My Ph.D. research culminated in a popular published article. I couldn’t have done it without hitting some dead ends.
FEW MONTHS AGO, the culmination of my Ph.D. research was published in Science, the journal of any STEM graduate student’s dreams. My colleagues and I reported on a potential kill-switch we had found to destroy “forever chemicals,” or PFAS, a class of man-made pollutants that are notoriously difficult to degrade and come with health risks.
Research arrangements in an institution tend to celebrate and reward our successes. That is what receives recognition and promotion. The outputs of the successful work are what tends to be published. Failure is a central part of science. Our professional development and resource material need to recognise this. Research toils on a problem, testing and discarding, unhelpful theories and processes are valuable research and should be treated as such.
In my tweet thread about the paper, I described it as “my entire Ph.D.,” but that was a bit misleading. My dissertation also contained two years of prior research, which were filled with inconsistent results and, by my count, eight failed projects.
When cleaning out my lab bench after grad school, I found a three-inch-thick stack of lab notes. But I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out — at least, not right away. That stack of paper represented the many long nights I spent in the lab, the times I repeated experiments to figure out what was going on, and, most importantly, every single thing I tried that didn’t work.