Monday, 8 April 2013

Making Mistakes

There is going to come a time at some point during your PhD where you have the sudden, sickening realisation that you have made a mistake.  If you're anything like me, there will be a moment of quiet panic.  You'll double and triple check - I didn't really do that did I?!  You'll probably swear several times under your breath, with increasing volume the harder it hits you.  

People underestimate the physical reaction we can have to stress like this.  But I promise you, when you get to this point, you'll find yourself deciding between the vying instincts of throwing your computer out the window (fight) or packing up your stuff and getting the hell out of there, crawling under your duvet and pretending it never happened (flight).

Perfectly natural responses.  I'd encourage you not to throw your computer out the window (especially if it's not yours) but who am I to judge?  However, this post is about figuring out what to do after that point.  How are you going to deal with your mistake?

To put things into context, I'll tell you about the mistake I made.  I spent all of February collecting data for my experiment.  We ran a super-quick analysis to get provisional results so that I could submit for a conference, the abstract deadline of which was the 1st of March.  Success!  But then, when we got into further analysis, I realised I'd made a big mistake.  The counterbalancing on six out of the eight versions of my experiment was wrong.  (N.B. If you don't know what counterbalancing is, just understand this was a big mistake).

At this point, I hadn't told my supervisor.  I swore at my computer a lot, packed up, went home and had a very, very large drink.  Then had thai food.  (That helped, I'd advise the thai food).  The next day, I started on correcting the counterbalancing, emailed my supervisor and told them straight up that I'd made a mistake. I explained I didn't know where I went wrong, but provided him with the steps I'd be taking to ensure it didn't happen again.

What made me think about writing this post though, is the number of people who asked why I bothered to fess up at all.  Could you not just have got away with it? they asked.  Personally, I have an absolutely crappy poker face, so I felt that was a no-go.  What's more, I knew I'd have to include some of this stuff in my Appendices, and I could imagine the horror of being questioned on it in my viva.  Eeek!

So if you make a mistake here is my tried and tested advice:

Take a day.  You're going to need it.  Take 24 hours to get away from the situation, get your head out of the game, and pretend it didn't happen.  

Tackle it first thing.  The next day, you need to get straight back up on that horse.  Don't even think about the road ahead for fixing your mistake.  I knew I'd have to recollect all my data, but thinking about that was too daunting, so I focused on just getting the counterbalancing right first.

Fess up.  Personally, I think you need to be honest when you make a mistake.  After all, it is how we learn.  You're not expected to be perfect just yet.  It's not comfortable owning up to it, but if that gives you incentive not to do it again, that's a pretty strong motivator.

Try and figure out where you went wrong.  Sometimes you just have no idea, but if you can pinpoint a mistake, make a note for yourself, flag it up some how, so next time it doesn't happen.

Let your supervisor know what you're doing to fix the problem.  While mistakes are allowed, you've got to be proactive with them.  Figure out the steps you need to take and detail where you are on them.  Ask if there's something you'd like double check or explained more clearly - this is your chance to make sure you're learning everything you need to.

Just keep your head down.  Fixing things might be quick, but in all likelihood it'll involve quite a lot of work.  It might even be re-doing work you've already done.  You've just got to take it a day at a time, otherwise the computer-window scenario begins to look more favourable.  A day at a time.

Talk to someone who isn't your supervisor.  I have the fortune of being friends with one of our great new(ish) lecturers in the department.  She's funny, kind, and more importantly I felt she'd understand where I was coming from.  I needed someone to talk about the awfulness of it all, who had (a) been through it, (b) would understand and (c) have the perspective to offer valuable advice.  If you know someone like this, contact them straight away and ask for a coffee/hot chocolate/lunch!

Try and keep a sense of humour about it.  You know that saying, laugh or you'll cry?  It's true.  I came home, poured myself a drink, and told The Boy "Katy the ****ing genius strikes again."  It was either that or burst into tears, and I needed to talk to people about what had happened so crying each time wasn't an option.  It's difficult because it feels raw at first but you can manage.

My last word on the matter is to expect to take a huge hit to your self-confidence.  You'll question everything.  You won't trust yourself to do the most simple of procedures.  I think this is inevitable too, and will only improve over time.  I'm in that stage now.  But I still think that by doing what I did, I made it easier for myself.  

You might have different ways of dealing with this sort of thing, but if you get to this point, I feel for you.  It sucks.  But you'll get through it. 

One day at a time.  :)


  1. Thanks for this post. As a grad student that made several mistakes into my lab work, this was something I could connect with. I think the suggestions were pretty helpful as well!

  2. Just made a stuiped mistake that sets me back 2 months, funny thing is If I had changed the method I would get the results in one day. Alas this is life.. for other people out there going through the same thing, keep your head up and don't stop until you got it right