Beating the Ph.D. Blues

Earning a Ph.D. isn’t easy, nor should it be. The challenges of running a project, making discoveries, and convincing the world how important our work is can force us to develop new, valuable skills. Everyone faces a few bruises and false starts when heading out on their own, but failure during a Ph.D. can be a uniquely isolating experience. You might struggle with uninterpretable data, sensitive reaction conditions, or inseparable by-products, while colleagues may seem to stumble into exciting discoveries, publish high-impact papers, or jet around the world to speak at conferences.

Almost every Ph.D. student I have known has gone through some form of “the Ph.D. blues.” A recent study found graduate students are six times more likely to suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety than the general population. Students may face a lack of tangible progress on their project, question their ability to write a thesis, or consider quitting altogether. This phase usually arrives around a year or so into the project, when the realization dawns that they may not actually change the world entirely during your graduate studies and, in fact, they might be lucky to have enough to fill a thesis and graduate. Many talents students could be retained and much suffering could be alleviated if these students knew how common these challenges are.

As a senior Postdoc, I have counseled many students suffering from the Ph.D. blues. The most common refrains are “Nothing I do is working,” or “I have no results.” Downbeat and dejected, they feel inadequate to the task of getting a Ph.D. and are overcome with imposter syndrome. Luckily, most of these concerns are unfounded. The most fundamental quality which determines whether you will get a Ph.D. is persistence!

Here’s my advice to students who want to beat the Ph.D. blues:

  1. Keep it in perspective. It may seem like you are the only one in your group who is struggling to obtain results. This is unlikely, though it may be the case that you are the only one struggling at this very moment. Any research group consists of a range of experience levels. More senior researchers have likely already gone through a barren stretch and come out the other side, while less experienced researchers are still imbued with wide-eyed optimism. Understand that this is a normal part of conducting research, especially on an ambitious research project and it is highly unlikely that you are uniquely incapable.

  2. Talk to your colleagues. A strong support network is key to your enjoyment and success in a Ph.D. program. During my graduate studies, I vividly recall the final stage of a weeks-long multistep synthesis being exposed to air by a loose piece of tubing. My labmates gently but firmly directed me to the pub and plied me with enough tequila to forget my reaction (and my backpack) completely. Talk to your peers honestly about your feelings and if you can, talk to more senior members of the lab who have likely gone through this experience. You can even vent on social media to the wider chemistry community. Chemists on Twitter are very supportive, and you will find innumerable examples of similar experiences.

  3. Consult your principal investigator. Even the most brilliant PIs have had project ideas that worked perfectly on paper but not in real life. Ask your PI if it is useful to continue with the current direction of your project. Reframing the scope of your research with more readily attainable goals or altering the project altogether may be on the cards. You may also find that your PI is quietly delighted with your progress and can reassure you that you and the project are on the right track.

  4. Remind yourself of what you’ve learned so far. Write down the things you know how to do that you didn’t before. Maybe it’s as simple as, ‘I’ve more experience in presenting to a small group now’ or ‘I’ve learned how to run GC/MS samples’. You can do this every day. Did you read a paper with a new synthetic route? Find out your compound is light sensitive? Or learn how to perform a Soxhlet extraction? I guarantee you learn something new every day in the lab, so celebrate those little wins; they build up to big achievements.

  5. Take ownership of your project. Having sufficient results to fill a thesis can seem like a daunting goal when you are struggling, and PIs are often very focused on their next high-impact paper. Take the opportunity to spend a little of your time working on a small side project which may be of less interest to your supervisor but can be valuable for your thesis and reinforce your belief in your abilities. For example, I often suggest synthesizing a similar compound to those previously documented with a slight twist (e.g., different R-group or metal) to observe any differences. This work may not win any awards but will be valuable in building your confidence and skills.

  6. Take care of your mental and physical health. Take a break! Working harder is not always the answer, in fact, I’ve solved tough lab challenges and had my most creative ideas while asleep or on holiday. Sleep studies show that we are more creative and alert after a good rest. Similarly, a break from work can reduce our stress hormones and allow us to process our thoughts and feelings. If you feel unable to get through this alone or are concerned about your mental health, seek help from your doctor or a trained counselor. Most universities offer a free service to students, and even a couple of therapy sessions can work wonders on your outlook.

What can the chemistry community do to help students beat the Ph.D. blues?

  1. Promote a growth mindset. Graduate students are just that: Students. They are researching to learn and to develop their skills, not just pump out results and papers. We must encourage them to learn from all of their experiences during their Ph.D. and to recognize their achievements. Too often we talk about “failed” reactions, missing out on the important lessons of each experiment. How did it fail? Did it produce a different product? Did no reaction occur? Was the yield lower than expected? Why did it do that? What can we try next to produce our desired outcome? What did you learn while doing this?

  2. Talk openly about failure. PIs and senior researchers should shout about and even celebrate our failures as the price we pay for success and achievement. Glass will smash, columns will run dry, air will leak in, and papers will get rejected. Some academics I know even have a Chemriculum Deficit (or CV of Failures) as a reminder of all of the things we’ve worked on that didn’t produce the desired outcome. We all know they contribute to our success just as much as when things went our way. Reminding our young students often of the setbacks we all experience will prevent them from viewing themselves as uniquely unlucky or worse, incapable.

  3. Develop a supportive environment. Talk to our students about imposter syndrome and the Ph.D. blues, while creating an environment where senior researchers have a responsibility to mentor and support their younger colleagues. Preparing students for the ups and downs of research is as important as training them in the skills required to carry out complex techniques. Since motivation is intrinsically linked to productivity, it would serve us well to recognize and act when we see students whose motivation is waning. Postdocs and senior Ph.D. students are ideally placed to support struggling students, and this should be a part of their professional development too.

Completing a Ph.D. can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the career of a scientist. Learning to overcome setbacks and self-doubt imbues us with resilience. Experiencing the Ph.D. blues is a near-universal rite of passage on this road to writing a thesis, but it can be overcome with the right support and a good dose of persistence.

Nicola Bell is a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Edinburgh and a member of the 2017 class of the SciFinder® Future Leaders program. Learn more about this unique networking opportunity for Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers.

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