Keeping your enthusiasm up when science gets you down

As many of us have figured out at this point, science is not as glamorous as it may seem. Everyday life in the lab is not the stuff of TED talks, sci-fi movies, and being on the cusp of discovery or full of eureka moments while curing an incurable disease. A career in science requires persistence and resilience, as a majority of what we encounter is failure. We all know that feeling: another failed western blot, or troubleshooting a PCR for months, or realizing your original PhD project is not going to work out and you need a new direction. The science blues can get anyone down, bringing your productivity down with it. We often forget that through failure comes growth. Here are some tips to get you back on top of your science game.

Take a break.

Dopamine. The feel-good molecule.

You love science, but man you need to not see it for a bit. Don’t worry, science will understand and will definitely be there when you get back. A scientist’s life is generally not a 9am-5pm kind of thing, but we all need a break now and again. Go big like going to an art museum (probably on free day) or spending the day at the beach, or go small like taking a longer walk by an on-campus garden during lunch. These new experiences can help refresh your mind and will maybe lead to a new thought on your existing science problem. Even if you don’t have a moment of clarity a little relaxation can go a long way for your mental health and then you can move on to reinvigorating your science passion.

Find a support network.

Remember everyone experiences failure. Don’t isolate yourself just because things aren’t going well. Chances are everyone is going through the same thing, so get to know others in your lab, your department, your building, etc. Commiserate with these peers; everyone has a good story for how they messed up an experiment and often you can learn from others’ failures. Maybe someone has done the troubleshooting already for the experiment you’re trying? You’ll never know until you ask! If you find yourself feeling completely overwhelmed remember to reach out. Many universities have support for student mental health and counselors you can talk to. You are not alone. Graduate school can be incredibly stressful and takes a toll. Having someone to talk to regularly, whether they are a professional or a group of friends, can help relieve some of this stress and give you the support and motivation you need to make your mark on science.

Go to a conference.

The obvious benefits of a conference are: networking with peers, presenting your work, and learning about new techniques. It’s harder to describe the conference high. The feedback from your presentation revitalizes your interest in the project because someone sees something that you didn’t. You see a new technique and it sparks the idea for a new experiment that will finally round out your thesis. Maybe you don’t have time or money for a large international conference? Don’t forget that most universities or conference organizations offer travel awards that usually don’t require a large input of application time. Also consider smaller regional conferences or the local workshops your university puts on. They may not be specific to your field, but can still give you a new perspective. This also goes for your weekly departmental seminar. Just because it doesn’t directly relate to your work doesn’t mean it won’t spark your creativity or a new collaboration; plus there are cookies!

Have regular meetings with your PI.

The frequency of in-person meetings between students and their supervisor strongly correlates with student satisfaction and timely degree completion. Keep these meetings productive and focused. There are tons of articles on how to have productive meetings from the business world perspective. In this context here are some specific tips: 1) Actually schedule a meeting with your PI! Don’t just wait around for them to ask you when you want to meet. 2) Know what you want out of the meeting. Do you need to decide between two different experiments? Do you need a final list of what other professors will make up your committee? Knowing what you need can save you time and avoid distractions. 3) Take visible notes. If you know you need a plan or list, write it up where your PI can see it during the meeting. Have your laptop out in front of both of you or use a whiteboard to keep you both on track and accountable during the meeting. These meetings may be intense, but don’t shy away. Coming up with a detailed plan for your graduation timeline or the experiments you need to do to complete this paper for submission can be the kick in motivation you need.

Communicate your science to an unusual audience.

Have you forgotten how your thesis will impact anyone else, ever? Try explaining why you are still “in college” as a 27-year-old to your aunt. Generally, people outside of science are more interested in your project than you ever thought, and learning how to communicate what you do and why it matters in lay terms is an invaluable skill for your career. Try volunteering for a science day at an elementary school and watch a new generation’s enthusiasm bloom while giving back to your community. Even in the lab, try presenting your work to a wider audience. Your PI doesn’t have to be your only mentor, or the only one providing regular feedback. Present for one of your committee member’s lab meetings or the departmental student-led seminars. Science is a collaborative effort and seeking opinions and experiences outside your field can give you new ideas and make you a more well-rounded scientist.

What do you do to keep your motivation high in the lab? Leave a comment below.

This blog post presented by COMPASS, ASCB’s Committee for Postdocs and Students).

About the Author:

Amanda Haage is a newly minted assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. She previously trained as a postdoctoral fellow in Guy Tanentzapf’s Lab at the University of British Columbia and received her PhD in 2014 from Iowa State University in Ian Schneider’s Lab. She is generally interested in how the microenvironment regulates cellular behavior as well as promoting diversity and inclusion in science. Twitter: @mandy_ridd and Email: