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For reasons I had very little influence on, most of the projects I participated in over the course of my PhD did not produce reasonable results. I managed to get involved in small side projects and publish at least something, but those are not very novel in itself and not "on the edge of knowledge". The edge of knowledge I pushed is what could go wrong when you are a lone representative of a "service science" in a collaboration, who is asked for input in the beginning, but later overthrown. And in the end, we look at the data together and establish we can't do what we wanted with it. And part of the problem is in fact that my input was not that valued by decision makers. This take-home message is more of a meta-topic and for sure not the main result of my thesis though.

In my thesis, I will (with a heavy heart) go through those projects and discuss them. Discuss what happened, what we did and what we should have done and could have done. This writing process is a very hard piece of work to do and is taking a toll on me right now. But I am doing it and trying to detach myself from the thoughts of how these failures could end up killing my dreams of an academic career.

In my defense, I am supposed to paint a picture-perfect representation of at least one major project. I don't have any options for this. I got caught in doing small "services" to help my collaborators and starting new projects ("we will do better this time") which always ran into a roadblock (mostly before I even got significantly involved).

I do not want to whine about science in my defense. I do not want to explain what went wrong, to the people who did it sitting in the room with a plan to cheer me through my presentation. But what can I do? People usually find one "example" of what they did that worked out well and then "blow this up" to be the main point of their defense, while it might only be a small part of the work they did over the years. But I cannot find a single interesting topic with nice results. They are either trivial or failed.

Has anybody done a "fully failed" PhD defense ... and passed? How would one do this?

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    establish we can't do what we wanted with itThat is a positive result, not failure! – JeffE May 18 '18 at 15:46
  • They are either trivial or failed. - If this is true, why does your advisor think you are ready to graduate? – Kimball May 19 '18 at 1:52
  • @Kimball Because he does not see them as failed... much like JeffE. They are not "failed for all intents and purposes" and there is not nothing learned from them. The problem is more that it is fairly uncomfortable to have a defense talking only about problems you found. I don't want to be seen as the "one who criticizes research because she couldn't get results". – skymningen May 20 '18 at 9:14
  • @skymningen I don't know your research, or your results. But try to be very clear in your own mind about the distinction between useful negative results, and "nothing learned" faliures. Remember that almost any negative result is useful, even if just in preventing somebody else from spending time on trying the same thing. – Flyto May 22 '18 at 10:45
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    Also, "I am supposed to paint a picture-perfect representation of at least one major project": NO project is perfect, and if a PhD candidate claimed that their project was perfect - that nothing had gone wrong, and nothing could be improved in hindsight - some exaiminers might be surprised! – Flyto May 22 '18 at 10:46
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The specifics here are certainly best discussed with your advisor. They should know about your discipline, and how to frame results in a way that is suitable for the community.

Has anybody done a "fully failed" PhD defense ... and passed? How would one do this?

For me, it does not sound at all like you "failed" in your PhD. A PhD is a research project, not a product. Ultimately, you (and your committee) should not evaluate your results based on whether they ended up being useful, but based on whether you had a reasonable thesis and a thorough scientific study of this thesis.

That is, if you proposed a novel approach, collected reasonable data, and thoroughly validated your initial thesis, your research was successful, independently of whether this approach then ended up being used in the larger project context. Sure, it would be nice to be able to say that your approach has then helped these other people to do A, B, C, and D, but the real world does not always work like that.

To me, it is mainly a question of mindset. If you yourself consider your PhD "failed" you will have a hard time selling it to a committee. You need to embrace the idea that you did good research, and not measure the success of your own work on factors outside of your control. In that sense, you should defend what you did and why. You can, and maybe should, discuss why it ended up not being used if there are interesting lessons learned, but stay away from political or interpersonal arguments (these can indeed sound whiney). Stay positive and focus on what you did, not on how much other people then liked the results.

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  • I do not consider my PhD failed and I am currently doing well with writing (only problem there is my broken heart as some of those projects I used to be passionate for). Maybe I should just bring up my ideas on how to do it better for each example where something went wrong, without specifying that I did mention those before it went wrong, just making clear that I know how to do better? – skymningen May 20 '18 at 9:18
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The short answer is yes and it is jokingly referred to a "PhD for Effort". More importantly is why it is ok.

Having projects fail teaches you what a bad project looks like

A big part of the reason a PhD helps you grow as a scientist is because in a PhD allows you to fail. I am fond of saying "getting a PhD means you have learned how to fail productively". In a company where they lose money when your experiments don't work, someone will come along and stop you if you are heading down an unproductive path. That makes the projects more likely to succeed, but it means you never had to figure out where things were going wrong. By banging you head against the wall for the last few years you have learned what a bad project looks like so in the future you will know when to cut the cord.

You may have actually failed because you are better

There are a ton of papers out there with unreproduceable results. It has become a big problem for a lot of the top journals. Sometimes this is due to chance, but at least some of it is due to things like unintentional p-hacking. It is possible at least some of your projects went wrong because you had better experimental design or because you did a better job of analyzing your data. If you could only get a PhD for positive results it would be discouraging good scientific practices.

Projects always look less impressive to the person doing them

You have been staring at your work for years. You know all the ins and outs and all the details. Of course nothing looks novel or interesting to you anymore, you know every result like the back of your hand. Try stepping away from it for a little while or getting some fresh eyes on the results. If that doesn't work, try explaining what you did to to a little kid. It is easy for things to feel small when you are explaining the details of the experiment, but when you have to simplify things down to the bigger themes you realize how much it ties in to your field. Some of the best defenses I have gone to were basically just a set of marginally related projects tied together with a good story.

Big picture summary

Even if you didn't get the results you wanted, you became a better scientist. That is why getting a PhD is part of your "education". Instead of being disappointed in the results, step back and let yourself get excited. With fresh eyes, you may realize you have more than you think.

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  • Some of them definitely are unpublished because we decided not to fall into the trap of shady analysis, cherry-picking results or the likes. One is so far not published because I personally stated that I would not be okay with following a specific idea that could lead to (statistically very weak) results from rather bad input data because I consider the method to obtain this fraud or at least deception. – skymningen May 20 '18 at 9:22
  • @skymningen Good for you; it sounds like the second section definitely applies. If you really feel like you can't pull together a story out of the results you got (which you probably can) focus on your good data analysis and how it kept you from going down the wrong path and led you to the less flashy but objectively more accurate conclusion. No professor is going to feel comfortable rejecting a candidate for good scientific practices and they shouldn't because it sound like you learned exactly what you were supposed to from your PhD. – Barker May 20 '18 at 22:23
  • @skymningen Also if you want to publish some of those well executed negative results, check out PLoS One. The journal explicitly has no impact factor requirements and encourages submission of negative results because they care deeply about the quality of the research as opposed to the impact of the results. I know the journal's founder personally and the type of results you are describing is exactly why he started the journal. – Barker May 20 '18 at 22:26
  • +1 in particular for "Projects always look less impressive to the person doing them" – Flyto May 22 '18 at 10:47

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