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Falling Out of Love With Research

I had a thought this morning. (Well actually I had lots of thoughts this morning, but one that I feel especially compelled to blog about). Being in grad school is a lot like being in a relationship.

This was me during my first year of grad school, with fuzzy feelings all over the place. Photo credit: flickr user henna 8084

When you first get to grad school, you join a lab, get a new project, and then there’s what I call the puppy love phase. Everything is so promising and bright. There are fuzzy feelings all over the place. You just feel so in love, so optimistic for what the future holds. Nothing could go wrong.

That was me three years ago. They (my fellow grad students) called me the “naïve optimist”, no joke.

Time passes. You realize that the technique you are developing which appeared so promising at first is actually chock-full of problems. You have to work to solve those problems. It takes a lot of time. Numerous failed attempts to fix things are spotted with few successes. You try everything you can think of to figure out a solution.

Now hear me out. Does this or does this not sound like the period in a relationship when you’re starting to fall out of love?

I have to interject at this point and just say that I am happily married to an amazing guy and that my description of how my relationship with my project is going through a rocky period in no way mirrors my relationship with my husband. I’m just saying that it’s like a relationship. Now that that’s all cleared up…

So you’re starting to fall out of love with your project. You get mad at it some days and don’t want to talk to it.

But then you realize that while you can try to just keep ignoring the problems, they’re not going to go away on their own. Sometimes the problems fester and get worse with time. But if you want the relationship, I mean the project, to work, you need to keep on trucking. You need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. Because if you don’t, your project is on the line, and the chances you’ll ever finish and escape with those three coveted letters after your last time– they get slimmer.

There comes a point in many relationships where you have to decide to either commit to working on the relationship, or call it quits. Same with research. Photo credit: flickr user I Support Miley<3 2.0

Your choices are: suck it up and keep trying, or walk away from everything you already invested so many years of your life working on.

Gosh, I feel like I could turn this into a daytime soap opera. I’ll call it: Days of our graduate school lives.

Here’s the thing though. I still love being in grad school. I love learning, I love being part of an intellectual community. I love communicating fascinating scientific concepts to people in a way that gets them excited and makes them want to learn more. Hence why I want to be a science writer.

I just don’t love research anymore. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve found a new love in science writing.

But I’ve just gotta keep on keepin’ on… and stay on speaking terms. Good communication is vital to any relationship.

Dear project, tell me what you need. Tell me what you want to be happy and I’ll do it because I care about you and I want you to succeed.

Gosh, now I’m talking to my project. This needs to stop.

But I know you know exactly what I’m talking about…

12 Comments

  • Mar 14th 201120:03
    by Rebekah

    It’s true. So incredibly true. The honeymoon stage. The frustration stage…the turning point. Everything is spot on. I can’t tell you how many times I did the “dear project,” quote while banging my head on my desk. Sometimes it is easier to part ways when there is a new “relationship” to take over. But is it the right one? Ugh, who knows?

  • Mar 14th 201121:03
    by Leigh Krietsch Boerner

    My labmate declared ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ as my love song to my data. So true. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXJL5B3Lb3s

  • Mar 14th 201122:03
    by Paul

    Nice post.

    There should be no stigma associated with your epiphany that you are no longer interested in the pursuit of a career in (active) research. In fact, just the opposite: you have learned something new about yourself and what will/won’t make you happy.

  • Mar 15th 201108:03
    by azmanam

    Why am I suddenly singing the Kelly Clarkson song “Because of You” in my head… Maybe I should make a YouTube parody of that song describing my relationship to my PhD research…

    Time to go eat cookie dough…

  • Mar 15th 201108:03
    by Matt

    I agree with Paul. Nothing wrong here. Now it’s just a matter of moving yourself in the direction that YOU want while finishing your PhD. Not necessarily the easiest task … but I’m sure you’re up to it!!

  • Mar 15th 201114:03
    by Curious Wavefunction

    Great thoughts, and these also tie in with Kathy Weston, David Kroll’s and my own thoughts about picking alternative scientific careers. At the very least you learn how to cope with frustration which is one of life’s great general lessons.

  • Mar 15th 201117:03
    by Ms. MSmind

    There also comes a point when if you’re truly in a dysfunctional relationship you CAN walk away. It’s not like you’re leaving empty handed, you get to graduate with those two little letters after your name (MS). And your project might feel like your baby, but you shouldn’t have to pursue a degree that’s wrong for you just for the sake of the kids.

  • Mar 15th 201120:03
    by Pat Bowne

    I think there are a lot of us out here for whom the major desired outcome of our Ph.D. research was that we would get the degree and not have to do any more research.

  • Mar 15th 201122:03
    by Christine Herman

    Thanks for all the encouraging comments. I guess it’s nice to know that other people can relate, and that I’m not totally out there for “talking” to my project… :)

  • Apr 4th 201110:04
    by Ira Earman

    I looked all over google for it!!

  • Sep 17th 201116:09
    by Mr. Asterix

    The worst is when your research asks you to change… Research I can’t become a physical chemist just to make this relationship work. Sorry.

  • May 21st 201218:05
    by Abby

    I can completely relate to what you have described. I am no more the “naive optimist”, but now I am more of the “cynic”. Am glad to know that the feeling of frustration is universal. Hey, so how long before you become a science writer or are you one already?

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