The Rookie Researcher II: Practising Resilience in the Lab

A continuation of my journey doing PURS (physics undergraduate research scholarship): previous post. This is also a love letter for my peers in the lab, my friends, and those starting out their lives.

If there is one thing every scientist must be good at it would be good at processing frustration. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. You must be resilient. The instrument breaks, you may have accidentally broken something, you may have an unexpected health condition, you may have bad results, and most commonly (and sadly) mentioned by former and current PhD candidates: bad supervisors. And many other reasons.

For my project, I’ve been taught to cut glass for the varnish samples. A clear demonstration from my supervisor; score the glass slide with a diamond stylus then use pressure with fingers to snap the glass like a chocolate bar. And when it came to my turn, I didn’t score the glass deep enough and recklessly applied too much pressure. My finger was not happy with a new wound. The glass was basically off-limits until my wound healed. It did, and I finally practised the technique without any injuries. I felt annoyed for not being careful enough, but it was a good lesson to not rush the process or I might injure myself.

I went to the SEM lab this week to try use a new scanning instrument that will allow me to look at the cross-section (the thin side) of the varnish sample; instead of scraping the varnish onto a stud. I couldn’t find any pores in the varnish, and that was a few hours gone from my booked SEM session. The frustrations of failing to gather good results, and the pressure to do well within the time left (I only have around 4 weeks remaining).

I understand some PhD students could resonate with the worry of diminishing resources of time and funding.

My SEM technician has kindly reassured me that my ability to use the machine is better than the average person with similar usage duration as mine. No good results that day, but at least I’m getting better at using the machine. I’ll give myself a pat on the back. The machine is quite hard to master, and I fully appreciate my technician’s support. I have booked another session to try again.

This is where the varnish sample sits. It’s clamped so the electrons can beam onto the cross-section.
This is the cross-section of the sample. Lighter top layer is glass, the thin darker bottom is varnish. The varnish is a bit blurry.

Unprocessed frustration could lead to anxiety and self-doubt, and then to imposter syndrome and burnout. It hurts your soul. Some people quit. But of course, there are other reasons why one would quit the lab. I remember experiencing a moment of imposter syndrome and discussing it with a colleague who finished their PhD. They even confided in me that they have it. Sometimes they feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. I felt less alone knowing that someone with more experience than me is also a human being with vulnerabilities. Even lecturers get them.

Einstein himself suffered frustration and failure throughout his career. He failed his university entrance exam due to poor performance in some subjects but managed to pass on second attempt.  He was unemployed for a couple of years out of education and his wife was already pregnant. Instead of a university position he settled as a patent clerk for his family. Now we remember him as the definition of genius. The man who developed General Relativity, a concept used in our everyday lives and studied heavily to this day, also struggled.

Marie Curie was refused a university education because of her gender. She ended up becoming the only person in history with a Nobel Prize in Physics AND Chemistry.

And for being a student, I know many university students who struggled with exams are now leading successful lives.

These people have failed and been rejected because of their ability and identity. I prefer to hear these stories because the true lessons are from failure.

I find it important to understand what triggers my frustration and how I should soothe it. Personally, when I process frustration, it is important that I remain patient with myself. I need to calm my perfectionism (usually rooted from that) and remind myself that it’s normal to have setbacks. Whether it’s with your results or your ability to do something. If it’s bad, I detach from the situation for a healthy amount of time to do other (fun) things and then think of possible solutions to the problem. I’d rather not obsess with the thought of frustration – it’s draining. I tell myself, “this too shall pass”.

Please do take breaks and have patience with yourself. Also, speak with your friends and peers. Enjoy your little amount of time on Earth.

And get enough sleep (I’m looking at you lecturers)

Take care,

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