How to cope when an experiment “fails”

After hours in the cold room looking after my experiment

After hours in the cold room looking after my experiment

When I first started my PhD, I knew that science experiments could and would fail. I thought I was prepared for this and at the start I was.

In the first year of a PhD a lot of the failure is down to learning techniques and is part of your training to become a scientist. In most cases it’s a little mistake that you can track back and correct. Though failure of any sort is discouraging this kind allows a sense of achievement when you find your little oversight and next time the experiment works perfectly for you.

However as you progress through your PhD you encounter experiments that are increasingly difficult, in technique but also conceptually. Many problems can arise at this point as you have an expectation of “the correct result” from the data you have gathered previously. When the experiment gives you a different result from the one you expected, it can be hard to accept it. You are left with the question of ‘why have I not got the result I hoped for?’

This can lead to self doubt and repetitions of the experiment with multiple variables changed to try and ‘tease out’ the result you expected. Though this needs to be investigated in order to be a thorough scientist it can be demoralizing. After a prolonged effort you can be left with the original “incorrect” result. Time is precious in a PhD and it can feel wasted on this sort of en-devour and lead to a lot of negative feelings regarding lab work.

I encountered this problem as I transitioned into the final year of my PhD and here is my advice on how to get out of the slump!

6 Strategies to cope with “failed” experiments

  • Take a step back and give yourself a break. Though you will feel tense due to the time ‘lost’ on this experiment you will have been working hard and to avoid burning out I would recommend taking some time to be around friends and family.
  • Try and see the big picture. Though getting your PhD may feel like all there is to life at the moment, this is temporary. There is more to life than the lab bench.
  • It will not ruin your thesis! Even though this has not turned out as planned and may be difficult to explain in your thesis, it will be in there, you will come up with a theory and that will be good enough.
  • Talk to your supervisor. This piece of advice can be tricky depending on your supervisors style. If possible let them know that this experiment has demotivated you and ask for advice on how to move forward.
  • Focus your energy on something achievable to restore your confidence. This could be doing some writing so you can see all the positive results you do have, doing data analysis, or completing a smaller experiment you had put off before.
  • It can also be useful to do something outside work to rebuild your self confidence. This can be anything, I found science outreach useful, but it could be as simple as getting a group of old friends to meet up or taking up a new hobby.

I hope this advice is helpful and would love to hear any anecdotes of how you coped after similar set backs.


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