I failed to complete my research project (undergraduate) in the time I said I would, because of overconfidence. It seemed like a quite simple project to both me and my advisor initially considering that it was very similar to a project another student of his had worked on, however for some reason (much of the blame is my own) I ran into countless difficulties and now I will not finish in time. How do I get past something like this? I do not know how to continue after such disappointment.

As an addendum: How does one develop an "aptitude" for research? I would like to go to graduate school, but a lot of the advice hinges on whether one not only enjoys but has an "aptitude" for research. Based on my minimal accomplishments this year, it seems clear that I do not currently have an aptitude for research. Can I ever develop such an aptitude?

Edit: I do not feel that this question is a duplicate. This is about UNDERGRADUATE research. Undergraduates have a very different situation - I cannot simply take another week and work on it as the semester will end soon, after which I will undertake an internship, and I have commitments to my courses and other things.

Also, this is not a case of me getting data that don't support my hypothesis - I do not have any data. Or rather, I have data, but it is meaningless until I finish my current project. Which I was supposed to do today.

  • Your second question is probably better posted as a separate question: the SE format is designed for 1 question per post.
    – ff524
    May 5, 2014 at 17:06
  • 3
    @ff254 I disagree with marking this as a duplicate. The linked question is similar, but it's about someone having doubts after three years of PhD research. This is a case of someone's first encounter with negative results. May 5, 2014 at 20:29
  • 1
    The answers to the linked question (e.g., research is hard; failure is normal; it doesn't mean you don't have an aptitude for research) apply to undergrad, grad student, postdoc and faculty researchers alike. I understand that undergrad research is different in many ways, but with respect to "how to move on after a failure" I think the same answers apply to both situations.
    – ff524
    May 6, 2014 at 2:12
  • 2
    There is no such thing as undergraduate research. There is only research that happens to be done by undergraduates.
    – JeffE
    May 6, 2014 at 2:26
  • 1
    "I failed to complete my research project (undergraduate) in the time I said I would, because of overconfidence. It seemed like a quite simple project to both me and my advisor initially considering that it was very similar to a project another student of his had worked on, however for some reason (much of the blame is my own) I ran into countless difficulties and now I will not finish in time." The fact that I used the word "time" multiple times in the question didn't indicate it was time sensitive? May 6, 2014 at 16:21

3 Answers 3


I think one of the most important things you learn as a PhD student (or Master's) is to deal with research that doesn't quite pan out as you'd expected. Because guess what, that's not the exception. That almost always happens. If research always conformed to our expectations, we wouldn't need to do it.

The trick is to learn to look at it with fresh eyes. The main problem is not that the research did not conclude as you had hoped, the main problem is that you're letting it affect your confidence. Find a new perspective. It may not have yielded what you thought it did, but you did the work and you found stuff out. Now figure out how to present it:

  • Forget about the original expectations. Those tend to make for bad science. Look at your research so far, and pick out what's interesting, and why it's interesting. Let go of the original story.
  • The fact that it was more difficult than it looked is a good indicator that you may have found out interesting things. Don't think of them as difficulties you created for yourself, think of them as results.
  • What would you tell someone starting this research tomorrow?
  • What's the shortest route to a publishable result? You may have learned many interesting things, but you need to find a single compelling result that you can explain in an abstract. Once you have that, you can fit all the stuff you learned into the story of that result.
  • "Look at your research and pick out what's interesting"? You should never cherry pick data or results. Present all findings - interesting or not. Many funding agencies have very specific expectations and demand results. The OP said he did not finish the research. There's no way to know how far along he got, but funding agencies can actually demand research dollars back if a study falls apart or isn't completed. You also mention "What's the shortest route to a publishable result?" IMO, shortcuts tend to "make for bad science".
    – derelict
    May 5, 2014 at 18:40
  • 1
    @SoilSciGuy that refers to a single experiment, not to research. Research is a chain of investigations. A failed experiment that is not worth publishing can still help you set up another one that gives better results. There's no obligation to publish all the stuff you tried before you got to the stuff that works. And I'm not talking about taking shortcuts. Once you've hit your budget limit you can get extensions, but only if you can show that you had some unexpected results (which will surprise nobody) but that you can make them work for you with some small additional experiments. May 5, 2014 at 19:07
  • That said, if you work this way you should be very transparent and make sure you're not inadvertently cherry-picking. But how strict you should be, depends for a large part on your field. May 5, 2014 at 19:09
  • @Peter I wonder though, if everyone agreed to publish their dead ends, how much time would be saved by others trying exactly the same thing?
    – kleineg
    May 5, 2014 at 19:42
  • @kleineg I agree, but unwillingness to publish is only part of the question. I can barely find relevant positive results in my field, and the negative ones must outnumber them ten to one at least. Still, it's not unimaginable that some system could be devised. Anyway, that's sort of my point in this answer. Even if your results aren't what you expected, that doesn't mean they're useless. Don't let your disappointment stop you from finding their worth. In a way, discarding failed research creates a kind of cherry-picking effect too. May 5, 2014 at 20:09

Regarding your first question: undergraduate research projects are a great way to experience some aspects of doing research, but deadlines are one way in which they differ from research in graduate school or beyond. So you shouldn't worry about the mere fact of not meeting your deadline. I can tell you that I set deadlines for myself all the time, and they always seem easily achievable, but then I often don't actually achieve them. Also I often think I should be able to prove some result in a certain amount of time, but then for whatever reason I'm not able to. So I turn that around and decide that my intuition must have been wrong, and in fact the result is more difficult than I expected; and I see this as progress since I've advanced my understanding, and I further try to identify what was the specific reason why my intuition was wrong.

Also, one great feature of the long-term research that is done in graduate school or beyond is that there is lots of flexibility to change the direction of a project mid-stream, or to pause the work on a project and finish a side project, or to split a large project into several papers, or to decide at a certain moment that the work has reached a stage where it's natural to publish what you've done so far, even though you'll keep working on it further. This type of flexibility is missing in a short-term project like one typically does in undergraduate research.

Regarding your second question about developing an aptitude for research: keep in mind that there are many different types of research projects, which rely on different types of talents. For instance, some people are great at big-picture thinking, some people are great at clever solutions to tricky questions, some people have the patience to do enormous amounts of seemingly routine things which put together can yield great results, and so on. The main thing you should strive for is to find some area of your subject, and some way of working on that area, which you love to do and which matches your particular talents. Don't get discouraged about not having great success in one particular project -- maybe that project just wasn't the right fit for your particular skills. I can tell you that one of the keys to "aptitude for research" is to have a kind of psychological toughness that enables you to keep working on a problem for a long time, despite setbacks. If you love what you do, and you have that type of resolve, then good things will happen.


“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ― Winston Churchill

You should not let one failure hold you back. I would also like to add that there is a difference between having a general interest or liking in something (i.e. research) and being passionate about it. In grad school (especially at the PhD level) you need to be passionate about your work to be successful. You have to look in the mirror and ask yourself if you truly enjoy doing research. If the answer is yes, then pursue it with vigor.

Let this set back be a learning experience, and grow from it. Just remember, "if you're not failing, you're not trying."

I could go on and on...

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .