“OH NO” Moments during your PhD

Doing a PhD is a serious endeavour that comes with unavoidable setbacks. But sometimes, these setbacks can turn out to be funny in their own way. Jenny reflects on the value of humour during these stressful moments.

It started with a group of PhD students from disciplines very different from each other – Sciences and Humanities – coming together to share their experiences doing their research so far. We came together because of a common interest in filmmaking – and created some great short science films in the process – but unexpectedly, we also bonded over another topic, what became known as “OH NO” Moments during our PhDs.

What are those, you ask? As we know, doctoral projects tend to be complex and labour intensive, made up of numerous tasks that often require much time and patience to carry out and get results from, to construct one whole, original research project. As PhD students who are dedicated to their work, we hope that each task goes smoothly, and sometimes they do.

But other times, they don’t. In fact, in spite of all the time and effort you’ve put into a certain task, it can backfire on you in disastrous ways. Here are some examples, which I also collected from other friends outside the group:

#1: Fruit Fly Switcheroo

You’re a Life Sciences PhD who spends months trying to breed some fruit flies for a particular genetic study. But you’re not getting the results that you’re expecting, and you’re pulling your hair out with frustration. You check with the people involved and you get your answer to the mystery – the flies were the wrong breed all along. OH NO!

#2: Code Confusion

You’re a Mathematics PhD who runs code through your computer programme to generate a mathematical result. The process usually takes weeks, so you take extra care when computing the code. You run it, sit back, and wait for your result to appear in its full brilliance. But halfway through, you realise that despite your best efforts, you’d made a slight mistake when computing the code. You’d now have to do the process all over again and wait another few weeks. OH NO!

#3: Re-write Re-right

You’re an English PhD who rewrites your last chapter three times over many months, trying your best to get your ideas across just right. (Perfectionists will sympathise with this, though you might also like to read this post on the pitfalls of perfectionism.) You finally submit it to your supervisor, thinking that it’s the most excellent piece of writing you’ve ever done, that you’re not too far from final submission now! You receive feedback a week later – supervisor isn’t entirely convinced that it works and you need to start over.

All together now, can we say … OH NO!

Considering that such examples of disastrous moments can create a huge amount of exasperation and stress for an already overstretched PhD student, it’s understandable if you don’t find them the least bit funny. But believe it or not, we were all laughing as we shared our anecdotes on our “OH NO” moments!

The thing is, when doing a PhD feels like a V.S.E (“Very Serious Endeavour”) and setbacks occur – and they will occur, over and over again – if we can laugh at ourselves and find some tiny spark of humour in a seemingly dire situation, it can lighten the load we place on ourselves and give us some perspective. Doing a PhD can be a comedic experience. The immensely popular PHD Comics was born in this spirit, as its creator, Jorge Cham started the comic strip to relieve the pressure he felt from his doctoral training.

And if we can look at our “failings” in a comical light, within a friendly group across different disciplines, I think it helps us to learn from one another not to be too hard on ourselves as we try to accomplish work that is important to us. After a good laugh, we might be able to forgive ourselves more easily for our imperfections, just take the next step forward, and keep going on.

Still, if you want to save yourself a load of trouble, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to take another look at that fruit fly.


What are some disaster moments you’ve had so far during your PhD? Could you find the humour in them? How did you handle these “OH NO” moments? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Jenny Mak is an Early Career researcher in English and Comparative Literature, having just completed her PhD at Warwick. Her research looked at the embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary literature. She also writes creatively (short stories, poetry, theatre, film) and has a background in journalism, publishing, and sports training.  You can find her on Twitter.


Cover image: oh no / bernardhermant / CC0 1.0

Image 1: observing samples under the microscope / iamtruCC0 1.0

Image 2: complicated computer code / markusspiskeCC0 1.0

Image 3: FIKA Cafe, Toronto / impatricktCC0 1.0

Image 4: laughing / priscilladupreezCC0 1.0

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