top of page
Chinh Le Duc/Unsplash

Nothing If Not Humbling

"Successes are a needle in a haystack of failures."

It’s not really something you expect everyone to understand.

Not that this makes you better than anyone else. Getting a Ph.D. is a unique experience, and it’s nothing if not humbling. Successes are a needle in a haystack of failures.

Failure: Switching the positive and negative leads on your power supply, promptly causing four electrolytic capacitors to pop and spray their liquid innards all over the circuit board you were testing. You clean up the mess, replace the blown parts, and hope the air clears before your lab mates notice (it turns out hot capacitor juice smells bad, and they’ll make fun of you if they notice).

Failure: The computer controlling the experiment decides to fail in such a way that one of your magnetic field coils has far more current pumping through it than it was designed to handle. You scare the summer student by sobbing as you clean melted epoxy off of your experiment, and you learn a valuable lesson: fuses are a good thing.

BEC (quantum awesomeness) as seen by Carrie's experiment’s control code. (Courtesy of Carrie Weidner)

Success: You watch as the little blob of colored pixels representing a cloud of Rubidium-87 atoms gets smaller and smaller, finally condensing into a dense little ball of quantum awesomeness.

Success: On a cold winter day not long after Christmas, you manage to get that little ball of awesomeness to separate into more little balls of awesomeness. It dawns on you that you might graduate one day.


The humility and character that you’re developing bleed into other parts of your life. To handle the highs and lows of experimental science, you learn to stabilize your mental health. You’re not a naturally good athlete, but you run until the demons in your head are too tired to complain, ride your bike up and down the mountains just outside of town to counteract the effects of sitting at a computer all day, and lift weights so you can move heavy equipment around your experiment. Caffeine, the crutch of many academics, doesn’t agree with the medication you’re taking to stabilize your Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and anxiety, so you have to get adequate sleep. Sometimes none of these work despite your best efforts, and you panic anyways, lying awake questioning your sanity and your future.

Failure: Fellowship and grant reply letters that begin with “We regret to inform you...”

Failure: You get the first round of reviews back from a paper you started writing two years ago. Reviewer 2 is particularly harsh, saying that this manuscript you’ve agonized over is “poorly written.” Unfortunately, they’re not wrong, and it’s two more years before you get a publication.

Success: Late one night (really, early one morning) in the fall, you take the data that will form the backbone of your Ph.D. thesis. You don’t even realize it until you do the analysis the next day.

Success: That data turns out to also be the backbone of another paper that the new reviewers laud as “well-written”.

Take that, Reviewer 2.