I'm currently in a Ph.D program for pharmaceutical sciences. Long story short my background is cell biology and I originally worked in a Cancer lab. My lab relocated and I could not follow. I was placed into a medicinal chemistry lab. This is how things work here, we get little choice. Anyway, I love my PI hes great, and my lab mates also great. However I have no clue what I'm doing. I have a project thats moving along nicely but once again . . . I don't even know why it's moving along.

I don't understand chemistry, I have a mere 8 credit hours from my undergrad in chemistry, and now I am asked to operate under conditions that would require a significant chemistry foundation. In my eyes all I have been doing is mixing what I am told to mix, run it through a column, perform TLC, NMR, and mass spec, and that's it. I don't know why I'm using one solvent over another. I don't know the mechanism behind any of my reactions, and hours and hours of googling has yet to teach me anything about them. No matter how many questions I ask (and I ask a lot) I don't retain anything or understand half of it because it's all upper level concepts to which I have no base to put them on. How am I suppose to defend any thesis like this? How could I ever start a career? I have no motivation in lab because I don't understand anything,at all. I don't have either the time or the drive to teach myself years of chemistry I never learned. Moving labs is 100% NOT an option here. I don't know what to do, any advice is appreciated.

  • 13
    Let's boil it down. You have 3 choices. (1) Learn some chemistry, starting off at the beginning. (2) Accept that you're just a trained monkey/robot (3) Look for another job
    – MaxW
    Dec 4, 2017 at 20:27
  • 1
    I was recommended Organic Chemistry by IL Finar as a good basic textbook when I started my undergrad course. You could do worse than by yourself a copy and read it
    – Waylander
    Dec 4, 2017 at 21:03
  • 4
    If you are more than two years from graduating in this, and you are convinced you cannot catch up on your chemistry, quit. Your PI is an idiot to have accepted you, and he's abusing you as a lab monkey. He might not have realised it, don't judge him too badly, but it's just terrible.
    – Karl
    Dec 4, 2017 at 22:28
  • 2
    @Karl - Agreed that it isn't a great situation, but the OP is working towards a PhD which I assume would get him another job eventually. So maybe working as a lab monkey would be OK until he graduates.
    – MaxW
    Dec 4, 2017 at 23:00
  • 1
    I know an entire chemistry undergrad sounds like a lot to self-study (it is!), but the missing knowledge you describe isn't actually that widely spread. In my undergraduate, it was covered in two semesters: Intro Organic and Advanced Organic. Everything you describe (aside from mass-spec) was covered in those two classes (semester-long). I know students who started doing undergraduate research after finishing that sequence, so you may only need the equivalent of a few classes to get the necessary base knowledge.
    – chipbuster
    Dec 5, 2017 at 3:32

2 Answers 2


This does seem like a difficult situation but don't lose hope!

Moving labs is 100% NOT an option here.

That means that you will have to adapt to your current environment - i.e. to learn some core chemistry concepts. Without them, it is indeed difficult to find motivation to work on a project you don't understand.

I don't have the time, nor the drive, to teach myself years of chemistry I never learned.

Time: I'd say that catching up on the background is one of your main priorities and is essential for your future as a researcher (given the circumstances). Luckily, you don't have to catch up on "years" of chemistry - start off with the areas that are most essential to your work (not specific questions, however, but rather general topics that are closely related to your experiments).

Drive: As you keep broadening your horizons, keep track of all the things you've learned to stay motivated! There will be a lot of things to catch up on but try to notice all those little moments when the knowledge that you've acquired makes your job easier - there will be a lot of them, and they certainly count.

No matter how many questions I ask (and I ask a lot) I don't retain anything or understand half of it because its all upper level concepts to which I have no base to put them on.

Sounds like you already know what you need. Whether it is auditing a class, reading a textbook, or taking an online course, you need some foundational knowledge to build upon. Googling won't cut it.

Most importantly, be patient. It will take a while to become proficient in a new area, but it's certainly possible. Celebrate small victories and use this as an opportunity for growth. Good luck!


I'm going to assume, as you requested, that you're absolutely stuck where you are, unable to go anywhere else. I don't know this is true, but for the purposes of my answer, I'll assume that it is.

Well, sure, you could try to play catch-up with a whole lot of chemistry. But there might be another way out of this.

What if you were to take a step back and look at the various research interests of the PI? Find something that interests you, where you have something to contribute? In other words, find some point of interdisciplinary intersection. And leave the heavy duty chemistry to the people in the lab who trained in chemistry.

If there's nothing that jumps out at you from the PI's publication record or description of current research interests, then try to find at least one paper that uses something he's knowledgeable about, and something you're knowledgeable about.

Or, think in terms of what you want to learn from this guy, that would help you later when you get back to your cell biology.

Hopefully this PI will help you find some intersection with him -- a topic of your own. If not, find someone else in the department to get you started.

You must log in to answer this question.

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