Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Mastering Your PhD: Dealing with Setbacks

Life is good. You're comfortably settled into your lab routine, you've established your scientific objectives, and your research seems to be percolating along. You get along well with your labmates, and the lines of communication with your adviser are open. You feel good about your progress and are pretty sure you're on the right track. So everything is wonderful. Right?

Wrong. Because one day you realize that nothing is working.

For several weeks--or months--your carefully planned experiments haven't given you the results you need. Your cell cultures have been contaminated for the umpteenth time. The PCR machine or the HPLC or the UV spectrometer breaks down--again. You can't get your chemical compounds to crystallize. All your mice mysteriously die. Weeks or months of data are lost. To top it off, you discover you've made a mistake in your statistical calculations, and 6 months of experiments are worthless.

Gather together a group of seasoned scientists, and they will tell you horror stories like these--and more.

Perhaps you are one of the chosen few who have experienced few obstacles in life. You've succeeded at everything you've ever tried. Now, suddenly, you're beset with doubt. What do you mean my experiments failed? Nothing I do ever fails. How could this happen to me?

When something like this happens to you--and in all likelihood it will--what will you do? How will you cope?

Platitudes may be the last thing you think you need to hear as you struggle in a pool of quicksand, but we're going to offer one anyway: Think of your setbacks not as failures, mistakes, or wrong turns--but, rather, as a chance to learn and grow. We know it's a cliché, but if you take it to heart you will be prepared to deal with setbacks more effectively.

Write down this old adage from Nietzsche (from Twilight of the Idols, although he may have taken it from someone else), and tape it to your computer: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Trial, error, and patience

With things looking grim on the experimental front and your sense of panic ballooning, this might be a good time to remind yourself that science is all about trial and error. You will make plenty of errors and endure lots of trials before you uncover even a glimmer of truth. If all research proceeded without a hitch, scientists would be able to skip the endless rounds of experimentation and go straight from hypothesis to publication without breaking a sweat. Science progresses in fits and starts and proceeds in its own sweet time.

It follows that in science patience is an important virtue. And by "patience" we don't mean sitting in a corner waiting for something to happen. We mean, rather, having realistic expectations and not forcing matters. When things go wrong, don't panic or question your own competence. Stay focused and don't rush. Cultivate a fine sense of balance: Keep the big picture in mind, but take satisfaction from small successes.

Your lab's goal may be to find a cure for cancer or to understand the underlying mechanisms of a genetic disease, but this goal is not going to be reached overnight or even next year--and probably not in 5 years. Most major breakthroughs occur after decades of hard, painstaking work. Scientific satisfaction comes from those important small strides along the way. Stay focused, work hard and smart, and believe that they will come.

Another thing to remember is it that experience matters. As a beginner, you are bound to make mistakes that a more experienced scientist wouldn't make. Take heart--you won't be a novice forever. Practice, experience, and the willingness to try and to fail will nurture your intuition and your technical mastery. Here's another favorite mantra (this one from Beckett): "Try again. Fail again. Fail better ."

Even when they're true, words like these can't keep setbacks from affecting your confidence. Your best weapon is focused, methodical, patient effort. A logical approach to identifying problems will put setbacks in perspective, turn them into learning experiences, solve them, and boost your confidence.

Take action: Tips for bouncing back

Feeling overwhelmed? Sad? Frustrated? Angry? It can be tempting to overindulge in alcohol, eat your body weight in ice cream, or watch too much TV. If you feel the need to wallow, then go ahead. It's okay to blow off steam for a day or two. But wallow purposefully; the goal of wallowing is to put the bad stuff behind you and move on. You need help doing that; talk to friends, family, and other sources of moral support. Seek out people who can help you attain a sense of perspective.

Once you've blown off some steam, identified the setback, and sought moral support from friends and family, it's time to get yourself back on track. Recommit to getting round the obstacle that's holding you back. Here we offer a few practical tips:

  • Take care of yourself. You may have been putting in even longer hours than usual in the lab in order to recover from your setback. You may have eaten a little too much ice cream. But running yourself down physically and mentally will only make you feel more miserable and hopeless. Regular meals, plenty of sleep, and lots of stress-reducing exercise will go a long way toward getting you back on track.

  • Use your imagination. Creative solutions require unconventional thinking. What you've been doing hasn't been working, so it's time to take another tack. Go back over your recent work and think carefully about each of the steps. Where did things go wrong? Is it something you can fix? Can you think of some alternative approaches that might help you get around the problem?

  • Ask for help. Right now you need people more than ever--not, at this point, for moral support, but for scientific support. Talk to senior scientists in the lab and your adviser about how to get unstuck. Can they suggest some new approaches? Do you need to learn a new skill or technique? Is there someone who can teach you? If you can't find the answers you need within the lab, consider looking outside--with your adviser's permission, of course. Somewhere, somebody is working on a similar problem. They might be able to get you unstuck.

  • Be patient. Your problems will not disappear overnight, so be kind to yourself. Accept that it will take time to get back on track again. Develop a thick skin. Be tough. No one said grad school was going to be easy. Take one step at a time, and remind yourself that Rome wasn't built in a day. If things don't turn around immediately, don't worry. Keep at it.

  • If bad goes to worse: Should you stop all together?

    What if you've tried our suggestions, and tried them again, and things still haven't gotten better? Maybe you lie awake night after night, and a single thought careens like a boomerang through your mind: " Things are not working out. Grad school is not what I thought it would be. I don't really want to be a scientist after all. Maybe I should just quit."

    Before you do anything hasty, examine your situation very carefully. Your project may have been poorly conceived and doomed to failure. Or maybe you just don't have the skills or training to make things work. Both of these scenarios occur far more often than they should--and both can be solved. You can learn a new technique. You can convince your adviser that your project is a dud and start working on something new. Wanting to quit after a setback is a common and justifiable emotional response (What's the point? It's just too hard, etc.). Actually quitting is something you shouldn't do without giving it a lot of thought and talking about it with other people, including your adviser.

    The decision to stay or go will depend on your resilience, your goals, and how much you've invested already in your Ph.D. If you're in your first year and having serious and persistent doubts, you can leave without losing much time. If you're more than halfway through, your decision is more complex. You may decide that it's worth toughing it out even if you don't anticipate a career as a bench scientist.

    Life is fluid. You started grad school fired up, anxious to get on with your research and your career, but now you're not so sure anymore. It's not just a few doubts drifting through your mind at the end of another bad day; we all have those. But if those thoughts are persistent and impossible to ignore--if you just can't seem to recover from a major setback--consider giving it up. There are many kinds of work that will utilize your skills.

    Setbacks happen in the lab. Recovering from a setback takes time, ingenuity, fortitude, patience, and--occasionally--the courage to make a major change. Hone your coping skills at the first sign of trouble. You'll be much wiser--or at least have a thicker skin--when the next rocky stretch of road threatens to break your stride.

    Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your PhD: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006). Dr. Gosling is a senior medical writer at CMPMedica in Malaysia and also works as a freelance science writer. Dr. Noordam is a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a Regional Audit Organization. He has also worked for McKinsey and Co.

    Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700024