What to do when your PhD experiments just aren’t working

It’s the nature of experimental work that things will go wrong. How you react to this is one of the most important determinants of PhD success.

A natural response is to just try again. And again. And again. But, as Einstein said, “the definition of insanity is trying the same thing again and again and expecting a different result”.

Another natural response is to try something different, but if you keep changing your approach completely then you’ll always be starting again from zero.

The key, I think, is to slow down and break each step of the process down into its component parts, putting meticulous care and attention into each one. You can then test each step to find out exactly where it’s going wrong, instead of waiting until the end.

I know there’s pressure to get results, and to get them now, but focusing just on the results takes your attention away from the process (which is the one thing you can control).

That way, even if the experiment still doesn’t work, you know you’ve given it your best shot before trying the next option.

See also

How do you react when things go wrong in your PhD?

Reporting negative results


Day 25: A PhD time management tip

(watch on YouTube)


60/60: 60 short videos for PhD students in 60 days
see also:
day 21: decision fatigue
day 23: decision fatigue and writing


Time management is obviously very important in a PhD, but when it goes wrong, your plan can become a burden rather than a tool that helps you. There are aspects to effective planning.

One I think is worth factoring in is the decision fatigue I’ve talked about in previous videos

Try to balance tiring, decision-heavy work with easier, routine tasks to ease exhaustion and maintain momentum!

Day 23: Decision fatigue and writing

Watch “Day 21: Decision Fatigue”
60/60: 60 short videos for PhD students in 60 days

A few days ago, I talked about decision fatigue; when you have to make a lot of decisions it’s tiring, and the more tired you get the harder it is to make good decisions and the easier it is to slip into bad habits.

Writing is all about decision making because there are countless ways to express and arrange your ideas. A lot of people avoid making decisions and just write, but this means you have to do all the decision making at the end when you’re under the most pressure…

Day 21: Decision fatigue

See all the videos in this series here
Day 23: Decision fatigue and academic writing

When recording these videos, I’m not following much of a plan. I’m just giving whatever tips come to mind on a day by day basis.

This gives me a lot of flexibility, but it also means I have to constantly make decisions about what to do. This can be tiring and can lead to decision fatigue.

This decision fatigue not only makes it harder to make decisions but also to avoid easy, habitual bad choices…

Day 20: Sometimes others can see what you can’t

60/60: 60 short videos for PhD students in 60 days

Sometimes, when you show your work to other people, they can see obvious solutions that you can’t when just working alone.

This happened to me yesterday when I announced the start date for my course on academic writing as the 15th of August; my girlfriend pointed out that this is right in the middle of a month when most people are on holiday!

It’s obvious, but sometimes it takes someone else’s perspective…

I’m going to run the session on the 15th anyway, but am adding two extra live sessions on Wednesday 5th September at 9 am UK time and Thursday 6th at 3 pm UK time.

You can click here to get your tickets!