindsight.

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