With one week left what would you do?

I’ve retrospectively changed some of the titles of my previous posts. I noticed a bit of an apocalyptic theme: “The beginning of the end” etc. There is definite irony in that, considering my decision to take a break from my PhD was based on my sudden realisation that quitting my PhD wouldn’t actually be the the end of the world (you’d be surprised how long I spent feeling that this was the case).

Having made the decision to break for a while, I had a week in the lab whilst paperwork etc. was going through with the University (and waiting until January’s stipend was safely in my bank account… just in case). I wasn’t really sure what to do with my time. Start writing my masters thesis? The strange thing was, once faced with a countdown to my separation from it, the lab started to become an exceptionally appealing place to be. I knew a week wasn’t long enough to do a whole experiment and so it became the forbidden fruit (yes, the lab!).

Lab meeting woes

That was until lab meeting. I’d been away in a collaborator’s lab for a few months, so I hadn’t seen anyone else’s work for a while in my own lab. Our first year PhD student presented his attempts at trying to grow some primary immune cells. I’ve spent two years working with these same cells, and it was only a few months ago that my relationship with said cells went through a pivotal change. We (the cells and I, obviously) work together now with a mutual understanding of what one another expects (they expect very particular stimuli and lots of lovely fresh medium and I expect them to stay alive).

Anyway, this poor student in lab meeting was showing us his cells which were in exactly the same state as mine used to be, i.e. not good! Here’s the thing though: no one was saying anything. Just blank stares and shoulder shrugs*. I asked a quick couple of questions to try to find out how long this had been going on for but in the end held back to discuss it with him afterwards. It turns out he didn’t even realise that the cells looked bad. He thought that was how they were supposed to look, which is not his fault. This isn’t the sort of thing you can learn by reading a paper. It comes with experience that needs to be guided by someone who knows what they are doing**.

The final countdown

So for much of my final week I tried to ‘pay forward’ some of the help and knowledge I’d received from a couple of super-talented and generous scientists who had given their time to teach me. I imagine a lot of students are in the same position of thinking that when something doesn’t work (which is pretty often in science) it’s just us, we’re cursed, we don’t have ‘good science hands’ (whatever that means). In the end the PhD student’s experiments were much improved so something worthwhile was achieved in my final week!

For any research students starting out – try experiments once. If it fails, try it again. If it still fails, read about it, then read about it more. Talk to everyone you know who’s done it. Email authors of papers if you need to. Then start tweaking – one change at a time (not five like I usually did!). Banging your head against a brick wall is common in a PhD but really unnecessary.

*This could easily develop into a whole post about lab meetings and what I think we should be getting out of them but I’ll save that for another day. In the mean time check out Dr Becca’s great post about lab meetings.

**This could easily develop into a post about the disproportionate PhD student to post-doc ratio and how PhD students are not just cheap labour but are scientists in training. Again though, I’ll save that for another day. Lots of other people have written great articles on this topic, so I should just leave it to them.

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