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When You Run Into Brick Walls: Coping With Frustrations In The Lab

Chances are, if you are a science trainee you have already dismissed the expectation that your world is predictable and orderly. You have realized that in a laboratory there is always the potential for things to go haywire. Did you hear the story about the postdoc whose reagents got lost in the mail? If not, you probably know the researcher who couldn’t recruit the number of subjects she promised in her federally funded grant application. And you almost certainly have firsthand experience running an experiment that worked the first time but failed the second time. And then you had to spend weeks or months to get it working again.

Career success is often determined, in great part, by how well we cope with the curveballs that are thrown to us. One graduate student agreed to share her story, which illustrates some of the frustrations she faced that ultimately led her to change career directions. To her credit, she was still able to land on her feet. We asked three experts, two of whom mentor trainees, for their views on her situation, and then gave Annie a chance to respond.

Annie’s story

Today, Annie* is a master’s-level research associate employed by a start-up biotechnology company in northern California. She works alongside senior scientists who are seeking to identify human antibodies that one day could be used to develop new drugs for the treatment of disease. She is dedicated to her work, is well-compensated, and feels appreciated as a valuable, contributing member of a multidisciplinary team.

Just a year ago, Annie was a third-year doctoral student at a large university on the West coast conducting research in a small laboratory focused on zebra fish. A standout undergraduate student, she was excited about starting graduate training in genetics.

But before long, her enthusiasm began to wane. She loved the little creatures she worked with, and the people around her weren’t too bad either. But almost from the start, she experienced problems running supposedly simple experiments. "I could always get the positive controls to work so I knew I was doing everything correctly, but the gene I was interested in was extremely difficult to work with and nobody could ever figure out why," says Annie. "It was hard to generate enough material to do the experiment, and when I actually did get the experiment to work, the answers didn't make sense." She saw her busy mentor on a daily basis and met with him at least once a week for longer chats, but he didn’t have much advice to offer---except to keep trying. So she did.

It didn’t help much that the old equipment in the lab was always breaking. "We didn't have much grant money so we were always trying to make equipment last as long as possible. Some of it was older than I am," she says. "It would really become an issue when you got to the last step of an experiment, where you could actually get data, and then you couldn't proceed because the machine wasn't working correctly."

Although Annie initially enjoyed the camaraderie of other people in the lab, another source of frustration came in the form of a new trainee. "He was arrogant and rude," she says. "The whole lab dynamic changed after he arrived. I guess with people coming and going so frequently, you never know what kind of personality you are going to end up with. One thing he did that really drove me crazy was stealing my reagents. Not things that we would buy, but things that we had to make, like various solutions. I would make them and set them aside and then they would be gone."

Annie began to feel isolated from both her fellow trainees and her mentor. Then she met Mike, a doctoral student in another department. She began spending less time with zebra fish and more time with Mike; they got engaged about 6 months after they met. She knew her research wasn’t going well and blamed no one but herself. "It’s so easy to think you are stupid when your project isn’t going well and you're not getting the right kind of help," she says now.

Last July, while she was making the final arrangements for her wedding in New York, Annie received a copy of an e-mail sent from the department chair to all faculty and trainees. The memo announced that her mentor had decided to pick up roots and assume a new position at a laboratory in the Midwest. Annie felt like the floor had dropped out from under her. "The timing couldn’t have been worse," she says. "It was less than a week until my wedding, which is stressful enough without having to worry about what would happen to my career."

Immediately after the wedding, Annie flew back West to speak with her mentor. He offered her several options. 1) She could continue her research in another lab and he would mentor her from afar; 2) She could transfer to another laboratory and start over; or 3) She could move to his new lab and he would continue to mentor and support her. Instead, Annie decided to withdraw from the graduate program altogether. Within 2 weeks, she accepted her current job in industry.

"I had spent 3 years working on my thesis project that was going nowhere," she says. "Now that I've been out of school for a while it is easy to look back and realize that my advisor should have told me to move on to a different project about 2 years earlier." Had she to do it over again, she certainly wouldn’t have been so stubborn about making her project work and would have tried something else. "On the plus side, I did learn many techniques just through troubleshooting and trying to find something that would work."

Advice from Christie L. Sahley, Ph.D, professor of biological sciences and associate dean for undergraduate education at Purdue University in Indiana

"I am sorry to hear that Annie decided to leave her doctoral program and I am sorry that her mentor did not have the courtesy or professionalism to discuss his move with her. This was a large mistake on his part. Moving as a faculty member does not happen overnight; these decisions are usually made several months in advance of the actual date and there should have been ample time to discuss it with her and help her make plans. However, faculty do move around; it comes with the territory. There are negative tenure decisions that would force a move. There are new opportunities that faculty need to explore, as well as family issues, etc.

"Annie was given several workable solutions and she should have tried to take control of the situation and make a plan that worked for her. If she was a beginning student, she would have had the additional option of changing programs altogether because she would have less invested. But as an advanced student, it would have been in her best interest to take an active role in creating a plan that would protect her investment and allow her to complete her degree program. Making the best out of a not-so-good situation is an important life lesson."

Advice from Debbie Mandel, a stress management expert from New York and author of Changing Habits

"When we hit a brick wall, many of us beat our heads against it in frustration. In stress management, we teach people to flow and be flexible. While Annie had many viable alternatives, she chose to withdraw out of anger. Perhaps Annie needed to take a break and collect her depleted energy. Everyone experiences obstacles and everyone falls down; the point is that can we pick ourselves up and adapt the way human beings are engineered to do.

"All the options offered to her were good possibilities. Annie needed to realign her expectations. By setting small, realistic, and attainable goals and imagining the degree in her hand down the road, Annie could have re-motivated herself to accomplish this goal. Rarely does science run a straight, predictable course. Some of the detours and accidents proved to be the greatest breakthroughs."

Advice from Daniel L. Goroff, Ph.D., vice-president and dean of the faculty at Harvey Mudd College in California

"The detail that strikes me in Annie’s story is how she heard about her mentor’s departure in a departmental e-mail. The fate of a student should never be an afterthought. What was Annie’s relationship with her advisor like before his decision to move? Having an explicit understanding up-front about mutual responsibilities and expectations plays a key role in the success and satisfaction of young scientists, according to a Web survey conducted by Geoff Davis for Sigma Xi. Annie might have felt less out of control about her career with such an agreement in place.

"As for Annie’s feelings of failure and frustration, well, scientific experiments don’t always work. We would not call it research if we could predict the outcomes. It does require perseverance and passion to persist as an academic researcher. But it should not require great personal sacrifice. The way our society structures academic career paths needs to improve, if we expect bright and capable students like Annie to pursue Ph.D.-level science as opposed to other ostensibly more remunerative, humane, and predictable professional options. In sum, nature can seem capricious, mysterious, and beyond our control. Scientific careers need not be and should not feel that way, too."

Annie’s Response

“When I found out that my mentor and lab were moving, it was time to finally make a decision about whether I wanted to continue putting a lot of effort into something that I did not find fulfilling in the least, or to take a slightly different path while remaining in the field of molecular biology. It took some courage to acknowledge that I had spent many years preparing for a career that (after finding out more about it) I did not want. I made the best out of a bad situation by trying something new that turned out to be extremely rewarding. I am happier with my job than I ever imagined was possible. I don’t regret having spent so many years in grad school only to leave with a master’s instead of a Ph.D. because I learned many skills and gained experience that was essential to my smooth transition to industry.”

*Names and circumstances have been changed.

Take Home Tips to Overcome Frustration in the Lab

- Always expect the unexpected.
- Don’t let frustrations fester.
- Maintain open communication, particularly when you feel stymied in your work.
- Try to be flexible; look for other approaches when you hit dead ends.
- Maintain a healthy balance between work and the rest of your life.
- When one door closes, take the time to carefully look for another.

Seeking your thoughts and anecdotes for an upcoming column for Mind Matters -- Driven to Distraction

With the steady barrage of e-mails, cell phone calls, instant messages and the lure of the Internet--admit it, it’s sometimes hard to stay focused on your work. Then there’s the overly sociable colleague in your lab who wants to talk to you incessantly. What are the major distractions that keep you from your work? What hints can you offer to other trainees to help them stay focused and productive? Are you simply multitasking or could it be that you have an attention disorder? Write to me at

About the author: Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

Irene S. Levine

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part time as a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

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