…By Sophie / from the United Kingdom / PhD Tissue Repair / 4th Year
“The data, the pipetting, those are all just things you do. This is your PhD.”
People did tell me that second year was going to be a challenge and I’m not saying I didn’t believe them or thought I would be special and different, but I guess I didn’t really think what they meant. I was expecting the dearth of data and the pressure to produce some but not how that would actually make me feel. Spoiler: not good.
My first year of the project I felt super focused – even though when I look at what I generated data-wise it’s, er, not exactly groundbreaking. But so full of hope! And there was actually something clear at the end. Second year has seemed to slip through my fingers without a real moment of clarity and as I enter my final year that panic set in. What had I even achieved? What was I going to achieve in the next, final year?
Foolishly, one of my responses to this problem was to avoid tackling it head on and do all the other little bits and bobs that need to be done but aren’t progressing my project in a big way. And so I was bumbling along for a bit, telling myself all was well because I was in the lab! In a lab coat! Making graphs! But really I wasn’t answering the right questions, and the longer I was doing it the more embarrassed I felt that I hadn’t made any meaningful contribution to my work.
I didn’t acknowledge it, at first because I didn’t realise what I was doing and later because I was ashamed I wasn’t working hard enough, or smart enough or whatever. And so it went on longer. Who knew that bottling your issues and storing them in the drinks cabinet of your mind wasn’t a good idea??
If this sounds like you, hurrah, you’re the reason I wrote this and put it on the internet.
Because I’m not unique. When I finally told my friend, a post-doc who’s basically supported me from the beginning, that I was struggling she was gloriously unsurprised and said the quote at the top of this blog post. Basically, it’s how you deal with the shit that makes you good and advances you as a scientist, not the data you churn out. Anyone can learn to accurately move clear liquids from tube to tube but not everyone has the resilience to handle successive failures and push forward.
And everyone in science, in academia probably, has this feeling. It comes, and it comes again. Once you know it, you can recognise it faster, deal with it better and lose less time. I wasn’t progressing my project much because I was possibly nervous I’d find nothing, and that would make me a bad scientist. But actually it turns out it might make me a better scientist because I’ve now got a new tool at my disposal.
Once you’ve said you’re having a bit of a rough time, it’s easier to say it again. I guess once the drinks cabinet is unlocked you’re better at making the cocktails. Okay that analogy is weak. Another conversation with another post-doc friend revealed more understanding and more support. Knowing you’re not daft for feeling overwhelmed is the first step and I was much better able to strategise and prioritise once I’d had these conversations.
So here I am, saying it again but in a format that is probably far too open, hoping that one person in my position reads it and maybe unlocks their drinks cabinet a bit sooner.
Also, all hail good post-docs.