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The biggest challenge of my PhD

Similar to anyone just starting their PhD, I was full of energy and ambition. I knew what my project was about and what I had to do (ish). I wanted to produce, to deliver results and to show I could be an independent researcher. Alongside all the reading, I tried to do as many experiments as I could in as many different ways. I kept this up for weeks and, not surprisingly, the rate of positive results was not exactly what I was expecting.

At each failure I thought, “Ok, this didn`t work, but the other approaches will, maybe if I try this and that...” After repeating this several times, the non-fulfilment of my expectations led to frustration, which then led to lack of motivation and sense of importance. I had to step back, stop what I was doing and re-evaluate.

Looking back, I now realise that I made the very common mistake of setting the bar too high, and that my expectations were unsuitable for my skill level at that point. After adjusting my mindset, I adjusted my timing and experiments. I saw the (not so) obvious relation between production and productivity: it’s better to do two things really well rather than seven badly. I understood that when we make a mistake, we have a choice on how to face it: get frustrated and demotivated, or analyse it carefully and learn from it.

I am now starting my third year and, as with any project, I've had good periods and plenty of bad ones. The difference is that I know now that bad phases are a normal part of the process, a signal saying that we have to change and adapt. So I've dealt with them much better and things in general have been less stressful and more enjoyable.

So, if you are starting your PhD, work hard, but remember it’s OK to make mistakes, and don`t put unnecessary pressure and frustration on the top of them. As the well-known saying goes, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”.

Leonardo Talachia Rosa, PhD researcher (Molecular Biology and Biotechnology)

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