Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at microbematters.org, kdshives.com, and on Twitter @KDShives.
It happens to every grad student in the sciences at some point: your project stops working and things don’t seem to come together. In some cases, projects don’t get enough momentum and early success to even seem like they have started. Projects that stop working can be some of the most disheartening events in graduate school (especially if you take your work very personally or tend to be a perfectionist) which makes knowing how to get back on track one of the most important skills that you can cultivate.
So what do you do when you find yourself tasked with a project that has stalled out?
Before changing directions with your project, identify which specific aspects of the project are not working. It is important to be able to determine when a project is stalled out and not progressing versus what could be a more minor, difficult patch in the research such as simple miscalculation or expired reagent. Before abandoning a project try to take it apart at every step and see if there is any key experimental point that you are missing. Check all reagents to make sure that they are all fully active and not expired; students in wet labs can easily find themselves using old reagents that don’t work and wondering why the assay they do fails.
If self-troubleshooting your project does not work don’t hesitate in finding someone else with experience in whatever technique you are having trouble with, chances are they have had the same problem when they were learning as well. A trained eye can also spot any errors in your protocols, so be sure to cover both the paper protocol and your methods at the bench when looking for possible points to fix and improve.
Sometimes though, the problems are bigger than just the age of reagents or the strain of mice you are using. Do your experiments repeatedly fail even after extensive troubleshooting? Are you unable to duplicate certain key published results? Then it is probably time to take a few steps back and seriously reassess the situation and the hypothesis underlying your project.
Sometimes, it’s possible that your project is resting on assumptions or a hypothesis laid in place by prior students or your advisor that have not been thoroughly reexamined in the context of new studies. Step back from the project and take the time to go over the relevant literature in that area, because it is quite possible that new findings have changed the way that other researchers think about your problem and a different approach or hypothesis is necessary. This is a good point to stop and ask the big questions about your project. Why are you using your current approaches? What is the major hypothesis that is driving your work? Can you use different experiments to get at your hypothesis?
If you find yourself in a position of needing to rework the hypothesis of your advisor in order to move you project forward then do so in a respectful fashion. It is important to note where you agree on underlying assumptions and interpretations of the current body of research before transitioning to the new way that you want to look at or work on the project. While this may feel too forward for many students, this moment is key in your development as a researcher, as it shows your intellectual independence and personal ownership of your project.
Once you have your advisor on board with reworking your project take the time together to identify new goals and the experimental outlines for the new approach. Set small, measurable goals so that you will know quickly if the new approach is starting to work or if more revisions to the project are necessary.
Once you have a plan for getting back on track it is easy to get a bit hopeful, but it is still important to manage your expectations about the success of the new project approach. It can be the most frustrating right before you break through to a working model again, so be aware that more time is necessary than you expect to get everything working again. If you have unrealistic expectations you run the risk of burnout. New approaches commonly fail, sometimes you may have to repeatedly go back the the drawing board. My first year in the lab I had three separate projects; two of them I had to drop due to the inability to refine the technique with limited resources on my end, and the other was abandoned due to my inability to replicate a key finding of another group. Thankfully, my third project did end up working, but only after months and months of troubleshooting and searching for a trackable model.
One major final note on getting back on track: Be sure to lean on your support network (fellow students, your advisor, and your committee members) and do not get discouraged by this common occurrence. They are a huge resource and may help you see your problems from a different angle. Plus, they have all been through the same struggles with a difficult project before and can hopefully provide some of the support that you need while working through the difficult patches.
[Image by Flickr user MikeHamm and used under a Creative Commons license.]
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