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I am about 1,5-2 years in my PhD studies in the no-man's-land between bioinformatics, systems biology and proteomics. (If you are not sure what those terms are, read: "biomedical research")

Coming from a more mathematical/technical background I was thrilled to work in this field, and my M.Sc thesis was pretty successful. Now diving deeper and deeper into the field I feel much less motivated to go on. What frustrates me mostly, is how little we really understand of complex biological systems, and all our efforts in the field are essentially just waddling in the darkness, trying to find the "holy grail" that may or may not exist. I personally feel that there is a undeniable lack of rigor even amongst the most respectable of scientists out there:

  • most biologist really have no clue beyond pippetting liquids left and right, as soon as it comes to data analysis they expect something along the lines of: "computer say yes/no" (see: little britain's famous sketch)

  • computer scientists/mathematicians can't really cope with the uncertainties in the data

  • statisticians are essentially the con-artists of the field, rambling on undecipherable monologues. Sorry if I offend someone but it feels like one can prove/dis-prove anything with some creative use/interpretation of statistics.

Putting my rants aside, I went up and talked to one of the younger group leaders in our dept. I feel close enough to the person to give my honest opinion and respect his thoughts on the matter. The first thing he asked me after I was done rambling on, however, was how long it has been since I started. When I told him it's been about a year and a half, he smiled and said "well, it was about time". According to him, it's common for a PhD candidate to become jaded with his/her work somewhere between 18-months to 2 years in. He claimed that one simply gets deep enough into the field to see all the potential problems/pitfalls in research, and feel negatively about it all.

Which brings me to my question(s); is there such a thing as 18-months syndrome, in your experience? Could it be a discipline-dependent phenomenon or applicable to other disciplines? How can one avoid getting stuck in a tailspin (negative spiral)?

PS: I wanted to tag this question as "research-psychology" but don't have the rep to create a new tag. If someone with more rep agrees me on the tag, I would appreciate the help :)

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I am not going to answer, just a piece of advice. To get out of there, you need now to boost your ego. To do that, you need to achieve a success. Not a mediocre paper, but something what you believe is at least marginally useful and could have an impact. You already know enough to do that, so close your eyes, steam ahead and on the other side of the tunnel you are out of the low. – walkmanyi Jan 22 '13 at 13:06
Fred Ross went through the same thing: – Amy Feb 4 '13 at 7:38
@Amy that article is just fantastic... Depressing but still fantastic nevertheless. Good to know that some people have the guts to stand up and shout out that the king is indeed naked. Thanks for the link! – posdef Feb 4 '13 at 9:18
I like how, as someone with a background in biology who has moved into computational epidemiology, you managed to insult me three times within the opening of your post. – Fomite Oct 8 '13 at 16:07
@EpiGrad that's very odd, please elaborate on what exactly it is that you feel insulted by, as I did not intend on insulting anyone when I wrote this question. Also note that down-voting a question based on a personal disagreement isn't really nice, I mean if you think that the question isn't valid/relevant or downright offensive I would understand that, but if you downvote because you do not agree with my assessment of the different fields, it's hardly objective. Anyhow, looking forward to your reply – posdef Oct 8 '13 at 16:32
up vote 28 down vote accepted

Everything is possible: I'm pretty sure, from a large enough population of former PhD students, most will tell you that they felt demotivated at some point, but the timing will depend on the individual and the particular circumstances.

It is true, however, that mid-PhD corresponds to a particularly large number of negative factors, and it is common to feel bad about your thesis around that time. Heck, it's common even that there is a PHD Comics that highlights it:

      Graph - Motivation level

(Don't mind the exaggerated x-axis scale. The area highlighted corresponds to mid-PhD.)

Now, why is that? Well, among your rants, most of the factors are actually listed in your question: Now, you know the field well enough to see not only the good, but also the bad in it. The initial elation has left, and you are left with the doubts. This is sometimes accompanied by deep questioning about your progress: Have I done enough? Have I taken the right course of action? etc.

But the most important point is: how to get out of it? Well, part of the problem is a natural “oscillation”, which means this is probably actually just a low point, a bad moment, and it will actually get better. Don't have too much fear of “spiraling down”: you've made it thus far, and you're aware of the issue!

As for more actionable advice, I would say:

  • Now that you are more knowledgeable of the field, you can actually start to make better choices: if you don't like a given approach, just steer away from it. You still have some time to do so, and it is part of your PhD to learn making strategic decisions (if you haven't already).
  • You may not see it, but you will be much more efficient during the second half of your PhD than the first, mostly because you have learnt a lot already and can make better decisions.
  • Pick a few challenges (one or two) that you would like to meet, and focus on those: you'll feel much better if, instead of chasing some holy grail, you can help solve these specific issues that you care about.
  • And remember: completing a PhD means becoming an expert in your field, and that actually means being able to critique its practices, recognize the good and the bad. It sounds like you have actually achieved this goal!

I hope this helps…

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Isn't "absorb cynicism of labmates" the proper area to have highlighted, both from the timeline and the comments in the 6th paragraph? – Dan Neely Jan 22 '13 at 16:57

For long projects it is common to feel frustrated or even desperate after some time. You cannot continue for years only with the energy that you had originally. Some of the initial magic is fading and you realize there are bad sides. Do not worry. You will also start seeing new good sides on this too. Maybe you and the other researchers in your field are not going to save the world right there right now. But you are all part of a collective effort that advances knowledge.

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