F is for frustration

By Nick


When people describe the emotions related to the exertions of PhD-life, they often talk about mixtures of elation coupled with times of deep loathing for your project. Boredom during the first six months, and an ever increasing work-load there-on in – until you just feel swamped by the vast pile that is the “to-do” list. These are pretty extreme emotions and makes PhD life sound like a roller-coaster of highs and lows. Which of course isn’t exactly the case. What is less mentioned is just the constant undercurrent of frustration, a far more mild emotion, but a very, very persistent one.

PhD’s are really all about frustration, about how long it takes to do anything – twice as long for any lab-work, five times as long as it should to organise lab-work. Frustration with supervisors, too hands-on and demanding, too hands-off and no real help at all. Frustration with results – “what the hell do my results even mean” is a common cry of anguish for PhD students. And, for me, most constantly, frustration as to why my mass spectrometer won’t work – STILL.

For a few months now I’ve been intending to write a post about my “wonderful” mass spectrometer, detailing what it is, what it does, and what I use it for. Unfortunately my mass spectrometer is hardly wonderful, it doesn’t really do anything but break a lot, and my use for it seems to be to provide me with annoyance.

Every single day there seems to be a problem. Mainly due to a leak-rate issue. Somewhere, there is air getting into the machine. Its a constant problem, and it feels like I/We have tried everything to fix it. But its been going on for over 18 months now. I am getting results, just slowly. No run of samples ever gets to the end. If nothing was working, then I could find a different machine elsewhere. But there’s this constant just not-working state the machine sits in, which means that its worth the effort to fix these problems, but the rate of data output to effort required is far higher than it should be.

Its not a tragic disaster for my PhD, its just frustrating, very, very frustrating.

4 responses to “F is for frustration

  1. I love the cat! That does sound very very frustrating though – hope it behaves itself soon!!

  2. Can’t agree more Nick, It is always far more frustrating when things work, but not well compared to when they simply don’t work (or we don’t have the right instrument). When something is completely broken or doesn’t exist it is much easier to justify a trip elsewhere to use someone’s else machine, however when it just doesn’t work well you are stuck trying to make the best of a poor situation.

  3. Perhaps there should be a support group? Or at least a fundraising effort to buy a punching bag? I was speaking to a very senior member of staff recently who said that if everything worked then clearly your project wasn’t challenging enough….While I agree to a point, considering how difficult it has been to eek out the limited dataset that I have, I had to resist my initial urge to slap him over the head.
    I hear you Nick, and empathize.

  4. nick@oncirculation

    I agree that not everything should work on a PhD. I have several parts of my PhD which are more experimental, and I don’t mind so much if these don’t work. But this isn’t a scientific problem, this is meant to be the simple and easy part of my PhD, and its not working due to some technical glitch. Gahhhh!

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