Anyone has a suck- PhD project but still turned out well?


I sketched my own PhD project and research questions but due to limited experiences in the field, it didn't turn out to be what I wanted it to be. I wasn't clear on the trajectory of the project, and was pretty much learning on the job. I got some results but most were inconclusive, and the TLC plates look sad. I wished I had access to other analytical methods, but our instruments keep failing and none of us have any proper training on these instruments so we don't really get things done unless our advisor are present. I wished our lab worked together to figure things out but I didn't have any success doing so. It's just been a very strange, exhausting and not-rewarding experience. I felt that I should have quitted while I was ahead and got another Master in Engineering instead of Biology. I love being able to write and analyze data, but feel that I really suck at experimentation steps. I want to ask if anyone had a really depressing dissertation and still turned out ok, i.e. still got a decent job doing what they wanted or is currently working at scientific institution doing a job related to their PhD experience? I'm just looking for hope here.


Kind of, yeah. I was in a different situation to you in that my supervisor got a grant for what seemed like my "perfect" project, and I was really excited to be a part of it. But from pretty much the first month I realised that his initial idea was very "back of envelope" and my PhD had been funded as a kind of "fishing expedition" -- e.g., it was high risk, high reward, with a flaky theoretical underpinning, and that nobody really cared if it was successful or not. Neither did my supervisor because he had at least three other of these "experimental" PhD ideas and was busy writing proposals for all these other things he'd more or less made up on the spot (I suspect something like 30% of all PhD projects are).

I knocked on the door of another academic and explained my science problem. He came up with a solution, after chatting with another data scientist, and we wrote a paper based on a novel methodology. The next paper was something I'd come up with myself by noticing something weird in my results that didn't seem to be the same as had been described -- again, I read loads of papers but also knocked on doors. I ended up with a dozen paper ideas just by thinking about novel solutions to my problem (machine learning! Fourier transforms! 3D modelling!). None of those things really happened but the point is I did the brainstorming and that helped. I don't consider myself social and my department isn't collaborative, but chatting to other people helped so much, even when it didn't lead to anything. I also had to adjust my expectations of my thesis.

I'm a postdoc. I've got a bunch of papers I still want to write and half a dozen fellowship proposals all for different projects. I don't feel like I'm a brilliant scientist or anything, but it has served me well. I'm the one who has gained a deep theoretical understanding of my subject, and my ex-supervisor still doesn't understand everything I went through just to trying to make that project work.

Finally: a null result is still a result. Most people don't publish the things that don't work, meaning someone else might waste their time in the future. So if there's a reason why your work is sucky, you might still be able to publish it "e.g., look, we found a surprising reason why this cool idea failed."


Hi glimmerbat, thank you for sharing. My advisor also says the same thing, a null result is still a result and everyone in my committee say that I just need to find an appropriate journal. Looking back, I did learn a lot from my project through just starring at my inconclusive results and reading a lot to come up with possible reasons and ways to work around these challenges, and would love to explore them when I have a chance. I wish I had knocked on more doors like you did, but I only had limited time to do everything I wanted to do, so definitely would try better in the future. Your experiences are very encouraging, thank you again for sharing.


Nothing offensive. I was just wondering that why have you chosen your name as fakename...

Avatar for rewt

Hi fakename,

I would consider my PhD project a difficult one. For context, my PhD project was trying to couple tow processes together and the theory was sound and well though out. However, my supervisors didn't consider the methodology and when I came to do the first experiments in my first year I found that the two process were completely different scales. One process produced samples in 10s of mg and the other required 10s of grams! I spend nearly two years working on methodology, scaling one process up and another down. I also did it on a tight budget without the right equipment, no research group and supervisors who were allergic to the lab. It might be survivorship bias but there is light at the end of the tunnel. To be honest, what kept me going was that I genuinely believed in my project concept.

I can't tell you whether your perseverance will pay off but I can give you some advice. Focus on what you can do, and not what you can't. It is easy to get carried away blaming the equipment but it is not probably going to change, so accept it. Establish what you can and can't do with your equipment and go from there. It is easier to improve a method that semi-works than it is to develop an amazing method in one go. If you think the methods are okay but the results aren't what you wanted, take the experiment to the extreme. Qualitative data around the extreme points can give you valuable insight into what is actually happening in your experiments and allow you to plan further work. Also if you don't have the right equipment, you can do different tests. You may find that other departments/research groups have equipment that can provide alternative analysis that is semi-relevant. I do SEM images of virtually everything even if it isn't relevant, simply because my university has too many electron microscopes. What I am trying to say is that you can sometimes solve limited lab equipment problems by being creative.


brownsasha943: I created my account on a whim because I needed to talk to someone and got frustrated when asked for my name.....

Thank you for sharing, rewt. Being resourceful definitely helps, and genuine belief in the theory is also a good point.

I need to print out your shared experiences and post it on my office wall as reminders.