PhD candidate experiencing problems

#97: How to deal with set-backs

Experiencing set-backs is inevitable during a PhD project. But it’s how you deal with these that can make all the difference. Here, we’ll teach you how to turn your set-backs into growth, and  get your PhD project back on the track to success. 

We have all experienced this: you’ve been working your butt off to get something done to move your PhD or research project ahead, and then some incident comes crashing down on you and makes weeks or months of work obsolete. We’re talking about the paper that got rejected (think of the moment you opened the e-mail from the editor), a project proposal declined, failed experiments in the lab, distorted data, non-significant results, cancelled field-trips, or supervisors requiring substantial changes to your dissertation, just when you thought it was ready for submission. The lists of set-backs that the participants in my PhD courses share with me are virtually endless. 

After a serious set-back, we usually feel like hiding in a hole, or curling up on the sofa in our pyjamas and never moving again! While just disappearing from planet earth might seem a tempting strategy, it won’t exactly help you find a solution, and is obviously not the best way forward for your PhD.

In this blogpost, I’ll share some candid advice on how to deal with set-backs and turn them around, so you can confidently set yourself back on the right path – towards PhD completion. But before then, let me share my worst PhD set-back with you.

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My worst PhD set-back

In the second year of my PhD, I transferred to Denmark to continue my PhD at Roskilde University, and to do field-work – see also blog post #41: PhD highs and lows: Bärbel’s experiences.

After a few weeks, I had to give a presentation at the department about my PhD project to my supervisors, staff, and other PhD students. It was nothing I was overly nervous about. I remember just giving the talk, proposing my ideas, including some fundamental theories and approaches I would use to put my empirical work into context. But little had I anticipated the dispute that broke out when I had finished. It felt as if I was criticised by literally everyone who attended. The ideas for my empirical work got ripped apart, and my theoretical approaches were panned as outdated and outlandish! It was not just minor criticisms, but fundamental differences in approaching my PhD goals. I barely managed to leave the room holding back my tears, pick up my stuff in the office, and get home! I thought I was finished. I had no plan to ever return to the institute again! 

I had expected some praise for my project ideas, maybe some friendly hints on what  to improve, but I was not used to that type of criticism from peers – for me it came out of the blue. 

I guess most of you know how it feels, and it really hurts! Now I want to share some advice with you so that the next time you experience a PhD set-back, you’re better prepared than I was, and you know how to respond.

Set-backs are part of the journey

You’ve got this complex 3-4 year PhD project to master. Do you really think  that everything will run smoothly all the time? No chance! In hindsight, it is totally clear to me that one has to expect trouble somewhere down the line. There’s no PhD project ever without difficulties – if it were and if it was easy, the number of people with a PhD degree would likely be much higher. 

But exactly how you deal with a set-back will make all the difference. It will influence whether you get the degree in the end or not. In principal you’ve got two options:

  1. bury your head in the sand and wait for the problem to disappear
  2. face the challenge, overcome your problem, and turn your set-back into growth

While the first option might be tempting, rest assured that a scientific problem or trouble with your supervisor won’t just disappear. In fact, some problems might get worse the longer you wait, so inertia is definitely not the way forward. 

Rising up to the challenge, owning the problem, and showing up as the person who is responsible are much better strategies. Yes, you guessed it already: Option two is the only viable one!

You’ve got to learn to deal with set-backs

Developing the ability to deal with set-backs is part of your job as a PhD candidate. Moreover, it’s not meant to be a journey without obstacles. The purpose of obtaining a PhD degree is to become a fully professional researcher – learning to cope with problems is an essential skill you’ll have to pick up. 

A few years from now you’ll have responsibility for teams of scientists, big research budgets, and large projects – the set-backs will grow with your responsibilities. See every challenge or set-back that you experience in your PhD as training for the future! It’s a chance to learn and grow! 

3-steps to overcome a set-back

Step 1: Acknowledge what happened! 

Don’t beat around the bush! Accept that something did not go according to plan! Whether you discovered that you made a mistake, failed to do something, or received a rebuke from your supervisor, a rejection from the journal or funding agency, or some of your data or organisms just went down the drain . . . you gotta own it! It’s your PhD project, hence, you’ve got to take responsibility. Don’t gloss it over or try to hide, don’t pretend nothing happened! But don’t make a judgment yet either – just acknowledge what happened.  

Step 2: Let emotions cool off!

When you experience a set-back, emotions usually go high! In that moment, you’ll not be able to make judgements or think rationally. So make sure you have the chance to simmer down. To help, I recommend the following: 

  • Talk to your partner, family, friends and colleagues. Share your story and they will share theirs. You’ll be amazed about the hilarious incidents they recall! 
  • Sleep on it. No matter how serious your troubles are, everything looks better the next morning after a good night’s sleep! This way, you’ll get some distance from what happened and you give your brain a rest. 
  • Take care of yourself: Yes correct! You’re gonna spoil yourself rotten now! Cook up your favourite dish, take a day off and go hiking, or jump into the tub! Do what you fancy! 

All of the above helps to put things into perspective! Once your emotions have cooled down, you are in a much better position to make a realistic judgment as to how serious the set-back is. Is it really as bad as you initially thought? How does it influence your PhD, your life, your wellbeing? Is it really just a bruised ego and a few-weeks of work lost? 

Step 3: Overcome the set-back

Once you’re ready, you’ve got to get back to the problem and see how to resolve the issue. In this phase, you have to keep an open mind, be sensitive to the situation, and see what works best. There’s no cure-all or single strategy that you can apply to each and every situation. But if you use your brainpower and experience in combination with the following suggestions, you should be able to find a remedy and move ahead. 

  • Ask for help and seek advice: Although you may think so, you’re likely not the first scientist who has experienced this type of problem. Tour the department, speak to other experts, consult supervisors and postdocs – what would they do in your situation? You’ll be amazed at how many useful suggestions this can generate. Even if the exact solution may not be among these right away, the suggestions may spark new ideas in you and show a possible way forward. Plus, in dealing with a failure in a transparent and open way, you display professionalism! 
  • Think outside the box: Honestly, staring into the computer or standing in front of your broken experimental set-up won’t bring you any closer to a solution. It’s unlikely you will find the bug in your code after an 8h marathon of going through it. Take yourself out of the location and get into creator mode! You need to get your brain into an easy-going and playful mood, thinking about something else entirely! Nobel prize winners have reported that they got the initial idea that years later led them to their big breakthrough when entering a bus or taking a shower! 
  • Cultivate the art of patience: Going through every little detail that led up to the set-back might help as well. Something that has not worked 3 times may work when you try one more time. Having your paper rejected once does not mean you can’t re-write and submit it to another journal. Requirements to revise your thesis before submission may seem unbearable at first, but later you’ll realise that implementation is possible after all, and all it takes is time and persistence. In our blog post #46: “What makes PhD students succeed?”  we discuss how important persistence is for a successful PhD process. 

Giving up is not an option

After my presentation at the department, it took me a few days to muster up the courage to get back to work again. Once my emotions had cooled off, I was able to review the critical remarks I had received. Eventually, I came to realise that some of the criticism of my colleagues was not only well-intentioned, but also justified. I took a good deal of their suggestions and ultimately, they improved my project a lot. 

Giving up and running away is not an option during your PhD. Developing the tenacity and stamina to persist through difficulties is one skill you’ve got to pick up during your PhD time. Those who persist will make it through to the end and get the degree!

Do you want to learn how to work on your PhD in a better way – avoiding mishaps and typical struggles? Join our free webinar ‘The 4 secrets to a successful PhD’.

PS: Shout-out to Nicole Crozier (PhD candidate, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa) for inspiring me to write this blog post!

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