Skip to Content

Getting Going

I’ve had a chance recently to talk to some people who are heading off to chemistry grad school in the fall, which brought back memories of when I did that a mere thirty-three years ago. A lot has changed over that time, but there are some very important things that haven’t.

One of the most important – maybe the most important – will probably never change at all. That’s the transition to independent laboratory work, which is harder for some people than it is for others. This switchover, which is crucial to going on to a successful degree in the sciences, can be difficult for several reasons. Not having much lab experience in general, of course, could be one big factor. But there are other students who do know their way around the lab but who haven’t had to navigate it, as it were, on their own: they’ve always had clearly mapped-out projects where they didn’t have to strategize much. Now, that’s not a bad idea at all when someone is starting out doing research – summer undergraduate work or even beginning graduate work should be more structured and less open-ended while people gain experience. But full scale doctoral dissertation work is (or certainly should be) a different thing entirely.

It’s a bit like being in a swimming pool – even a very large one – versus being in the ocean. In the pool, there are sides to hang on to and push off from. There may even be lanes to swim in, and the depths are clearly marked. But no one’s marked the ocean: you look around and realize hmm, this is pretty huge. There are a lot of directions to go, and a lot of places that look like islands that I might be able to swim to if things go right. But which ones are worth stopping at? Is there a reasonable next destination once you make it to one of them? You have to get somewhere, not just swim around out here forever, so how do you do that? If you don’t get moving pretty soon, with some sort of direction in mind, you may not get anywhere at all. . .

It can certainly be disorienting, but if you have a chance to realize some short-range successes, you can get the idea and build up confidence. It doesn’t happen that way for everyone, though. I’ve watched people just sort of flounder during their first year in the lab, which can happen for a number of reasons. They may not have a clear goal in mind, and if so, blame for that situation also needs to attach to the professor involved. Or they may have a goal, but have very poor planning skills with which to get there. That’s more on the person themselves – you can’t expect someone to stand behind you and say “No, that starting material isn’t available in enough quantity, you shouldn’t use that one” or “No, if you do that, you’re going to go through a really polar water-soluble intermediate that’s going to be very hard to purify, so you should see if there’s something else or at least make sure you can handle the compound” and so on. Everyone has some of this in them, especially when starting out, but experience and a willingness to learn from mistakes should smooth it out as you go along.

At an even more basic level, there are people who just can’t seem to get going. They try a reaction, and maybe it works, they can’t quite tell. So they try to wash the crude solid some to clean it up, because that might help, and they save the washes because it might be in there, too – that’s the stuff dried up in the Erlenmeyer over on that side of the hood – and they took some of the remaining solid and tried to run a column on it, but nothing really seemed to come out – that’s that rack of test tubes over there – and they were going to set up the reaction again to see if it worked this time but they didn’t get to it on Thursday so it’s too late to get it going now, and if they can remember they’ll set it up tomorrow, and maybe they should just order a new bottle of the starting material? Or the reagent? Or distill some fresh solvent? Do you think that would help?

This, from what I can see, is a hard condition to cure. In order to get anywhere on a research project, you have to do things, do them in a manner that the results will mean something, and be ready to act on them to do the next thing. This is the motor; nothing happens without setting up experiment, without setting them up with enough forethought to be sure that you’re running them the right way and for the right reasons, and without knowing what you might do next once those experiments are done. Really, nothing happens. Other than filling up a hood with a sad collection of dried-out tubes and flasks with something dark in the bottom of them – that does seem to happen in these cases, but it doesn’t get you very far. Someone who’s stuck in this mode needs to have enough insight into their work to realize what’s going wrong and enough initiative (and courage) to do something about it, and the odds of those being available in sufficient amounts are relatively low.

An exacerbating factor is the experience of failure, and not necessarily failure on the larger scale of “Did I make the right decision to come to grad school?” I’m talking about just day-to-day failure, reactions not working, not doing anything, or chewing up your starting material and returning only stuff that looks like molasses, only molasses has fewer ingredients. If you’re used to teaching-lab type experiments, which are designed to work (and thus illustrate some concept), unoptimized “real” reactions may come as a shock, since a fair number of those wipe out for reasons unknown. Guess whose job it is to figure out what went wrong or to route around it? Someone who’s imagined that they’ll be moving on steadily, step by successful step, planning and thinking about the next reaction (which is going to work, too) may feel as if they’re bogged down in a swamp campaign when they find themselves running Step Number Three for the sixth (or sixteenth) slightly varied time. But that’s research – it’s a mixture of high-level problems and exasperatingly low-level ones, and you have to be ready for a rich assortment of both. This project could get us all on the cover of Science, but first it has to work, which means that we need the ratios of products on all these reactions, which means that we need to have a working HPLC over here, but it’s got a puddle of acetonitrile under it, so pass the damn wrench. Where is the damn wrench? And so on.

A trying experience, and moving into doing independent research is one, will make a person have to deal with a lot of their own shortcomings. That’s one of the things it’s designed to do. You should come out of it a better person – stronger, more resilient, more experienced – by realizing when things are going badly and doing the best you can to fix them. The culture of the lab and (especially) the relationship with the professor involved will have a lot to do with how successful the whole process is, but an awful lot of it is on you, the graduate student. Knowing about these issues, though, and being ready to recognize them, has got to help.

Update: see the comments for some interesting perspectives, including the role that anxiety disorder can play in some of the behavior mentioned above. That’s a good opportunity to link to a couple of previous posts about mental health in grad school in general.

36 comments on “Getting Going”

  1. 1000 Monkeys says:

    Hmm, if only that was true here. Most labs have at least weekly subgroups where every experiment is presented (with screens you can imagine these are interminable…) and basically every new experiment is planned by the professor. Furthermore, most professors do at least a couple walk-throughs a day on top of that, just to make sure that god’s (i.e. their) work is getting done. This is a great place to come if you want to network (i.e. backdoor) yourself into a pharma job, but you actually can’t do independent work if you want to keep that option open (o, to be a despotic gatekeeper with the keys over your students’ futures…)

    1. bhip says:

      re: 1000 Monkeys- arguably this is a much worse situation than being completely left to your own devices to figure things out (also not a good scenario).
      Being left to fend for yourself can crush promising young scientists (bad) & leads to, many, many obvious & avoidable mistakes (not the end of the world). That said, at least the survivors are ready to face the world as an independent thinkers.
      I have had colleagues that were ~useless & people commented “…but they came out of such a good lab??”….

    2. Deactivation Modes says:

      As long as you’re a line cook at Slavedriver’s JACS emporium make sure that you don’t forget the special sauce: equal parts “natural collaboration” and Helvetica.

    3. Jon says:

      Depends on the PI. I’ve seen assistant professors who make a regular habit of checking on their students sometime between 11pm and 1 am, monitoring them almost like TLC plates. On the other hand, tenured professors who spend a lot of time with administration and travel might go a month without checking in with their students. My personal experience was right in between the two of those extremes.

      First year of grad school was rough for me, and a few of Derek’s descriptions hit home. It was really a gradual process of learning 1001 little skills and some self-reliance.

  2. Chrispy says:

    There is a worse thing: graduate with a PhD but without the critical skills or accomplishments people look for in PhDs. Continue as a postdoc in the same lab. Become unemployable.

    I have seen this pattern play out repeatedly. It is depressing.

  3. Sam says:

    I spent a lot of my years in graduate school struggling against that same “just can’t seem to get going” that you describe. It was rough, and no amount of my PI pushing me to do more helped. It wasn’t until my fourth year that an older student explained how often he just threw out anything that looked like junk, and it changed my world. When in doubt, throw it out.

    What I know now, though, is that this kind of behavior is tied in very strongly with my (diagnosed) anxiety disorder. Anxiety is fairly common in the sciences, though I don’t see as many articles opening up about it as I see with depression. The problem is how often my brain would inflate the significance of a single failure. This tweak HAD to work, it SHOULD have worked, and it’s MY fault if it didn’t go. My capabilities as a chemist were on the line every time a reaction didn’t make product. It is tiring to be in the mental state of do-or-die, and even small tasks (throwing out something) require a bit of executive function that I didn’t have because I was spending it all on just not crying or quitting.

    I hope this helps any junior scientists out there. See a therapist, because they’re the experts on getting you to change how you approach problems in your life. Lots of schools offer 10 weeks or so free, and you should take advantage if you’re struggling like I was (and, frankly, even if you don’t think you are). Ask older students about their failures. If you can’t isolate a compound: ask for help, and if they don’t know, it’s probably not your fault that you haven’t figured it out yet — just toss that molasses. You can make it again if you really need to, but I can almost guarantee that you won’t need to.

    1. Sofia says:

      This happened to me to an extent in my lab experience starting out.

      I would come up with a solid plan, research around for presidents close to my subtrates and intended products, execute multiple runs at once with tweaked conditions and –
      – it drove me insane. The shotgun approach to varibles probably would have worked more ideally if I had discarded failed reactions and moved on to other options, but the analyst in me and my frustration that I was constantly screwing up things made me go back and run endless TLC, NMR, MS-maldi in some bid to get a grip on the situation or explain what had occurred to my advisor.

      I don’t know that therapy is the right option in all cases – but advisors should be wary of students operating at 60+ hrs / week continuously as they are liable to burn themselves out on irrelevant results. Students as well should force themselves to step back from experiments once in a while. Make a habit of going to the school gym you have acquired a 20k / year membership to by attending the institution or just cultivate a social life alongside your academic endeavors. Having time to put aside the stifling weight of failure can give you room to be flexible enough to seize success.

      1. Sam says:

        So interesting to hear a shotgun approach didn’t work for you! I had more luck with it, because it made me think of my job as a series of exploring what does and doesn’t work, instead of thinking of myself as a goose who had failed to lay any golden eggs yet.

        I think you’re hitting on something big: a lot of us are driven into science because we like tinkering and figuring out a hard problem, but then synthesis gives us so many of those problems and we’re just meant to /leave it alone/ and move on. Every time something failed, I wanted to investigate it and find an answer, and I should’ve just pushed on. I wonder if there is some way I could’ve learned to focus on the bigger question in my project, even though all these tantalizing little mysteries were cropping up.

    2. Derek Lowe says:

      That’s an excellent point. I’ve seen just the sort of behavior you’re describing going through – every reaction that failed was a personal insult, a commentary on the person’s skill that could not be taken lying down or ignored. You’re right that it’s impossible to function at the bench with those worldview settings. It’s possible to go too far in the other direction, to the (as one friend put it) the “live and don’t learn” mentality, but the problem you’re talking about is much more common.

  4. Ben says:

    I can’t really come at this from a grad school perspective (as I went onto lab work after graduating with my BA), but the lab I went to was very similar to what I was described here. And I think it was that environment that really helped me grow into a great chemist. My boss and I have talked a lot about the different types of scientists we’ve worked with. He’s more of an academic. I enjoy being “in the trenches”. Whichever type you are though, that trench work is invaluable, at least in the beginning. Failing repeatedly and figuring out your own problems rather than having a senior chemist solve everything for you teaches you so much. And even more importantly, it toughens you up. Because let’s face it, science isn’t for sissies.

  5. luysii says:

    After retiring I audited a few graduate math courses (not chemistry) at a state university. What struck me, was how very unhappy the grad students were.

    Not so back at Harvard ’60 – ’62. The first week we all went out to Durgin Park, stuffed ourselves for not very much, and said “this is the life of a struggling grad student?” It wasn’t all roses, of course, but I can remember us saying to each other — are they really paying us to have all this fun. The money was tiny by today’s standards, but what with a little TA’ing and NSF grants, a friend and I had enough saved up to drive cross country the next summer to see Berkeley and CalTech (gas was .25/gallon, but the cars didn’t get very good mileage.

  6. Li Zhi says:

    Life, or at least a career, is a war. By the time you leave grad school, you should have demonstrated you were able to wage a successful campaign. Each battle is fought along a front. Ask any general whether it’s true what they say that “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” In fact, I’d say that that truism defines non-trivial (ie grad level) science. Understanding what that front is, and knowing when to send in reinforcements, when to flank, and when to retreat and retrench are critical (and higher order) skills. Not thinking about Plan B and Plan C, is clear indication that you’ve not attained flag rank. My self-organizational skills suck. (As did my lab notebook, when I kept one). I was (am?) too much of a perfectionist and mix that with a reluctance to get closure means that I’m a pretty good fit for Derek’s “hard condition to cure”. For those who might share some of those flaws, I’ve 3 pieces of advice (along with the previously “when in doubt, throw it out” ):
    1. Look at your work as advancing over a front. Like an army at war, you don’t throw all your resources against the most difficult target if there’s a easier path to your goal. As Derek said, flexibility and resilience. 2. Just do it. Recognize those times when you are floundering and instead of doing more analysis, DO something. 3. None of your flaws or any combination of flaws doom you to failure. It’s a virtual certainty that there are many successful researchers who started out with the same flaws. There is, fundamentally, nothing new about the human condition. Not only are any internal flaws you perceive in yourself correctable (here is where persistence and confidence enter in), but there is probably over a 98% chance that there are books that have been written about ways to correct them; you are not alone. It’s not about what we have, it’s about what we do with what we have.

  7. Nick K says:

    Just a few comments and suggestions from an old hand who served his time in the synthetic trenches as a grad student and a post doc….

    First, don’t throw away your failed reactions. Instead, try to isolate and identify the major product at least. Not only will this give you an understanding of why the reaction failed, but may very well open the door to new chemistry. I’ve seen too many trainee chemists, especially in the US, simply sling out their reaction mixtures once they found the desired product wasn’t present. Who knows what they might have found had they looked a little further?

    Second, when you’re in a slump, and absolutely nothing is working, go back and bring more material through using chemistry you know will work. This will do wonders for the morale, and will help the campaign at the sharp end.

    Third, don’t burn yourself out. Take a weekend off and do something totally unrelated to work now and again.

    Fourth, the first year of a doctorate is usually a waste of time from the viewpoint of actual results. This time would be far more usefully employed in training students properly in the basics of purifying and identifying compounds, and in running reactions safely with air- and water-sensitive reagents.

    Final comment: it seems to me that there are far too many people trying to do doctorates in Chemistry, many of whom are simply not up to scratch. Such folk should really be told to write up for a Masters at the end of the first year.

    1. Bagnar says:

      I’m ending up my first year as a Ph.D student … And I gratefully thank you for this comment. I printed it and put it next to my computer. It will certainly worth a read again in the months 😉
      Thanks !

      1. Nick K says:

        Glad to be of help! With a bit of luck, you’ll avoid many of the blunders and missed opportunities I made when I was younger.

        One more suggestion: write up your work as thoroughly as you can in your annual report. In fact, write it up like a mini-thesis, with full experimentals and spectral data. You’ll be grateful for this when it comes to writing your definitive thesis. I’ve seen so many doctoral candidates fall at the last fence because they neglected to do this.

        1. Bagnar says:

          Doing it this week !

          I have done a mini-viva two weeks ago and will write a mini-report this week. It helps a lot to write experimental section at the same time we do experiments !

          Excellent advices. Thanks again 😉

  8. t says:

    A question for Derek and readers:
    With all this in mind, what are your perceptions of a person (let’s say you are interviewing them for a job, maybe as a lab technician) when you find out they “mastered out” of a chemistry PhD program? What sorts of questions do you ask yourself? Which do you feel comfortable asking the person?

    1. Silverin says:

      Depends. If they “mastered out” after two years in the program, I wouldn’t ask questions that required a whole lot more knowledge than an undergraduate might have. If they mastered out after five or six years, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask them the same questions I’d ask of a PhD, as they may have “mastered out” for reasons having to do with the lab, life changes, or any number of reasons having little to do with their actual knowledge/accomplishments. Some of the most successful “PhD hires” we’ve ever had were “ABDs” who left grad school in their 4th-6th years.

  9. AJ Silverin says:

    Before committing to a program or to a lab, it’s worthwhile to do some research into the average length of time it *actually* takes students to get a PhD in the the program/lab, rather than the theoretical amount of time required. This can provide some insight into the kind of mentoring and structure you might find in one lab or another. When I applied to grad school, several faculty members said things to me like, “With your record, there is nothing that would prevent you from completing a PhD in four, maybe five years.” I was arrogant enough to believe that, so I never bothered to look at the actual departmental statistics, which would have revealed an average time in the program of seven years, with several labs routinely exceeding that, and *no* student in decades obtaining a PhD in less than six years, with the sole exception of MD-PhD students, who were channeled to a couple of labs that seemed to specialize in the 4.5 year plan.

  10. Albert says:

    All this sounds so familiar even 10 years later. Resilience is definitely a must for any aspiring organic chemistry PhD.

  11. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

    Often research is just banging your head against a brick wall until you poke a hole. The challenges, aside from the sheer ability to endure the pain, are:

    1. picking which brick to bang your head against first
    2. deciding whether to continue banging the current brick or try a different brick

    Technical training does little to help with either 1 or 2 above, except insofar as it helps you bang the wall more efficiently.

  12. Cilpo says:

    the vast majority of success in grad school is the grad school……if you fail, you have your professor ( and postdocs, and older grad students) to blame. they have been through the process, they should have learned it by now.

  13. Dieter Weber says:

    Nice article about the realities of real science! I had the feeling that I’ve been lied to when I stepped into the real world. All tasks in school and university had clear, simple solutions. All lab courses worked as long as you follow instructions. All data is readily available from tables. Teachers and professors know what they are doing. Everything written in books is right.

    And then reality hits: Most equations DON’T have simple solutions. Most material parameters are NOT known. Text books and papers contain good portions of nonsense. There are endless unexpected ways to screw up an experiment. Bottles don’t always contain what’s written on the label.

    We should let students make their own experiences and mistakes much earlier so that they get used to the feeling when things go wrong!

    1. John Dallman says:

      I’m out of date on current university practice, but when I was an undergraduate in the early eighties, the “final year project” was a big deal. You had to devise some project, undertake it, succeed or fail, and write it up. It was baby steps in research, but it was enough to get the idea of what it was like without wrecking your bachelor’s degree utterly if you couldn’t do it. Is that no longer common practice?

      1. Dieter Weber says:

        Yes, there’s the thesis. It just feels quite late in the process. I remember an anecdote from a student I supervised. We were looking for selective chemical etchants for a somewhat exotic material and we made a list of candidate chemicals. Some we expected to work, some to be borderline and some to probably not work. The experiment turned out EXACTLY as predicted. I took the group out for a drink to celebrate, and she asked, “Why do you make such a big deal about it? Isn’t it always like this?”

        1. John Dallman says:

          That kind of indicates that the experiments that undergraduates, and even secondary school pupils, are doing aren’t difficult enough: they should be used to the idea that sometimes things don’t work.

          I did high-school physics in the late 1970s to a curriculum that required a project as the end of the second year: you had to devise some sensible kind of experiment and do it. The trick was devising something that was sufficiently simple. Since the curriculum was based around “discovery learning”, it was very demanding on the teachers, and seems to have fallen out of use, but it was excellent for engaging pupils with science and giving them an idea of how it actually works.

          1. Dieter Weber says:

            I agree. Schools and universities are so obsessed to cram as much as possible into the curriculum that more independent projects with unclear outcome don’t have enough space. As far as I remember, I was perhaps 1 % of the time “off the hook” at school and in university. Fortunately, I loved to do projects and experiments by myself as a kid. If there are no teachers, no grades and no time limit, an experiment with different outcome than expected is just an interesting result. That attitude helps to avoid frustration. What do you think, is there a way to make such experiences a regular part of education?

  14. Anon says:

    “There may even be lanes to swim in, and the depths are clearly marked. But no one’s marked the ocean.”.

    Hmmm. Some Profs mark out strict narrow lanes over the horizon into the greatest depths of the ocean — whatever casualties that may lead to.

  15. Ancient Mariner says:

    At the end of my first week in an organic synthesis lab, I grasped by the drying tube a 500 ml round bottom flask containing an acetone solution of an isocyanate, dropped the lot on floor and shoes and evacuated the lab (and bus home) with the charming odour of the precursor aliphatic carboxylic acid. No amount of soaking in buckets of bicarb could rescue the shoes.

    Fortunately, a formative experience that took place in the nurturing environment of a relatively well paid pharmaceutical lab, where it was understood that you might be a bit of a practical liability for the first few months but after that you should be well on your way up the learning curve, maybe even in due course returning to university as a re-impoverished student to start your PhD…

  16. Anon says:

    The most critical thing that has changed over the years is that chemists have become a dispensible commodity while job opportunities in chemistry have become a rare find. I would say this and the impact of emotional intelligence and personal networks far outweighs any consideration of practical experience.

  17. Mike B. says:

    Stop doing synthetic organic chemistry. It is a dead field. Years of slave labor for near poverty wages only to get the chance to play your hand at a terrible job market, both in academia and in industry.

  18. Kent G. Budge says:

    Oddly, my biggest challenge in graduate school (which I didn’t meet very well at all) was to let myself be mentored. I was kind of a loner all through school up to that point, and called it “self-reliance.”

    But it may be a function of my field, astronomy, which doesn’t necessarily have the same social organization as chemistry.

  19. once a chemist says:

    A big challenge is to identify poor experimentalists in advance? Such skill is certainly independent of intelligence, yet selection is largely based on academic results. My working hypothesis is to advise anyone who is always slow to complete undergraduate labs to avoid professional lab work.

    1. Hap says:

      That was a criterion when I was in undergrad, or at least something that was brought up that I should have thought about. For n=1, it was a more accurate predictive criterion than I would have liked.

      I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise, though.

  20. Laughingchemist says:

    Did you prepare them for the fact that the jobs only go to automatons from China and India, regardless of how well you do in grad school here?
    I remember telling some eager people, about 10 years ago, who were going to grad school, that there would be no jobs when they graduate.
    They got their PhD but never found work.
    A simple linkedin search of how companies are staffed will tell you who they hired instead.
    Its funny how pharma is crying over empty pipelines, its obvious why.

Comments are closed.