My PhD, the Epic Failure

I’d like to think that all grad students stumble at some point or another in their career. I’d like to think that making mistakes and correcting them are all part of the process of science. And I’d like to think that this happens to make us better scientists. But mostly, I know I’d like to think these things because my PhD just totally kicked my ass.

When I started out, my thesis  just seemed to fall into place. My professor claimed that the most difficult part of starting graduate work was to generate research ideas that were not only feasible but novel. I managed to do that in a matter of weeks without difficulty. I floated through my first year in blissful oblivion to the fact that graduate degrees were supposed to be kind of hard. Until the real scrutiny analysis of my samples began, and I realized that neither my collection methods nor my analysis were useful to actually answer my question. Without bogging you down with details: my first field season, all 235 samples from primates and the roughly 470 hours it took to collect them, were all wasted as a result of unforseen contamination and poor planning on my part. This catastrophy came to blinding clarity at the beginning of November. I have managed to make the most of it and glean whatever information I can, but 2 months later, I’m still pretty sore about it. Everything I did in my first season in Uganda will need to be redone.

When I first started at McGill, my parents asked me why on earth the amount of research I was doing would take five years. I gave them a pretty general answer, but now I really know. Because in science, you’re bound to fail the first few times. I’m not the only student whose gone through this type of ordeal; in fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a Biology student who hadn’t. There’s just no such thing as a smooth road. At least, that’s what I’d like to think.

The most interesting part of all this is, despite the monumental amount of misery my epic failure (I call it a PhD) has been up until this point, I’m grateful. Grateful that I have a job I care enough about to stay up at night, wondering what to do next. Grateful that my job does not blur from one day to the next, or require me to sit, wilting infront of a computer monitor, to perform some mundane, repetitive task. I love hating my job. I love loving my job. Because at the end of the degree, I’ll have put my everything into getting it right. And there is nothing boring about that.

10 thoughts on “My PhD, the Epic Failure

  1. Your post is really moving and inspiring. I love your last paragraph, I feel exactly the same way and I feel lucky for that.


  2. Ria, I know how you feel. Doing a PhD seems like an exercise in getting used to failure as a way of life. But like Daniel Levitin said, the most successful people often fail more than most, they just don’t give up when they do.


  3. Definitely agree with Dallas, indeed, it’s courageous of you to write this post Ria; but it’s also highly inspiring… Good luck with the rest!


  4. The passion -and I’m talking both the hatred and love- that you have expressed towards your journey is what will propel you to finish. Save these words, because it will be your clearest reminder of how you felt. Time always lessens the intensity of an experience, and in 20 years, when you are re-telling the tale of your PhD to your children I can almost bet that it will be a positive one.

    I’m married to a PhD student about to complete his final term, and I can already see a different, proud smile on his face when he talks about it.

    Good luck.


  5. Be of good cheer. Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.
    – Helen Keller


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