Understanding the general pattern helps you survive the difficult times
I have supervised many PhD students as well as postdocs and there seems to be a general pattern which appears again and again. Knowing these phases may help to survive the frustration and “The Dip” which generally occurs after half of the project is done.
In year 1 you start with naïve enthusiasm
In year 2 you become competent and disillusioned
In year 2 you become pretty competent and know how the game is played. You know the key people and have built important relationships. You also become aware of the limitations of your situation, you understand the technical, personal and political obstacles for your research.
After two years most young scientists experience “The Dip”
At the end of year 2 you rather suddenly realize that you have not generated enough data to finish your project in time, many experiments failed, your results are fragmented and only a fraction of your data can be published. After starting with fun and enthusiasm there is a long slog between getting competent and publishing. You may start to question the entire project, the design of the study, the validity of your results or the competence of your supervisor. You may feel lonely because you are now the only expert on the subject and even your supervisor knows less then you about your specific topic. You may even question your own ability to pursue a successful research project (imposter syndrome) or to become excellent in your field – read more here: I am just an average scientist.
This may be also a difficult time for the relationship with your supervisor.
In the third year you recover and start to harvest
If things go well, you recover from the frustration. Your supervisor may have coached or pulled you out of “The Dip”. You learn how to adapt, to become self-sufficient and responsible for your own success. You know the techniques, you repeat many processes you have done before and develop efficient routines, you develop a certain degree of mastery in your field. Often students finally generate conclusive data which help to make sense out of the previous data.
In the last year you round up and exit
In the last year you are aware that the end of the project gets nearer. If your project did not run well, you develop an exit strategy to make the best out of it and publish your paper as good as possible and/or create a nice thesis. If your project did run extremely well, you will try to increase the quality of the research even more to publish even better. However, in many cases the project, the funding or your contract come to an end. You develop an exit strategy and start to think about your life *after* this project. You may think about the next project(s) and/or consider the next career move within or outside of academia.
Postdocs go through the cycle faster
If postdocs have a 2 year contract, they go through the cycle faster because after 1 year they realize that there is only 1 year left to finish the project and publish the paper. The big risk is to leave with one or several unfinished projects, which do not serve to find the next position because they are not published. The supervisor may help to get additional funding to extend the contract, especially when the project is big or when there are several unfinished projects. This may restart the cycle.
If you are frustrated for a longer period check carefully whether you are in “The Dip”
If your research project sucks you may just be in the classical dip. Discuss your concerns with your colleagues and your supervisor to make sure that your frustration is only a result of the emotional phase of your project and not a result of a badly designed project, an incompatible supervisor or generally bad working conditions. Be aware that “The Dip” is also not easy for your supervisor because he or she has to convince you that the project will probably be successful and that you have to endure to get it done. However, there is always a chance that a research project ends with negative findings or in – rare cases – even fails altogether. If you realize that your project is not well-designed, you have a great opportunity to improve the design or make the difficult decision to find another or a complementary project.
The psychological effects of “the Dip”
Most young researchers experience the same dip but everyone’s journey is very different. They compare themselves to each other anyway. “The Dip” may increase the competitiveness. Therefore, it is crucial that young researchers talk to one another and help each other as many experience similar struggles even if they may be afraid to admit it due to competitiveness. You may be afraid that discussing your situation may let you appear weak. This is a heavy misconception. Whining and complaining tracks you down emotionally and is perceived as weakness. In contrast, acknowledging that you are going through the classical dip and that you are doing something about it (working hard to generate more data, finding alternative working hypotheses, improving or adding new techniques, discussing the study design etc.) is a sign of strength, maturity and professionalism.
The role of the supervisor
The supervisor should help you to survive the emotional turmoil of “The Dip” by staying calm and focussed. It is *not* the task of the supervisor to become your psychotherapist but to give you emotional and technical guidance. A good supervisor will help you to focus on the finish line (publishing your paper and finish your thesis) and how to handle your concerns. Please do not forget:
- Most supervisors have not been educated how to do that.
- Young supervisors may also experience “The Dip”.
How to handle “The Dip”
If you are frustrated for a longer period (= several weeks or months) and your general working conditions are fine, you get along well with your supervisor and the project is in principle well-designed – you are probably in the “The Dip”. Typical characteristics of “The Dip” are doubt, frustration and low energy. Often young scientists have generated a lot of results which are somehow not publishable yet. The results may be fragmented and important aspects may still need to be investigated. Or the results may be inconclusive and there is no clear answer to the questions addressed. Or the results may be all negative. You may wonder whether you should publish a negative study (in that case read more here: Should I publish negative results or does this ruin my career in science?).
However, knowing that this is a classical phase most young researchers go through may help to endure. And that’s what is needed at this moment:
- Keep calm and carry on.
- Ask for technical help. Often a new perspective is very useful when you feel stuck.
- Ask for emotional support. Talk to your friends. Find a support group. Most universities provide psychological services for students. They are free and there for you to use, so take advantage!
- Discuss your concerns with your supervisor and your colleagues but keep in mind that sometimes there is no easy solution.
- Limit complaining and whining because complaining tracks you down emotionally. Keep a positive spirit to stay motivated and energetic. Your colleagues will appreciate it as well.
- Do not tell a “victim story” to everybody because this enforces your frustration.
- Be aware that the work is never “done” and that the project could go on forever but you have to wrap up sooner or later to publish your paper and/or finish your thesis.
- Reduce or eliminate alcohol (or other drugs) and bad food which may reduce your cognitive performance and your general fitness.
- Engage in sports to activate your body and mind and to release tension.
- Take time off, do not work day and night. Take care of your wellbeing by engaging in social activities
If you are in “The Dip” right now, I wish you strength and good results! 🙂
The input and feedback by Noémie Aubert-Bonn, dr. Daniela Sommer and prof. Dearbhaile Dooley on previous versions is greatly appreciated.