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Coping with frustration


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I'm in the summer of my fourth year in a PhD program in biology. I have been developing an assay to screen for a certain recombination event, and it has been going poorly. Cell lines keep getting contaminated, test after test with the same strains produces results that are inconsistent, and may not prove to be statistically significant enough to pass peer review in a journal article. So after four years, I have no reliable data.


I am physically and emotionally exhausted. I don't eat enough during the day, I get only four hours of sleep a night because I'm too tense, and I have pretty severe anxiety symptoms that I have been in therapy for years on. My advisor is less than helpful, and we have no grant money.


What can you do when frustration and burnout strike? What happens when it looks like a research project may not produce significant or even verifiable results?

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Sorry you're having such a tough time. Do you have a backup project? Is there a side question you might be able to investigate, or an offshoot of someone else's work that you could pick up as your backup? Maybe having something that's a less sexy, but also more reliable, project will give you some necessary security and confidence in being successful.


Have you asked others to help you troubleshoot? Maybe a postdoc, your PI, or another student could give you a fresh set of eyes. Are there other professors in the department with whom you have a better relationship? Perhaps talking through your frustrations with them and getting ideas would help.


How are your hobbies outside the lab? It's possible that spending an hour or two a day doing something you really love that truly helps take your mind off your stress, if only for a few minutes at a time, could help your mental state in a major way. Personally, the more stressed out I get and the less I feel like I have time for my hobbies, the more I really need to keep them in my life. Having a buddy (workout partner, rock climbing partner, and horse-riding partner, for me) helps get you out of the lab and into a little bit of fun.


Take this for what it's worth, because I'm a just-graduated undergrad working in a very different field (paleontology), but...every project I've worked on has gone through a stage where I despair that it's never going to work out, I can't get the data to behave, nothing is going to turn up significant, and I won't be able to write a paper from it. So far (n = 3ish?) every one of those projects has worked out in SOME way in the end, even if the eventual writeup doesn't wind up being exactly what I envisioned when I first started the project.


I hope that helps at least a little. Good luck!

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I'm really sorry you feel that badly. 

I agree that you should try to make time to do other things that make you happy. Even if you go outside (outside of lab or actually outside) bring a timer and just read something non science for an hour during the day. Are there any other grad students around that you are close with? I am only finishing up my second year, but I wouldn't get through most days without a friend of mine. 

As for your project, is there another person on your committee you could go to for suggestions? You seemed to say/imply that your adviser wasn't all that helpful, maybe another committee member could be? I also agree that talking about your project with others might give you some ideas as to what is going on. It could just be something really silly like the water used to make the reagents has a varying pH that for some reason for what you are testing is really important. 

Honestly I would try to cut back on lab time a little and do other things you enjoy sometimes. I know each lab is different and expectations are different, but adding hours to your work day isn't going to help if you are too burnt out to get anything productive done. 


I'm sure you know you aren't the only one who feels this way, but it is a hard thing to deal with. I hope you can figure out how to feel better. 

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