Getting Out of a Lab Slump

I’m on my way out of another dreaded Lab Slump: a time when your project/device/experiment isn’t working and you have no idea what steps to take to fix it.  (It also sort of sounds like Lab Swamp, which I’m sure is related to the Fire Swamp.)
I’ve had several Lab Slumps: I first panic (IT’S BROKEN AND  THE SKY IS FALLING!) and then get apathetic (I can’t do anything productive, so why even bother going in?).  So far, I’ve always managed to get out eventually.  Here are my steps for getting out of a Lab Slump:

  1. Show up everyday.  I love this advice from APW editor Meg Keene, learned from her days as an art student:

I’m glad that I was trained with the idea that you show up Every Single Day (we were only allowed three absences in studio per semester), no matter how ****** or uncreative you were feeling, and you do the work. You do the work when what you’re doing sucks, you do the work when what you are doing seems brilliant, you do the work when you’d rather be in bed. And thank God, because that takes some serious pressure off. You just have to show up and work, not show up and do brilliant work. So every day these days, I show up. I write stuff. I send emails. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it’s brilliant. But I’m glad I know that I have to do it every day. (More here)

So, I do my best to still show up in lab, even if I don’t think anything productive can happen that day.  Sometimes the most productive thing that happens is I clean out my desk; other times, I have a brilliant insight and get my project to work.

  1. Write it down.

Write It Down

There are two parts to this piece of advice.  First, write down every little data point you’re gathering.  I often feel as if numbers shouldn’t go in my lab notebook unless they’re part of some organized experiment.  NO.  Writing down the little thing you’re fiddling with in the code and the numbers your device displays after can be important.  Having things on paper often lets you see patterns that were invisible if you fiddled with things and tried to hold the results in your head.  It’s also useful as a record of how your project was behaving at that moment in time, which may be valuable to you if something else breaks down the road.

Second, write down your big picture.  I use scratch letter-size paper (a technique learned from watching my mom run her dance empire – every time she has an explosion of things to do, she starts putting tasks in a grid on a folded sheet of paper).  Write down the steps you’ve tried that haven’t solved the problem (adjusted code, replaced battery, measured laser output, etc.) and list your possible next steps (change out detector, test with different samples, test on another machine).  This process can help keep you from getting bogged down in a side track that doesn’t contribute to your overall goal.

  1. Make a presentation.  Put the data (see previous point!  you need data to do this) into a form that will allow you to present it to other people.  Putting it on a slide can help you see obvious holes.  I imagine my advisor and labmates looking at my presentation: what will they be confused about? Clarify it now.  What experiments would they suggest?  Try to do them before you meet.  Even if you don’t intend to present to anyone, working on a presentation and imagining questions can be useful.
  2. Ask for help.  Having data and a presentation will help you ask for help!  My advisor, thankfully, is very gracious when I come to her with problems, but sometimes I get nervous that somehow I’ll be in trouble for the experiment’s failure.  However, in science, the amount of effort you put into a project does not always directly correlate with the results you get out on the other side.  (i.e., you can spend your whole life working to prove that gravity isn’t real, but your results are never going to amount to anything.)  Don’t let fear of someone judging your work ethic keep you from asking for help – most of the time, they’ll be so busy puzzling over your data (see above!) that your “work ethic” won’t even come up.  (Additionally, your identity is not tied up in the work you produce.  Christ is your identity – this fact gives us great and wonderful freedom to try and fail!)
  3. Finally, step away from your project.  If the only thing you do is stare at it, you probably won’t get any new insight.  Take care of yourself – sleep, eat well, shower, take a Sabbath day off every week.  Your mind can’t focus fully on the problem if your body is deteriorating.  (And you might get one of those famous in-the-shower ideas!)  I also feel better if our house is reasonably clean and tidy.

Go do something fun – paint, watch a movie, go out with friends.  Get your active mind on something else while your subconscious chews on your problem.

For me, at this point, I need to be reminded of step one – Show Up.  Take a bit of rest, and then get back to it!

I am heading to bed and then to lab to finish off my latest pesky problem.  Almost out of the Lab Slump!

What do you do to get out of a slump?

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