My mistakes don’t define me

Posted by j.laird on 8 November 2022 - 10:00am
broken plate on the ground
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

By an anonymous PhD student.

On 9 January 2019, I hopped on a plane to the greatest opportunity I have had in my life - yet. I mean, I was going to THE University of Edinburgh to do a PhD in a field I cared about. In my very naïve mind, I thought it was going to be a rosy ride, after all, how hard could that be? Now a little back story, before I had the opportunity to do my PhD I had finished my bachelor’s degree - where I excelled effortlessly. I thought I was going to continue the same winning streak in my PhD. Boy was I wrong!

Emotionally spent

No amount of knowledge from books, articles and personal communications with PhDs could have prepared me for how jarring failures and mistakes in my experiments and PhD journey in general would be to me. I have experienced so many failures, but my reaction to one of them stands out to me. I had been genotyping (validating the homozygosity of a mutant line I had received for experiments) unsuccessfully, way longer than expected. For this genotyping experiment, one could ideally get results within a day or two, however, mine lasted 3 months. For some reason, I was just not getting the results I desired. I remember bursting into tears upon seeing my last negative results on the third month - I wept as though one of my parents had died (God forbid!).

I was so emotionally spent by this time, so I spoke to someone, and here’s what that person told me: “well, 80-90% of the experiments in Science don’t work, you just have to find a way to deal with it!”. That person also told me, I was “too emotional”. That was a bit too much to handle, too emotional? As though my feelings are not valid, as though I am not, as an emotional being allowed to show emotions after experiencing failure for three months non-stop. Here’s what made my experience more hurtful, I was working harder than I had ever worked. But I thank that person for making that comment because I learned from it.

Lessons learned

I learnt that I need to separate myself from my experiments, because if I don’t I will constantly be emotionally exhausted with little-to-no enthusiasm and motivation to carry on. I learnt that I am not the first person to experience failures and to make mistakes in research. Because, in those three months (no, that’s a lie, throughout my whole PhD,) I have questioned my intelligence, I have told myself: “maybe you are not as smart as you thought you were”. Because, in my defence, I have made way too many mistakes, I have gone blank at meetings and been told some mean things that demoralise and shake a person’s worth and sense of self. But I have learnt, I have grown, and I have a deeper self-knowledge now. I know who I am, and I know that, these mistakes and failures do not define me, and frankly they are to enable me to learn to be better next time. They are to build resilience in me, because I will keep making mistakes (unintentionally) in life - it all depends on how I deal with and correct those mistakes.

I have a have healthier relationship with failure and mistakes now - so can you.

This blog post is part of our Research Software Camp: Supporting Mental Health.

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