There is a lot of frustration in research, at least in mine. In an attempt to deal with the frustrating week I have had, research-wise, I thought I would attempt to categorize the possible sources of frustration.

  1. The equipment doesn’t work: the telescope dome shutter won’t open, or the vacuum chamber keeps springing a leak, or the centrifuge won’t spin, or the software keeps crashing.

  2. The object of study doesn’t cooperate: the guinea pigs die, or the rock sample breaks, or the reaction won’t run, or the cataclysmic variable refuses to go into outburst when expected.

  3. Another researcher is messing things up: refusing to send a sample, or failing to share equipment, or not doing what they said they would do when they agreed to collaborate. Or they messed up in the past by not documenting what they did in a project that then got handed off to you (this is even worse when the past researcher was you, too).

  4. The data are behaving weirdly: they don’t behave as expected, or you didn’t know what to expect and you have no idea how to interpret what you got, or you just can’t figure out how to make sense of them.

  5. The necessary funding isn’t there: you can’t buy the piece of equipment or pay the user fees or hire the postdoc, any one of which might make it possible to do the work you want.

  6. Communication isn’t working: other scientists don’t understand what you’re proposing or reporting, people outside your field are unconvinced of its importance, you can’t understand a paper that you feel sure is important to your work.

A lot of these frustrations boil down to human error, or at least human uncertainty, and the old quote, “if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research” certainly rings true for me. If I had any solutions, I would propose them here—usually all I can think of is to just walk away for a while. What are your frustrations and how do you deal with them?