Diluting the stress of research life

Vignesh Vignesh Narayan

Science research is difficult, to say the least. The corridors of our research institutions seldom ring with shouts of “Eureka!” If an apple were to fall on a graduate student’s head, she might just throw it back at the tree in a paroxysm of rage rather than wonder at the forces that caused it to come crashing down. This is not to say that all scientists are irritable, but a ubiquitous buzz of frustration lingers in the background of many scientists’ minds. The majority of success in research comes after months or years of backbreaking work—and sometimes never at all.

Whether you are in your first year of a PhD or a seasoned postdoc, the stress of research life is inevitable. However, just like all life on Earth, human beings are remarkably adaptive—capable of surviving for decades in extremely stressful environments. While each person may have his or her own way of dealing with lab stress, or even interesting rationalizations that help to reframe the way they think about research, I have found these approaches helpful in my years on the workbench.

Research projects, like human skills, are not created equal

While it is unethical to discriminate against people in any way, it is obvious that various people are differently skilled. Try as I might, I simply cannot carry a tune, and the rabbit I drew in my high school biology class looked like a frog. So it is with research projects. As researchers, it is easy to blame our own ineptitude, or even develop impostor syndrome. It is important, however, to realize that while some projects take a step forward, others are forced to take multiple steps back. One of the most dedicated and skilled researchers I know struggled with her project for five years. Sometimes it is better to accept it as the nature of the beast and try your best, rather than beat yourself up about it. My friend finally nailed her hypothesis after putting in 15-hour days for half a decade. She is now a successful postdoc with ample opportunities ahead of her.

Switch off that engine

Whether via a short jog on campus, a drink with friends, or the latest episode of Game of Thrones, removing your mind from the harsh environment of failing research is important for you to be able to get back in there for another bout. We take great care in the cleaning and maintenance of the machines of everyday life. Our cars, floors, kitchen utensils, and even our bodies are thoroughly cleaned and rested at the end of the day. Yet we carry around the junk in our minds forever. We go to sleep with our mind’s engine on, and wake up to find it still running—and unrested. We do not see a failed experiment in isolation, but rather another boulder atop the existing mountain of past failures. Sometimes something as small as an unpolymerized gel can be the final straw, even though it is insignificant in the larger scope of your research.

A failed hypothesis is not a failed experiment

People often make the understandable but illogical mental leap from a failed hypothesis to a failed experiment, and ultimately to their personal failure as a scientist. When an experiment fails, it means the chemical/physical reaction you are monitoring has not taken place—possibly because something went wrong with the quantity or quality of one of the steps involved. This is something that can be corrected in the future. A failed hypothesis means that you did your job on the lab bench perfectly—it is just that the system disagrees with your views on how it should behave. Data, if properly generated with the correct controls, never lies. Trust your data; keep your hypotheses flexible.

Pursue a creative passion

While pursuing a research problem, it often helps to actively engage in a mental activity beyond your experiments. Writing, for example, calms me down at the end of a torrid day. It gives me something to look forward to, something within my control, and something that fills me with a sense of achievement. Engaging in a creative hobby will also improve creativity in the workplace, enabling you to see things that may have otherwise passed you by. You don’t have to find time every day; you may not even need an entire weekend. If your research life is that hectic, just an hour or two on a Sunday can be enough to recharge your creative batteries.

While research can be exasperating and challenging, the long-term rewards are immeasurable. It is important to keep your head down and keep working, ignore the momentary stings, and await the satisfaction of discovery that comes at the end.


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Vignesh Narayan

Vignesh Narayan

Vignesh is a molecular biologist working at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India with a passion for science communication. When he is not playing with his fluorescence microscope, he tries to simplify science through his writing and is actively looking to transition into full time science writer and editor.