Confessions of a frustrated PhD student


My name is Ana and I love cells. I like them so much that I decided to get a Bachelor in Science, majoring in Cell Biology and Genetics. My favorite types of cells are those of the immune system. For my Masters, I did many experiments to learn from immune cells and got to know a lot of cool people in the process. I also started sketching. The round characters I have sketched represent different types of immune cells. You can see some of these at cell cartoons. These sketches and animations are my own personal way of communicating science, which is something I want to get more involved in. I am currently doing a PhD in Immunology. However, I am having some doubts about the whole PhD thing. So, I am figuring things out as I go, but aren’t we all?
I tweet under @Cellcartoons



When people asked me what I wanted to be? I said a researcher. With time, the idea of doing “research” got more defined: I wanted to be a professor. I saw myself running my own lab doing some really interesting research, mentoring graduate students and teaching in a University. But now, I see myself as… I have no freaking idea! I don’t know what I want to do or what I want to be. The worst of all is that have no idea why the hell I am doing a PhD!

My current situation can be probably traced back to my initial decision to study Biology. I thought, and I still think, that it is really interesting how living organisms function all the way down to the individual cells. When you think about it, cells are so complex and it is amazing to know all they do even though they are so freaking small. Doing a degree in Cell Biology and Genetics was the most logical and natural choice to make. I did enjoy learning all about the wonderful whereabouts of cells and I do not regret the decision of having chosen that career path. I was also really curious about how all that knowledge regarding cells was obtained so I spent three consecutive summers as a research student. Those summers were really insightful and I was always excited about everything I was learning. Now, I find myself wondering what happened to that enthusiasm and excitement.

“The worst of all is that I have no idea why the hell I am doing a PhD”

My next big step leading me to my current situation was deciding to go to graduate school. I joined a laboratory that does research on the cells of the immune system, a field of research referred to as Immunology. I chose this field because I think the cells of the immune system are pretty spectacular. They are little soldiers within us, fighting constant battles to keep away the bad guys that want to cause us harm. Putting the immune cells aside for a moment, why did I want to go to graduate school again? Well, as a summer student I was always given really clear tasks. I did not have to come up with a testable hypothesis and the experiments to address them. In my undergraduate class assignments, I did get to propose all sorts of experiments to solve a question, but I never actually did them. Graduate school was the chance to put theory into practice. You get to think about biological question that no one has yet addressed. Next, you design and perform experiments to prove or disprove your predictions based from your initial questions. Of course problems and disappointments start when you realize that everything is nicer in theory. When reality hits, you realize all those experiments that you thought were brilliant and clever are not at all. They turn out to be tedious, complicated and sometimes impractical. Things are way harder than they seem.

Cell_cartoonsTHE REALITY

Graduate school turned out to be quite interesting. I joined the lab and graduate school at the same time as another girl and we became really good friends. She was my partner in crime and that made the time in the lab a lot of fun. Being in the same situation, we could share all our frustrations and disappointments. We also would cheer each other up and help each other out. It was great having her as a friend and lab mate. We went together to journal club, seminars and to Friday beers at five. Even though graduate school at first was scary, having another person going through the exact same thing makes it better. So it was really unfortunate and sad when after one year she decided graduate school was not her thing. She left the lab and made a career change, which I am sure was the best for her. Do I regret the decision of starting graduate school? Not at all. The first two years where fun, exciting and I met a lot of really cool people. Graduate school did definitely bring a lot of positive and new things into my life.

So what happened? My mentor during my first two years was a 5th year PhD student. She was great. She taught me the initial techniques to get my experiments going and I loved discussing my set ups, problems and results with her. When I was in my 2nd year, she finished and left the lab to start a postdoc. Without her, I was feeling a little bit lost and alone. Instead of staying in the same laboratory and transferring from the Masters program to the PhD program (it is common to do so in Universities in North America), I thought it would be best to start a new chapter in my life and look for another laboratory with different dynamics and supervision style. It would be a new adventure. After three years, I obtained my Masters Degree and moved to another continent to live this new adventure. Now that I am living it I am not sure I like it! I am not entirely sure why. I guess moving away means leaving behind your friends and the people you care about. So that is definitely not easy. However, eventually you cope. The lab I joined is relatively small but people are polite and friendly. There is a really supportive and cooperative environment where I get constant feedback. For some reason, though, I am asking myself why have I decided to do a PhD? Why am I doing this? Originally, I guess it was because I wanted to become a professor, run my own lab and do some pretty damn cool and awesome research. I wanted to help explain and solve the great mysteries of how the cells of our immune system work and how they are able to do such a good job in protecting us from the bad guys. I used to see myself as a professor but I don’t anymore. Why??

“When you look at the work published in scientific journals you do not think about all the work that is behind it. There is no way to know how much effort and negative results it took to get to that discovery.”

I think when you look at the work published in scientific journals you do not think about all the work that is behind it. There is no way to know how much effort and negative results it took to get to that discovery. So it is disappointing when things don’t work out. Most days in the lab mean looooooong hours of work and in the end… nothing: things don’t work and no results. I try it again and this time… again nothing. Now what? Keep on trying? That is what my co-workers and colleagues will say. Change this one thing and change this other thing and… more long hours of work, stress on the machines, getting the readout, analyzing the data and again nothing. Let’s try it again. Go to the lab on the weekend, stay late this other day and… nothing. Again? Really?? After some point it becomes extremely frustrating and I am questioning why the hell am I doing this? Am I really that curious to know? I know in the world of science and research things don’t work the first time. I know I have to be persistent and try all sorts of different things. But that is exactly my problem, I know things do not always work and I get upset when they don’t. I want to cry when I feel I have invested all this time and effort into an experiment that ends in failure. The sporadic joys of having something work do not make up for all the other times I get upset and feel like shit!


So let us assume after being in this endeavor for almost one year I hang in there and keep on doing what I am doing for another two or three years. Does this mean that eventually I will obtain a PhD? I should, right? So let us assume that after three years of doing a Masters and three to four more years doing a PhD I obtain a degree and people can call me Dr. Then what? If I was interested in becoming a professor after obtaining a PhD, I would have to do work in several different places as a postdoc and maybe, only maybe then I will be eligible to apply for a Faculty position. The more I think about it the less I see myself doing a post doc. I truly respect the people who do and can handle the stress and the constant disappointment of things not working out. I just do not think I have the character to withstand it.

So this is my dilemma. I find my topic, generally speaking, quite interesting. I am still amazed to learn all the things our immune cells can do. I enjoy some of the immunology lectures and seminars (depending a lot on who gives the lecture) and I do like to keep learning. On the other hand the PhD experience is making me pretty miserable. I am stressed and unhappy, I feel constrained and pressured when it comes to experiments and research. I do not see myself going through more of this and I do not want to do a postdoc, which means I have to rule out the possibility of becoming a professor. So what now? Should I even continue and finish my PhD? Since I am not interested in doing post doctoral positions and staying in Academia is this trouble all worth it??

I don’t know… I really don’t know. I am not sure what I will do. What a pickle.


4 thoughts on “Confessions of a frustrated PhD student

  1. I quit my PhD two months ago, and so far have no regrets! I also found the topic interesting, but I hated the method I was using to investigate it. It was also making me stressed and unhappy, and I felt it was harming my relationships with others – I was always moaning about the PhD, and also getting upset over unrelated things because of the pressure I felt under. I didn’t have the skills to come up with a different approach, my tutors were no help, and I just felt lost & depressed because I couldn’t ‘fix’ things. I spent so long trying to make things better, but in reality I had been trying to change things since the very first month. Things had only got worse!

    There are lots of things you can do with the PhD once you finish it, so not wanting to staying in academia is not a reason to quit – or at least, not on its own! This was one of the reasons it took me so long to quit – it had been my ambition to work in science policy, and I knew that by quitting the PhD it was going to make that difficult, if not impossible. However, in the end, I decided that I was just too unhappy right now, but that kind of decision is going to be different for everyone.

    Something which was really helpful for me was talking to someone at the careers service at the university. They helped me to realise that the reasons I wanted to quit weren’t stupid, they weren’t just ‘second year blues’ that I would get over (which people kept saying to me), and that employers would understand why I had left. I wasn’t in a financial position to just quit the PhD without finding other work first, so it was really reassuring to hear that employers wouldn’t expect me to have quit before trying to find something else.

  2. Hi! I too am in my 2nd year of PhD in biophysics at a top university the US and I’m frustrated too. My advisor is great and I love science but I feel very isolated, socially and scientifically. I’ve been thinking of other career options, like science communication, science journalism, teaching and scientific editing. I love taking classes and teaching, I’d rather do that. I also feel like I can make a bigger difference that way than doing research on a very specific problem in a very specific field hardly anyone outside my field will ever know about. I will probably need to finally get the PhD to get there though. Sometimes I want to quit but then I realize it will be very hard to get a job. So I don’t know, maybe I should somehow stick through it. There are a lot of options for PhDs later, so you should start looking into those too. Good luck!

  3. I am really frustrated after 3 years as a PhD student. Nothing works, no paper, no results. I am spending long time preparing the samples and then all waste of time and efforts. Sometimes I am thinking that I am in the wrong place! I am working with live cells and this is my love too. I don’t know what to do as the time running out.

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