Recently a friend told me a story. Back during her degree she was working on a project with an MSc student and her boss to develop a doughnut shaped laser. She assures me that there are very clever valid reasons why you’d have a doughnut shaped laser beyond “mmmm doughnuts”.
She also explained that no you can’t make a pink one with sprinkles. A problem which I feel very strongly makes a good case for increasing funding to laser research programs.
This project was at the outset simple. Her boss had an idea that was simple and elegant and neatly solved the normal problems generating that kind of laser. She specced it up as a short MSc project that would take the student a few weeks with a little help and guidance.
After a month they did not have a doughnut laser. What they did have was a lot of confusion over why it wasn’t working. The simple parts were working in very not simple ways and the elegant solution currently looked more like a small squat brick of a problem. And a “little help” was now three people all glaring at the system.
After two months they then had frustration and annoyance to go with confusion. Small problem after small problem seemed to pop up and stop it working and the three of them played a fun game of ‘whack a mole’ but there the mole was problems and the whack involved frustrated tweaking which seemed to remove one mole only for several more to pop up. Oh, so maybe ‘whack a mole’ is more like ‘whack a hydra mole… which hates you’.
Why didn’t it work? That’s sort of not important, this story isn’t really about fixing doughnut lasers – it’s about that slowly building frustration at something in the lab not working no matter what you do and slowly getting more and more fed up with the problem, the project and sometimes even your coworkers.
Research is slow and most researchers are used to things not magically working the first time you try something. But it’s easy to have patience about a project when you make progress, even if it’s not the grand brilliant ending you are aiming at. Little victories like getting the spectrum analyser working or making up a set of standard solutions can keep you going through the broken equipment or the spilt chemicals (and possible loss of the foot that was underneath them).
But some projects are just long lists of frustrating difficulties and failures which build and build leaving you feeling pretty beaten down and looking back at several weeks/months of little progress and a large pile of results that can be broadly described as a ‘giant waste of time’.
Sometimes these kinds of moments in a project get solved. Something happens and you fix whatever problem it was at the route of your issues. This fix can be as simple as realising that the ancient CRT monitor is causing interference or something as major as realising a fundamental core of your experiment needs replacing. But it gets solved, the paper gets written and everyone feels good and happy again. From an outside perspective, all everyone else sees is that final paper with its now simply presented solution. But never forget that because the papers are simple doesn’t mean anyone found the journey to write it easy.
Sometimes these moments don’t get solved at all. I have a series of folders of project or parts of projects that are labeled ‘unsolved’. Initially, my time to bang my head against them ran out and I had to move on. Either way, what ever the outcome, research carried on. No one problem was so big that it stopped research, it just often stopped THAT research. One day someone might go back and solve my unsolved questions. It won’t be me, and that’s okay.
But whether your particular problem ends up working out or not working out, remember that we are all with you on bad days. We’ve ALL been there and we’ve all hated it. In the words of a small pink haired troll, you’re really really going to be okay