When Your PhD Goes Wrong

There is no point pretending that research often doesn’t pan out the way one hopes and dreams about. All kinds of things can go wrong in both the short and long term, and these are not always your own fault (although sometimes they are). I have been reflecting on this aspect of a researcher’s life during a week being spent about as far away from Cambridge as one can get. I am in Sydney where I was honoured to be invited to give the Peter Domachuk Lecture. I chose to talk about ‘The Importance of Imagery’ which enabled me to talk about the many years I spent working on Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy (ESEM), as well as sneak in issues about the importance of using diverse images on departmental walls, not simply reflecting a pale, male way of doing science.

What has that got to do with research going wrong, I hear you asking, surely you didn’t talk about failed research in a major public lecture? Well yes, in one sense I did. For all the person-years my group collectively expended on ESEM research, studying a huge range of samples from ice cream to cement, from leaves to mammalian cells, ultimately – particularly in the area of the imaging of biological samples – the research hit what I see as a dead end. While electron microscopes give you higher resolution than a conventional light microscope, modern optical methods (STORM, PALM and all the other acronyms this field has spawned) can beat the diffraction limit and provide novel insight at the single molecule level that ESEM cannot. There are many interesting problems of hydrated samples away from biology that can be imaged in exquisite detail in an ESEM, but the field never really took off for reasons that I still find rather hard to fathom. So our work languishes in what appears to be a cul-de-sac.

Having discussed this frankly, at the end of my talk I was asked about how I felt emotionally about this failure, a question I had never posed to myself. In many ways, as I slipped out of all-consuming active research into simultaneous, substantive roles as the university’s gender equality champion and chairing the Royal Society Education Committee, it was just another form of logical progression to let the area dwindle. I had derived a great deal of satisfaction from the work I did, it had turned up lots of neat physics and interesting problems to solve. My students and postdocs who had worked on the ESEM technique had all gone on to jobs of their choosing: some had gone to work with electron microscope manufacturers and had easily slipped into working on other types of instruments; some had stayed on in academia and had spread their own wings in different directions from solar cells, to biomaterials, from metrology to peptides. One had even become a tax inspector. They had all successfully moved on, untainted by the ultimate demise of my own research in this arena.

So, emotionally I felt saddened that the technique hadn’t revolutionised imaging but I wasn’t devastated. Things can be far, far worse. I have never been scooped in my research, a fact that I attribute to the fact I have tended not to work on ‘hot’ topics where multiple groups are simultaneously chasing the same pot of gold. Not being topical has its downsides, but so does having the key results of your thesis published just weeks before your own paper is submitted. This happens. This is devastating. But it has never happened to anyone in my own team, for which I am duly thankful. Of course being scooped is not in itself going to prevent the award of the thesis if you have already done the experiments but not published them. Your own data stands up to the award of the degree. But the loss of that anticipated Nature paper can certainly jeopardise your future as a hot-shot researcher. The prize does indeed go the fleet of foot in a situation like that.

What I have seen happen to one of my own research students is rather the opposite. This was a case where not a single experiment attempted yielded any insight into the problem in hand. It was a thesis full of null results. We were comparing the standard way of producing chocolate with samples produced by room temperature extrusion in collaboration with Nestle. We knew the two forms of chocolate were different, their bulk mechanical properties made this very clear. But every type of analysis we attempted – X-ray diffraction, thermal methods, microscopy as I recall (it was a long time ago) – produced no obvious structural difference. This was deeply depressing, but clearly written up the student still successfully defended the thesis and she was duly awarded the PhD. She had done the work well, but clearly we were asking the wrong questions.

So what do you do when things go wrong? Being scooped, or producing null results do not mean you are (necessarily) a bad researcher, but it is only natural if either outcome leads to you wanting to turn your back on research. Indeed, you may find you have little choice. On the other hand, as I have written about before, I spent 2 spectacularly unsuccessful years as a postdoc so in some sense I am proof that it is possible to move on, bounce back and progress. It isn’t easy. It requires determination and resilience – and quite a lot of luck (as undoubtedly applied in my case). Nevertheless it is important to distinguish when the fault really does lie with you, as it may, because you are a sloppy experimentalist, unmotivated or simply don’t put the hours and effort in because you are distracted by extracurricular activities; on the other hand the problem may arise due to circumstances beyond your own control. You are likely to know which applies. If you don’t your supervisor will probably have a clear view and may well make this abundantly clear. But, even if the fault is entirely yours you still have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and decide how to put it all behind you and go on to find what (else) does excite you.


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2 Responses to When Your PhD Goes Wrong

  1. Anon says:

    “Being scooped, or producing null results do not mean you are (necessarily) a bad researcher, but it is only natural if either outcome leads to you wanting to turn your back on research. Indeed, you may find you have little choice.”

    This is entirely accurate, but is a serious systemic problem. If your career depends on “success,” defined to exclude good quality null research then there is an incentive to fake results and steal ideas. In biomedicine the problem is acute and is no doubt partly responsible for the crisis of reproducibility. We have to have a career structure that encourages honest science.

  2. Gareth says:

    I always felt that luck was an under-appreciated factor while working even harder was oversold as a solution to all difficulties.
    Having a good PhD supervisor is pretty important, in my view.

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