I am currently a PhD student in a biomedical related field.
I came a long way. I first did my undergraduate and worked for a few years, though not research related. Later, I identified my research interest before embarking in the PhD with the hope of fulfilling my career dreams. I used to love and enjoy science, but that was long ago. I was happy when I got into the PhD program. Now I'm nearly 2 years into my study, mostly 'wet' lab and basic sciences research.

Unfortunately, my experiments - most of them - fail. Initially, that was due to lack of skills and experience - with time things have improved but I am still lacking good results that can give clear direction in my work.
My project has been modified a few times because initially there were problems with the biological samples so I had no choice. Then, I tried to 'reproduce' a piece of result done by a colleague few years ago but the results were always 'off' no matter how many times I did it. Even someone else with better experience in the lab tried but could not replicate the same result. The conclusion was perhaps, change in phenotype of biological samples over time.
Then my project changed again, and the technique is now becoming more complicated and 'taxing'. Partly, because my supervisor is not very happy and feels that it is time I should be producing good data and should aim for higher impact. With more complicated experiments, I also need to beef up my basic sciences knowledge but as someone coming from a different background it is taking me extra time to grasp. With my confidence going in a downward spiral.

I am finding more and more difficult to articulate my thoughts clearly to my peers and I feel constant 'rejection' and 'guilt'. Most of my colleagues are actually good people, but harsh words, although not ill-meaning, are slowly eroding my confidence. When I ask questions because there is something that I don't fully understand (without prior knowledge and not something I can read up on), people appear impatient and ask back (e.g. "why are you asking?", "what do you think?", or just "I can't give an answer to you on this"). It feels more and more difficult for me to ask questions or speak up for myself.

One day, I was blamed for something (from someone outside the lab) that I didn't even do. The accusation was pretty unreasonable - others who witnessed the event felt the same - but to me I felt I was just a bully target. I just broke down and cried because I realized I couldn't take the stress and frustration of rejections and failure.
My friend in the same lab gave me some counseling but also at the same time asked me whether working in this lab is truly what I want to do. I don't want to quit my PhD, but then again I don't know how I can get out of this situation.

  • Should I change project?
    But my PhD qualifying exam is coming up and I am having a massive problem with writing up a good proposal because of all the frustrations happening.
  • Should I change to dry lab?
    I am afraid of talking to my mentor because I don't know whether at my current mental state I'll just suddenly break down again.

In summary, my resentment and contradictory statements that I receive:

  1. Ideology: To do a PhD, perseverance is more important than being smart.
    Reality: You need to be smart. REALLY SMART.

  2. Ideology: There's not such thing as a stupid question. Ask if you don't understand.
    Reality: Huh? Why do you even ask?

  • Hi, and welcome to Academia.SE! Your question is very complex and specific, but I think you may find the answers in the linked question about dealing with discouragement helpful. – jakebeal Apr 21 '15 at 14:26
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    I want to draw attention that in many times results are just results, whether they are good or bad. Some papers report failures, the contribution would then be saving others the time to try this approach. Someone could cite a failed experiment saying something like: "Approach X was shown to be not suitable for achieving Y, so we investigated approach Z". – Mohamed Khamis Apr 21 '15 at 14:28
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    You should really consider talking to a mental health professional before you make any decisions. I really feel like you might be dealing with depression. – Compass Apr 21 '15 at 14:36
  • Should I change project?
  • Should I change to dry lab?

A PhD can be extremely frustrating and discouraging. Whatever you do, don't make a major decision while you are stressed and upset. Take a deep breath (and maybe a day off) and decide what you need to focus on.

Since you will be qualing soon, you likely need to spend a significant amount of time studying for that. Passing your quals are important, and will likely give you a confidence boost.

Secondly, consider finding a social outlet. Many grad departments have a weekly social meet-up at a bar. Apart from meeting people that work in different labs, it is also quite likely you will meet other people who have gone through this issue, and will help you.

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It's good that you are reaching out for help. To address all the issues and problems you face will be a long process. Start by focusing in just the first steps.

First, I suggest you recruit a "coach" -- a respected peer, a recent graduate, a researcher from another department, or a PhD who works in industry. This "coach" should not be your supervisor or anyone in your lab. You need someone with whom you can be totally open and honest, and even be "messy". This "coach" won't give you much advice and certainly won't solve any of your problems. They just need to be understanding, supportive, and consistent in their connection with you.

Talk with your coach every day for at least 15 minutes. Set short-term goals -- just for the next day -- and hold yourself accountable in front of your coach. Set a few number of small goals, e.g. "Tomorrow, I want to rewrite four pages in my lab notes".

Second suggestion -- start a journal (NOT on a computer or on the Internet) where you record ONE positive experience or accomplishment every day, no matter how small. Maybe it is just something you noticed or someone you appreciated. Maybe it is something that made you laugh. The point of this is to make a habit of paying attention to -- and soak in -- positive and expansive experiences.

Again, these two suggestions are just the first steps, aimed at giving you a more solid footing emotionally so you can deal with the bigger long term challenges you face.

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