Nothing If Not Humbling
Updated: May 14
"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.
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.
You had always wanted to work with your hands, but you didn’t know how. Nor were you particularly good at such things—most of the time when you took things apart, they didn’t work when you put them back together. (To this end, you stopped taking your toys apart, instead electing to take your brother’s toys apart. Sorry, Drew.) You were good at numbers, and you liked to read and write, but that wasn’t enough.
Then you took a chemistry class in high school, and that changed everything. Before, you were just another angry nightmare teenager with black clothes, combat boots, and a combat personality. After, you still wore way too much black, but you had a passion. Chemistry, physics, all of the sudden these new ideas took those numbers you loved and related them to experiments.
More than a decade later, your job was to work in a giant toolbox with big-kid Legos. You had built up entire vacuum chambers. You could solder. You had coupled laser light into more optical fibers than you could count. You used light to control atoms, and they did your bidding (sometimes).
It didn’t matter, then, if anyone else understood the long nights and the turned-down invitations to happy hour. They didn’t need to “get” the miles of sneakers awkwardly slapping pavement, the agony and ecstasy of laboratory work, the oddly sore muscles from leaning over an optics table and reaching mirrors placed in painfully inconvenient spots. Of course, you’re not alone, and you find an odd comradery with your fellow lab rats, but your family never quite comprehends why you didn’t just go get a real job.
That is, until the last bit.
The last success: Halfway through your Ph.D. defense talk, you pause for a moment between slides. For the first time, your dad is in the audience. Your brother. Your partner of almost a decade and his parents. Your friends. As you describe the work that made up the last six years of your life, you realize that the failures were a part of the process, and even if none of these wonderful people fully understand, their love and support helped get you through.
(P.S. My advice to grad students: Work hard, but go outside and play sometimes. Get enough sleep, and don’t turn down every happy hour invitation. Life is too short to do otherwise. )