When everything goes wrong: How to deal with the unexpected during your research

While research brings its own set of obstacles and challenges, many of these can be expected and prepared for. However, during your research, life can throw things at you that you would have never predicted. Amy reflects on unexpected events during research and how to move past them.

Overall, I would definitely say that I don’t regret undertaking my masters – it’s confirmed my aim of doing a PhD, I’ve met some incredible people in my lab group and have learned a great deal. However, as I come to the final few weeks of my masters, on reflection I’ve realized that this year has also been tough. A few months into my studies I went through a pretty hard break up, and this, paired with already feeling overwhelmed with my research, being lonely and isolated away from my friends who had recently graduated, health problems, and a rejection from a PhD place I really wanted, meant that my confidence reached rock bottom over the course of just several days.

While I’ve always tried to move past setbacks, coming back to research after a torrent of bad news was tough, to say the least. I couldn’t focus, didn’t believe in myself or my work and got stuck in a rut replaying all my failures in my head. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any foolproof way to overcome obstacles like this. From bereavements, illness to money issues, many things can come along that have a massive impact on your life and knock your confidence. This can be especially in the world of research, where often it seems that to succeed you need to be the one to brag the loudest.

As cliché as it sounds, I would say that time is the best healer, but often the last thing researchers have is time to spare! However, any time you can take to practice self-care and give yourself space to heal will be beneficial in the long run. I also found the support from my research group invaluable, and they helped me get back on my feet.

Notifying your supervisor of issues when you are struggling can be helpful, to remove some external pressure. While this, of course, is completely up to you and how comfortable you are talking about your situation, when it came to more recent issues I’ve had, such as family illness and hospital appointments for myself, I didn’t hesitate to tell my supervisor. Not only can they be an additional person to offer support, supervisors or course-coordinators can also help with any academic issues that arise, such as extensions and allowing you to take time off if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable.

On a happier note, unexpected (but exciting) news can often crop up, which can take time to adjust to. Recently I was given the opportunity to do my PhD in California, which was a shock, to say the least. Even though this is an incredible opportunity, the move is really daunting (and means I have to take my own advice about planning to move away for a PhD!), making research quite hard to focus on. Not ideal when my thesis is due next month!

However, with big unexpected changes like this, there are things you can do to make everything seem less scary. Alongside the regularly recommended breathing exercises and meditation which I’ve found to be useful for general anxiety, one of my favourite exercises is to logically go through the things affecting me and sort them into things that I can fix, and things that I can’t fix. Seeing the things that I can fix prompts me to do something about them – such as making another doctors appointment, changing medication, or filling in a form – which makes them seem less daunting. The things that I can’t fix either urge me to take some time out to relax and try and push these worries from my mind, or encourage me to talk to either a friend or a therapist to try and work through these issues.

While this has turned into a rather rambling blog post about my personal experiences more than anything else, I guess what I’m trying to say is that unexpected things happen to everyone. And not in a, “so you’ve just got to deal with it” way, but in a, “it’s okay and people will understand what you’re going through” kind of way. While things can get tough, you will always be able to find someone to empathise with your situation and offer support to get you through it, so if you need help, don’t hesitate to ask for it.


Can you offer any words of wisdom for coping with unexpected life events during your PhD? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Amy Kynman earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Warwick in 2018. She is currently working towards a Masters by Research in chemistry, also at the University of Warwick. Her research focusses on the chemical reactivity of rhodium complexes, with the aim of utilising them for carbon-carbon bond forming reaction. Alongside her studies, she is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the University of Warwick’s student newspaper The Boar and aims to eventually undertake a PhD in organometallic chemistry.


Cover image: girl-woman-lady-obstacle-run-2175843 / hamperium / CC0 1.0


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