Common Reasons for Nightmare PhDs

From pre-doc to postdoc, there are many instances that can transform a perfectly good PhD program into a nightmarish one. Here are the most common scenarios to watch out for in graduate school – and some ideas about how to deal with them when they pop up.

I wanted to get my PhD but didn’t realize how much work was involved!

Few leap into graduate programs just for the final prize, only to discover that the workload is more than they bargained for. Looking back, the student realizes their heart wasn’t in it from the start. And while they may still be determined to finish, the five years program now feels as if it will take 50.

Is science your passion? Live vicariously through a graduate student while working in a lab as a research assistant for a year. You’ll share in their joys, their trials, and discover if you’re ready to take on your own gauntlet of unpredictable late night and weekend work, and writing (lots of writing!). The transition from research staff to grad student is easy. And if you come to the realization that graduate school isn’t the route for you, that’s OK too!

I really don’t like my current project anymore…

You love being a graduate student, but the current project is about as exciting as watching paint dry. It’s hard to be motivated when your heart isn’t in it, although in grad school there’s lots of help! First and second year projects are to expose you to a variety of new experiences. Your thesis project is longer. And if parts of that become mundane, seek out more established scientists to glimpse the bigger picture, including the societal impact that your work will have. That’s inspirational!

My project is a disaster! If only it were planned and executed properly.

Suppose you’re learning a new technique and decide to use the most valuable samples. You hope everything will run perfectly but with one misstep you’ve suddenly set yourself back by months. Time and reagents are wasted…now you have to start again from the very beginning, hoping not to make the same mistake twice!

With a good plan every experiment can be a success. Consider these ideas before executing your next experiment:

ñ Projects can easily take on a life of their own so define endpoints where no matter the outcome you know comfortable places to stop experimentation

ñ Remember your positive & negative controls

ñ While the experiment is fresh on your mind, make a goal to analyze raw data soon after it’s collected

ñ You can save $$$ or time when ordering supplies, but usually not both

ñ Think ahead: Murphy’s Law is ruthless.

ñ Lab calendars make equipment scheduling simple

And of course, practice makes perfect. Master new techniques using samples set aside just for practice.

Arrgh!!! These experiments just don’t work. At all.

Experimental design looked impressive on paper, but in practice it didn’t pan out. After burning the midnight oil for countless nights you realize that the experiments aren’t novel enough for your thesis. You had a backup plan, right? No? Oh…

Time to switch gears quickly, lest you spend even more years working towards the PhD. Instead of a frantic scramble to plan and execute last minute experiments, take some time at the beginning of your program to design a second project. It may be that you’ll never have to use it, but it’s there for your peace of mind to fall back on, just in case.

My advisor and I rarely see eye-to-eye…

Because sometimes personalities clash. And sometimes the advisor wants to keep a student in the lab as long as possible (as inexpensive labor). Whatever the reason, the student/advisor relationship is toxic and forward progress is stalled.

Thankfully you have an advising team and can turn to the others for guidance. In the rare case that your differences are irreconcilable, there is one last ditch option: pull together a new advising team, seek out a new lab that is willing to take you on as a graduate student, and effectively “fire” those that are stunting your educational growth. Do note that is quite an unpopular choice to have to make, and one not to be made lightly.

My advisor is never around when I need them most!

What can be more agonizing than a floundering graduate program is one where the Advisor has vanished, leaving you with a foreboding sense of abandonment. Whether they’re taking every Friday off, whether they’re vacationing halfway around the world, they remain your Advisor and mentor until the very end.

Don’t wait for their reappearance to flood them with questions, data, and meetings; instead, keep a steady line of communication going. In today’s ever connected world, that’s easy to do: E-mail for casual correspondence and for submitting data and writing samples; phone calls for the more immediate lab matters; and face-to-face Internet video conferencing for the full experience of praise, lively discussion, and furrowed brows.

Finally! Is there enough time to start…and finish…writing my thesis?

Graduation is so close, but what holds you back now is the written portion of your thesis. In the span of a month you’ll develop a solid writer’s block, maybe even overdose on caffeine while trying to write 24/7. Did you leave yourself enough time to make edits based on advisor feedback?

When you do 5 minutes of experimental work to wait 30 on incubation, dedicate the extra time to writing. For thesis sections like the introduction, background, and experimental design, that can be started early on, leaving individual experiments, data and discussion, conclusion and a polishing touch towards the end. Good luck

Have you survived a nightmare PhD program and lived to tell the tale? Share with us below


  1. Bons on September 13, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Advice seems reasonable, although it would carry more weight if written by someone who has earned a Ph.D.

  2. micronaut on September 12, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Publication strategy throughout the PhD should be pivotal in the mind of the student. Every experiment should be a figure in a publication. I graduated with no publications after a harrowing experience.

    With no publications your PhD is worthless and you’re carrying a massive warning beacon on your head for potential employers who see hundreds of other post doc applications with dozens of publications. After 2 years I’ve not had a reply to a single post doc application.

    Publish or perish.

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