If we think we’re bad, we might be worse

I am a material engineer, and my PhD is focussed on a particular type of a carbon fibre composite called SMC. This material is generally used for thin components. Part of my research is dedicated to investigating if SMC can be used for thicker structures. To this end, last year I produced several thick SMC components; I would have then performed X ray scans on some of them, to check the presence of defects. Unfortunately, those scans revealed the presence of small cracks inside the parts. I was very disappointed, feeling like I failed to produce a good defect-free part for my research. Moreover, I was really worried I wasted my last months, and had to start again to think how to make a perfect part. That was not an easy task.

Few days later, in a meeting with my supervisors, I avoided the topic entirely. I was not going to hide it, of course, but I was scared to bring it up. Close to the end of the meeting, one of my supervisors remembered about the scans, and asked about them. I said: “Unfortunately, there are cracks inside the parts”. My supervisor looked at me baffled: “Why unfortunately?”. He could not see why I was so unhappy with the results of the scans. He reminded me that an investigation can have a “there are these problems” as an answer. Especially in science! And more importantly, my job was not to produce a perfect part, but to highlight the problems related to this component production. Like those cracks! Those cracks were not bad results, they were the results. I had to find out what could go wrong with bigger thickness: the answer is cracks! The cracks were not there because of my sloppy work; rather, I found them because I did a good job!

I think it’s important to point out something else, at least to justify the title of this post. As PhD students, we are constantly learning to being better scientists. Being scientists means being objective, and presenting our results as they are, not as we would like them to be (remember? The start-up dream of few blog posts ago?). If we fear that unexpected results might be perceived as bad results, and we feel we should be blame for them, we might end up being less objective.

Therefore, dear stressed PhD student, you need to stop blaming you for what you perceive as bad results, and start realising the value of everything you do. Even if some outcomes are not what you thought. Especially in that case! This is not only important to your mental health, but also to your work. You might ignore interesting developments of your research, and above all, not being objective. You should also have a clear picture of your goal. Your goal is not to develop the most amazing material, molecule or compound ever made, but to make good research. And it is very likely you are already doing that!

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