I feel I’m at an important turning point in my PhD, now 4.5 months in I’m settled, I’ve done the base work required of me and I’m starting to generate real data. Data the means something.
Last week was the week – well that’s what I thought. My supervisor was away visiting collabrating colleagues for the week so my thinking was this; Brilliant, I’ll get loads done and have something REAL to show when he’s back. I was excited, I was motivated and then I was disappointed. Experiments don’t always work, it’s a sad fact of PhD life. The experiments I’m running are fairly long (24-48hrs) which means I only have a couple of shots in a week, in addition other people use the equipment – I can’t block book it for the week, as much as I’d like to! Basically this all added up to the fact that I didn’t really have much to show when my supervisor got back – despite putting in a really long, much more than 9-5 working week. It was a little demoralising.
So if you’re thinking about starting a PhD it’s probably best to tell you how I dealt with it as that’s really what you need to know from my un-fulfilling week.
- I was demoralised but I kept going – looking for a way to establish what the problem was so I could find a way around it.
- Over the weekend I set up my experiment with “ideal conditions”, conditions that I knew should work, if they work I know there is nothing wrong with the bacterial stocks I’m using, one potential problem checked off the list.
- This week I came in and checked my results – the basic experiment worked, I could rule out issues with my bugs. I also got an unexpected result with one strain that hadn’t previously been tested in these conditions – bingo! Something interesting means something to follow. I had sniffed something out just by going back to basics.
- Repeat the basic experiment to prove this is a real result, this is important to learn early in your PhD, results need to be reproducible otherwise you cannot back them up. Someone could easily say “well how do you know you didn’t just make a mistake that one time”.
- By Wednesday this week I’ve repeated the experiment and can tell you it doesn’t appear to be a mistake, I have a genuine difference in one strain. Back to feeling motivated! This feels really good as I worked until 8 last night so getting this result has spurred me on for today. Now I feel confident showing my results to my supervisor :), I’m very lucky that I can go to my supervisor purely to bounce idea’s around, I could take this to him before having the replicate but I feel good knowing I have the it to back me up. I can keep following this path in addition to the other experiments I had planned.
- My experimental conditions varied from my basic conditions in 2 ways, temperature and sugar. Now it is time to re-introduce one of these conditions to try and determine which it is that my bugs are struggling with (it may be both!) my gut feeling is it’s the temperature but obviously I need the data to back that up.
So overall I think the answer is to make sure you don’t just keep plodding along doing the same thing, you won’t get anywhere! Be prepared to repeat something incase you made a simple to fix error but also be prepared to evaluate how you might tackle this in another way. I repeated the original experiment twice before deciding to try the optimal conditions, as a minimum this acts like a control for me so isn’t useless data for my PhD. Don’t forget that doing something a little differently could produce an unexpected but interesting result.
As my supervisor is back now I don’t have the time to feel unmotivated, I have a list as long as my arm of things to do. Now that I’ve covered the groundwork of my PhD I’m a fully fledged and contributing member of the team and my tasks reflect that. So it’s time to get on with things and when problems pop up I need to remember to 1. go back to basics and 2. think a little differently.
I hope this is a helpful insight into PhD world, and something some of you can possibly apply one day to your own work :). Now I have to make a quick dash for my train home!
If you have questions/comments/wonderings leave a comment and I’ll get back to you 🙂