Ways to Fail Your PhD

Every PhD is different. You will have some where an individual spends all of their time in a lab just to produce 1 paper. And, you may have a few where the student seems to be on vacation all of the time, yet they produce 3 to 4 papers a year. I know both of these types of individuals which makes a PhD a slightly weird experience.

There are a million blogs and articles on how to successfully do a doctorate. Heck, my whole blog is pretty much about being a successful grad student without going insane. But, very little articles that I have found talk about the things that cause students to fail. I want to talk about a few of the most important ones so you, the doctorate student, will thrive in your program. Here is a list of a few ways that you can fail your PhD.

Black and White Checkered Paper Bag

1) Not asking for help

This is such an important part of doing a doctorate. You are going where few have gone before and that is exciting and down-right scary. At first, you may be working on stuff that is fairly straight forward and easy to do. But, soon you will find that doing a doctorate will take you places that may cause confusion and doubt. Ask for help! This can be asking your advisor for guidance on the next step or asking a friend to help you with some stress that you are having. Being stubborn and thinking you can handle everything alone is dumb and will cause you to fail. Reach out to people for help. I know you will find it.

2) Thinking you know everything

No one knows everything. Acting like you do will only lead to failure. Doing a doctorate is understanding that you don’t know everything, but you are willing to find out. I knew one individual that thought they knew everything there was prior to starting their grad program. Undergrad is a lot easier if you are like them but grad school is a different game entirely. In grad school, you are finding something out stuff that no one else has found out. You are contributing to knowledge. Those that think they know everything will become extremely frustrated in grad school because they will learn very quickly that our knowledge is extremely limited. The best way to succeed in grad school is know you don’t know everything but you are willing to learn as you go.

Crop unrecognizable coworkers in formal wear standing at table with laptop and documents while greeting each other before meeting

3) Always agreeing with your advisor

Your advisor may know quite a lot but they don’t know everything. Grad school is about becoming an independent researcher. It is about doing stuff that even your advisor doesn’t know. If you agree with everything they say, and take what they say as truth, then you will fail. Question everything they say because it may be wrong. In fact, it is often wrong because they are not doing your research, you are. You are the specialist in this field and it is Ok to question or even disagree with what they tell you. Don’t be afraid to disagree with things they say, especially if you know it is false.

High Angle View of Lying Down on Grass

4) Not taking time off of work

Rest is an essential part of work. If you are working at all times of the day, you’ll burn out quickly. Burn out is so sad to see, especially when it is with first-year students. A doctorate is a marathon, not a sprint so you need to rest to keep up your strength. Taking days off is a great way to increase productivity. In fact, I have written about how it helps (here).

Rest is essential because it allows our minds to recover and strengthen. If you work out, you know onset muscle soreness sucks. Burn out is like that but for your brain. If you over work tour brain, you’ll just be “sore” even more. You need time to recover. After working out, you are a tad bit stronger, and this is the same way with your brain. The days that I take off are usually the days where a “eureka” moment occurs. Try it out.

Woman Sitting in Front of Macbook

5) Not controlling your stress

You are going to be stressed in grad school. If you can control it, you have a great advantage. Stress can lead to all sorts of problems (read about them here). Stree management is key to your success. I have a few ways you can reduce it in my blog (link here). Check it out. Reducing stress will not only allow you to continue this journey but it will make it an enjoyable one. I think the stress that comes from grad school is the reason many people fail. If you can control this stress and use it to your advantage, you will be extremely successful, I guarantee it.

Person Holding Red Book With Silver Link Bracelet Round Analog Watch

6) Being afraid to fail

No one likes to fail, but failure is the way to being successful. I think in an age where we are put down for failure has made us afraid to try anything that may lead to failing. Social media doesn’t help because you look at everyone’s accomplishments, not their failures. Grad school is about failing at stuff so many times that you become desensitized to it. Your experiments will fail, you may fail exams, you will fail in writing and friendships and everything. This is good. It means that you are trying. If you are afraid of failure, you will never take any risks. You will stay in your comfort zone and miss out on the wonderful things that can happen outside of your comfort zone.

I am currently listening to the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. In it, the author talks about how people are afraid of failure and that is why there are a ton of missed opportunities. He emphasizes that failure is essential for growth. You try, you fail. You try again, you fail again but learned something from it. This is how growth occurs. If you want to grow as a researcher, you need to be ok with failure. Remember that a failed experiment may lead to a discovery that could change the world.

I want you to know that a doctorate is hard, life is hard, everything is hard. There is no right way to go about doing a doctorate but these things that I have mentioned are great ways to fail at it. For those just starting out, welcome. You will succeed, I know you will. This journey is an interesting, scary, exciting, and down-right awesome one. Enjoy the ride.

My Typical Day as A Grad Student

I wanted to share a typical day as a grad student. This is my typical day and may vary significantly based on many factors. These include deadlines, your adviser, when you wake up, as well as if your lab is available to you during a certain time. Some of these factors are a bit weird but grad students understand.

Black Analog Alarm Clock at 7:01

I usually wake up around 7:30 AM to either my alarm or my cat, Sirius. If you are a cat owner, you understand the struggle of trying to sleep in and not being able to. Lately, Sirius has been letting me sleep longer which is kind of bad, since I do need to get up and do work. But if I do get up at 7:30, I usually have coffee, get ready and get out the door by 8:00.

I walk to campus instead of riding the bus. I found out that it takes about 10 minutes more to walk than ride the bus so it just makes sense to walk. Also, Gainesville has been absolutely beautiful this time of year, so the walks have been amazing. Walking takes about 30 minutes and I tend to listen to music or audio books on the way over. (Link to audio books that I listen to).

I will get to my office at about 8:30-8:45 and make a second cup of coffee. I really love coffee, if you guys didn’t know already (lol). So after my second cup, I am usually ready to tackle the day.

My days consist of either writing or lab work mostly. On weeks where I do lab work, I come in at really weird times. Depending on the day, I may get to lab at 7:30 AM or noon. So, for this blog, the day I am referring to is a writing day.

Around 9:00 AM, I start off with a blog post. So blogging has had many benefits, and one that I have noticed is that it warms me up for scientific writing. There are days where dissertation writing is difficult, so blogging beforehand gets me ready to do even more writing later. I have noticed that writing articles has become easier and I have blogging to thank for that. I usually am done with this writing by 10:30-11.

Lunch is at 11 and then start actually writing for the day. I try to get at least 500 to 1000 words in a day. When writing, I don’t focus on the flow of the paper, or the grammar. I mainly focus on getting the words out. If I focused so much on perfecting my writing then I would maybe get 100 words in a day. Going back over what I wrote later and correcting is way better than correcting as I go.

I usually write until about 2 PM. I do need a break, right? 2 is usually a good time to either get coffee or go on a walk. Some days I will have meetings at this time, so it’s a good time to change up the day. I will also go to my friend’s office and talk to her for a bit. PhD students don’t always work. We may complain that we do, but there is plenty down time.

I will usually get back to work around 3, after coffee, of course. From 3 to 5 PM, I usually write a bit or read some papers. My research topic doesn’t have too much to read about, so I will branch out and maybe read about physics or other engineering topics. Reading bores me easily, so in that time, there is plenty of phone time.

I will usually leave my office around 5-5:30 to go to the gym or do stadium workouts (check out my blogs about those here). My brain just shuts off at 5:30 for some reason. If I don’t get the work done by this time, it won’t get done haha. I think it is because I conditioned myself to not think of work after 5 when I was a full time civil engineer. Of course, if there is a deadline, my day does not end at 5-5:30, but those occasions only happen once in a while.

After the gym, I usually go home and hang with Sirius. Lately, I have been just playing with him for an hour to wear him out. I think this might be the reason he doesn’t get me up at 7:30 anymore. He has been sleeping a ton. I will usually make dinner at this time too and possibly catch up on email reading.

I know this isn’t too exciting, but this is a typical day for me, when writing. If it’s lab work, well that is a different story. I will probably make a blog about that one of these days. If you are just starting off and are trying to compare your day to other PhD students 1) Don’t do this because people will lie and maybe make you feel like you aren’t doing enough and 2) if you really want, look at reddit forums (here‘s a good one). Just know that a PhD is different to everyone. Some people will work constantly and other’s won’t.

I would suggest keeping a schedule that does not keep you in the lab/office forever. There is a whole life for you outside of work and it is very easy to forget that. Do not feel like you need to work on something constantly because that will burn you out faster than you know. Make time for friends and family. Join a club or sports league. Make sure the hours after 5 PM really count. You will have busy weeks but way more slow weeks. So occupy the time with things that make you happy.

Publishing Your First Manuscript

Free stock photo of brown, business, crumpled paper ball

I think one of the hardest parts about a PhD is putting forth so much effort into one thing and having someone tell you it is wrong or it is not good enough. Talk about breaking you down and making you feel bad. The PhD process is grueling and no wonder people don’t want to go through it. I know the struggles that PhD students face and they are quite taxing on mental health. One of the things that may cause mental stress is getting a manuscript published.

One of the requirements to graduate at my university is getting a first authored publication. Many of the students in my department will send in their research. I sent in a review paper. Literature reviews are required for dissertations but not necessarily for publication. MY adviser wanted me to get a paper in quickly because my research project takes quite a long time, and data won’t be sufficient until the end of this year. So, we decided that it was best to get a literature review over with and send that in for publication.

Well, after 2 years of working on it, it was accepted to a journal. I am super excited so I wanted to spend some time telling you what it’s like to publish and the process of peer review. If you haven’t checked it out yet, go read my blog about writing a literature review. I’m sure it will help those in the process.

When writing a paper for publication, you need to really pay attention to ever little detail. Make sure grammar is correct, punctuation is appropriate, and that all figures are up to the quality of the publisher. When in doubt, check out the website of the journal you want to send your paper to. They will always have a list of requirements that need to be met for them to send off to be peer reviewed.

Prior to sending your paper anywhere, do some research on journals. The worst thing is to keep picking journals where your paper is out of their scope of work. You don’t want to send a physics paper to an ecology journal. I highly recommend using Journal Finder. It is a free service by Elsevier. Here you can see the most appropriate journals with the highest impact factors. This is how I made the decision on where to send my manuscript.

Send your manuscript and hopefully the editor sends it to be peer reviewed. Honestly, this is a very nerve wracking time because the editor can just flat out reject your work. But, if you are fortunate enough, they will send you an email saying they are sending your paper to peer review. Now it’s time to sit back and relax. The paper is in good hands, I promise you.

The peer review process is awful!!! It is definitely needed but you may get comments back that are just flat out mean. They may tell you that this paper is bad or that everything you did was wrong. They may even suggest that you redo the experiments. My experience was with review papers. The reviewers must have gone through every citation because they had a comment for literately everything. It will take you some time to address all comments, but know you will most likely have help from your adviser, so do not fret. They have done this a million times.

After addressing the comments, you’ll send them back to the editor who will read over them. They may accept or reject your paper right then and there. It can happen but sometimes they will send the paper back to the reviewers to see if they are ok with the responses. If you are luck, like me, you will get even more comments from the reviewers -_-. Have no fear, this means that the reviewers are really taking the time to make sure you have a scientifically sound paper. This is a good thing.

By the time all the peer review is over, it is up to the editor to make the final call. After all, it’s their journal that you are asking to be published in. Hopefully they send you an email, like they did with me, that states that they have accepted your article. It is an amazing feeling knowing that you will have contributed a tiny bit to the academic world. Maybe you might have people even cite your paper. That is a cool thing.

If your paper was rejected. It is not the end of the world. Read all of the comments very carefully and make adjustments where it’s necessary. If you have a good project that is scientifically sound, it will get published with some work. I remember reading a comment on Reddit about how someone always sent their manuscripts to Nature. They were rejected every time after peer review, but that is what the person wanted. They wanted to see how to make their experiments and papers better. The reviewers would give them amazing feedback and they were able to use that to make their paper good enough to get into vey impactful journals. So, getting rejected is a learning experience.

If you have gone through the process of your published manuscript, let me know how it went for you. This was the process for me but everyone has a different story to tell and I would love to read about it.

What I do

So I have been working on an EPA funded project that deals with lead contamination in environmental settings, particularly potable water sources. The ultimate goal is to build upon a modelling system that predicts how sick a child will get from lead exposure in household settings. Our team deals with the lead that comes from lead service lines, copper fittings, and solder. We analyze the amount of lead that comes out of lead pipes by subjecting the pipes to different water characteristics such as changes in pH, alkalinity, dissolved organic compounds, dissolved inorganic carbon, and phosphate. The pipes that we used contain a mineral compound on the inside of the pipe called “scales”. these scales are minerals that have been created to protect the pipe from corrosion. We want to know how they react under different water conditions. 


The other part of our project deals with identifying sources of lead in the environment through the use of lead isotope ratio analysis. This basically gives a fingerprint to lead sources by looking at their isotopic composition. Then we take blood samples from individuals exposed to areas with high concentrations of lead and see if the isotopic composition of the lead in their blood matches that from an environmental setting. 


It’s freaking cool science. Plus, I get to work with some state-of-the-art, and quite expensive, equipment. I would love to go more into the data I have collected once I get it published. Hopefully people read this blog and ask questions. I love being able to teach people the stuff I do and also gain feedback. It allows me to grow and thrive in the scientific world.