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Early PhD Woes?


conus_textile
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I am entering my final year of undergraduate studies, and application season is approaching. Over the past year, I've been flip-flopping between plans for graduate school. There is an idealistic part of me that wishes to pursue a PhD (in my field, job opportunities are a bit limited).
For the past 7 months, I have been working in my research area of interest, doing the sort of work that I had hoped to do in a PhD program.
I've been working on 2 projects in collaboration with two PIs during this time. Both projects began with optimistic talk about completion dates within 2-4 months, but since then it feels as if we have been running in circles and other enclosed shapes.
In essence, we have been trying to establish empirically that hypothesis X is true. I have come to rather strongly believe that hypothesis X is not true, and the past 30-40 experiments we've run over the past 4 months (all involving very minor tweaks of the same experiment) have felt a bit futile. I understand that we are persisting because of a commitment to a specific theoretical perspective, but it strikes me that perhaps we should have at least begun exploring the idea of questioning/revising our theoretical stance about 20 experiments ago. With the exception of a few fleeting bursts of inspiration, my PIs are quite pessimistic about the prospects for these projects. For many months now, I have spent most of my waking hours thinking about these projects and how I might be able to 'make them work'... just waiting for some burst of insight.
Yet I have a nagging feeling that our troubles arise because we are attempting to demonstrate falsehoods. I feel like a desperate surgeon, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that my patient is practically dead.
Throughout all of this, I have developed a number of skills, to be sure. The most concrete of these might be that my programming skills and general-'emergency'-resourcefulness have improved immensely. Generally when I experience some success on either of these projects, it is simply in writing code that helps to provide evidence against our hypotheses.
Sometimes, I can't help but wonder if I'm the problem somehow. I've received nothing but encouragement, and yet the thought nags me sometimes. Maybe the only reason I worry about this is because I have no idea how often projects fail. Both of my PIs have remarked that we've been having "horrible luck", and both have mentioned other times that projects have turned out this way... But I'm slightly surprised that this is happening with 2 separate projects.
 
Although I have thought about all of the above fairly regularly over the past year, I am thinking about this a bit more now, as I have just experienced a breakup of a fairly long relationship due to incompatible lifestyles with my significant other. In large part, this is because there are some not-so-soft "deadlines" on these projects (for example, I am expected to give a public presentation near the middle of the summer... but I may try to cancel this talk). As a result, I was spending most of my hours in the office, trying to make things work... and sometimes being met with small, illusory successes... but ultimately failing. My stress and my lack of availability ultimately led to the end of our relationship.
Even ignoring this recent breakup, I frequently find myself wondering whether pursuing a PhD would be "worth it". I'm a quiet person who would spend a lot of time studying, reading articles, and working on various personal projects (many of which would probably be outside of my research area) if completely left to my own devices. I'm not too social, and I've spent most of my life in isolation, devoting all of my time and energy to various personal projects.
For this reason, people who have known me since I was young assume that a PhD is the natural next step for me. I have also long assumed this...
 
But I get the sense that what I really want in life is the following:
1) sufficient financial/other freedom to work on personal projects (programming/mathematical and artistic)
2) a life in which I am not isolated from others, and in which I can sometimes have free time to relax
3) a job in which I might work on problems that have a certain type of impact - say on the level of analyzing other peoples' data or designing a program to solve other peoples' problems (essentially, I suppose I am growing increasingly disinterested in having a career that hangs on theorizing... but I like the fulfillment of wrestling with a novel problem and finding a solution)
 
I do not know how to begin to achieve these rather general goals. I've begun to truly appreciate what a large commitment a PhD would be. I'm very interested in my field and following new research developments and ideas within it... but I'm no longer sure that the realities of research in my field are right for me. Generally, I don't know what to do other than pursue a PhD... But one option I've considered is to pursue a Masters degree in an Applied-Math/Computational-Statistics area (not my field, but these are technical 'tools' used in my field), and aim for a job outside of academia.
The hope would be to find employment in which my goals/responsibilities would more often be concrete (like a math or programming problem) and not constantly shifting... I get the sense that it might be possible to achieve a slightly less stressful lifestyle this way.
Otherwise, I'm simply not sure what the best course of action might be for me. Upon reflection, I've realized that my absolute ideal lifestyle would be as a freelance worker, or a fairly independent employee - perhaps as a programmer. Yet this is likely unrealistic - especially considering that I would almost certainly need a few years of self-study and working on open source projects to be ready for that sort of work.
 
I realize that there is quite a lot in this post. If anyone can offer some thoughts or advice, it would be greatly appreciated.
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I think it is a good thing that you are reflecting on your past experience in research to help you decide what to do next! Here, I will reflect on my own experience and try to put your experiences in context with what I think grad school is generally like. Obviously, this is just from my subjective viewpoint!

 

1. "Projects not working" -- I think this is actually a pretty common occurrence, especially for undergraduate projects. From our point of view (i.e. the student's), we have very limited experience and the project(s) we are working on is basically our main concern. However, in science, I think that many projects don't always work out. From the PI's point of view, they are in control of a large number of projects (currently and throughout their career), so having a string of failed projects isn't the end of the world, although it might make it harder to get more grants. But, I think the point of research is try out a lot of different ideas and see what ends up working. This means that in some cases, we will end up being the ones chasing an idea that won't work. But if we knew which ideas will work ahead of time, then we wouldn't need research.

 

What you are describing sounds like a "null result" project. This was the case for my BSc and MSc theses. They are not as exciting or glamorous but they are important to science. Science research is about ruling things out. There will be a few people who, through a combination of skill and luck, get great results and push our knowledge forward. However, the majority of us will be slowly and steadily crossing out ideas that won't work, so that the science community can close in on the truth. There's also the expression that "a theorist needs to only be right 5% of the time" -- for every great idea that most PIs have, there are tons of bad ones that didn't work out, but might have been necessary to end up at the right idea.

 

So, I think you might be looking at your results/experiments the wrong way. It might not be a good idea to think of your project as "let's try to prove Hypothesis X". Instead, science is usually, "let's test Hypothesis X with this series of experiments". If, after 50 (or 100 or 1000) experiments, and you don't see any evidence of Hypothesis X being true, then this is not a failed experiment! You have actually learned a lot more than just programming skills -- there is actual science here! Sometimes scientists are subjectively partial to one idea (after all, we're just humans, not logical devices) so we might be less willing to give up on a hypothesis and we might want to invest many more months / many more experiments before we stop trying. When a "null result" happens, the useful science is the constraints you can place on Hypothesis X. Reporting that "Hypothesis X is not true in cases where ....." is valid and useful science.

 

I wouldn't think of these experiments as wasted time, necessarily. The more experiments you do that don't work, the stronger your constraints / null result is. The more experiments that you do, the more likely it is that you might stumble upon something cool about Hypothesis X (or maybe something completely unrelated!).

 

2. "Giving a talk on your project" -- you shouldn't cancel this talk!! This will be an excellent experience for you to convey your ideas to others (not sure if by pubic you mean the general public, or researchers outside of your lab). Either way, you don't need to have a proven result to present a talk. You should take this opportunity to tell others about the problem at hand and how it fits in the grand scheme of things. You want to tell them about your lab's methods of approaching the problem and what you have tried and what doesn't work. Personally, even for my null results, I feel the most inspired to continue working right after I present my work and I see that people are also interested in the problem and that it is a validly tough problem!

 

3. "Lifestyle/time" -- I'm not sure how much time you are spending and how this compares to how much time you would like to spend on your research, but I think you are learning something that most of us don't find out until we begin our PhDs. That is, grad school/research will take as much of your time as you will let it. It sounds like because you are stuck on these problems, most of your time is consumed thinking about it. Personally, and I know many other students who do this too, I prefer to decide how much time I'm willing to spend on research -- maybe it's 40 hours a week. Maybe it's less or more, depending on your own preferences and your other commitments (e.g. classes? significant others?). During my MSc, I decided that I would spend 40 ish hours a week -- basically 8 hours a day, 5 days a week on my work. In the evenings, or on weekends, I just try to put the problem out of my mind and focus on other things that are important to me (e.g. my spouse, Skyping friends/family, cooking, video games, sleeping). It's easier said than done, but it is a very important skill in grad school. 

 

Grad school / PhD is a large commitment of time and effort. But, it does not have to be all consuming. The flexible work schedule of a researcher can work against you because you will feel the urge/pressure to work all the time. Unless you have a very special type of advisor, there won't be anyone following you around telling you when to start and stop working. You have to decide for yourself and figure out how to balance your work and the other parts of your life in the way that you can achieve what you want in life (i.e. that list of general goals). Your list is pretty similar to mine and I think I can get all that and do my PhD, which is why I'm still in it. 

 

4. Your "general goals": these are obviously subjective -- financial/other freedom can mean a lot of different things! And personal projects can vary a lot in time commitment. For me, since I try to set a time limit on how much time I spend working, this gives me freedom to work on other things that I care about. But, obviously not every type of personal project is compatible with the grad school workload. However, since most other jobs will require at least 40 hours a week anyways, I don't think there are many personal projects that you can do with a non-grad-school job compared to the grad-school job. #2 on your list is also something I like about my PhD program too -- we have enough time to eat lunch together most days, take breaks during the day to talk to each other, and do things together in the evenings/weekends once in a while.

 

Finally, for #3 especially, you should keep in mind that getting a PhD doesn't mean you are only useful in academia / doing abstract research work. I am not certain what field you are in actually. But I know many physics/astronomy PhD graduates who are definitely working on very concrete problems in their new careers. One person I know works with a firm that analyzes satellite data for their clients and make maps of areas of interest -- for example, mapping the actual ground elevation in a forested area where the trees might block the view. Or, I know that physics/astronomy PhDs are hired to program and perform statistics or other calculations for companies like Amazon, or dating websites, etc. But if you are in a field where a Masters is often what's needed to do this kind of work, then maybe that's a better option. Personally, one of the reasons I'm doing a PhD is that I feel it would open up more career paths than just academia, otherwise the work of a PhD is probably not worth the small chance to be successful in academia.

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