Is your PhD stuck on Mars? Apply the Martian Method


‘Hello!’ to anyone who’s stuck in their PhD. I feel for you. As I write, I’m half-way through my PhD program, and I’ve been stuck too. I’m out the other side now, but it’s made me think: a PhD and Mars have a lot in common.

Remember the movie, ‘The Martian’? Matt Damon plays astronaut, Mark Watney. His team think he’s dead. They return to earth and leave him stranded on Mars. So Watney has two jobs:

  1. Stay alive.
  2. Contact earth for help.

He has to invent new ways to do this. No one’s lived with his problems before. He’s got to create new solutions, new knowledge. Sound familiar?

Now, in the PhD there are broadly three ways of  being stuck. There’s being stuck in your creative, or writing process. (This area connects with my research interests.) These feelings of stuckness can land you on a continuum from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘hellish’. But as these difficulties relate to internal or personal factors, I’m going to put them to one side. There’s also being stuck in the research process. These are factors that are probably best for you to work through with your supervisor or advisor in the first instance. Both of these are topics for a different movie.

I’m focusing on being stuck due to external factors–poor research facilities, conflicting program regulations, feuding advisors etc. These are things outside your control that can bring your project to a halt. These are things, in an ideal world, which aren’t meant to happen.

But they can, and I bet it’s making you feel isolated, frustrated or anxious. This can feel like being stuck on Mars. So apply the Martian method, adapted from the actions of the resourceful Mark Watney:

Step 1. Stay Alive.

First, start with the basics. When I was very stressed, a friend who’s a doctor asked: Are you eating, sleeping and getting some sunshine? Such good advice.

You’re probably in a PhD program because you like a challenge. Chances are when you faced a challenge in the past, you responded by pushing yourself: you’ve worked longer and later, you’ve skimped on nutritious food and cut back on exercise.

But remember the first goal of Mars: Stay alive!

Watney needs food on Mars. He approaches the problem with his scientific know-how. He distils water from rocket fuel and grows potatoes using *cough* human excrement.

Specifics aside, the bottom line is to care for yourself. Use your know-how.

Go buy that pack of frozen vegetables for lunch, if you can. (They’re super easy to steam in the department microwave. Add carbs and protein of choice. I prefer mine with sweet chilli sauce.) Allow yourself a 20-minute walk after lunch. Interestingly, the evidence shows that a good dose of sunshine will assist your body to sleep better. Tonight, give yourself the gift of enough sleep.

Next, what can you do to raise your spirits? Watney uses disco music. Think: Hot Stuff sung by Donna Summer, Don’t Leave me this Way by Thelma Houston – and my favourite– Turn the Beat Around (Love to Hear Percussion). I want to smile whenever this is played.

What’s your pick-me-up? What about Skyping a friend, walking a lap of campus, or having a quiet cup of coffee outside? You know what’ll help you feel better. I’m thinking of choices on this side of sobriety. Treat yourself.

Step 2: Contact Earth for Help.

Now apply your know-how to the problem that’s got you stuck. Remember, we’re imagining a problem that’s outside your research project.

Consider all the ways that you could tackle this problem. Honestly, is there anything you’ve been avoiding? Maybe it’s a follow-up email to an intimidating staff member. Maybe it’s reading through the department PhD handbook. You can do it. Take that step.

But if you’ve followed your initial leads and are still hitting a brick wall, do what Watney did and call earth for help.

Ok, so there are several plot points involved in contacting NASA… but once Watney was space-texting Huston, teams of people were eager to help. I’m talking teams of experts and his crew mates, all keen to do whatever it would take.

So, if things aren’t going right (and it’s a problem outside your project), think: who in your university can help? Whose area does this fall in? If you’re not sure, who could you ask?

I study in Australia and your institution may be organised differently. But when I got stuck, I eventually made contact with a student advisor, a senior manager in the department, and a senior academic in my program. All of these people where happy to respond to my email and take my call or meet me. All of these people gave me sound advice, which helped build my knowledge of university procedures. And in the end, one of these people helped smooth the path so that the problem could be resolved.

I’m not saying that the process was easy. I’m not even saying the process was quick. In the end, it took about six months to solve the problem that had me stuck. But I couldn’t have got through without asking for help.

Step 3: Just Begin

‘The Martian’ movie is a love-letter to the scientific method and creative thinking. Things ain’t going well in your PhD? In the words of Mark Watney (thanks to screenwriter Drew Goddard, and author Andy Weir):

At some point everything is going to go south on you… and you’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, then you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.

Are you stuck? Apply the Martian method: Stay alive. Ask for help. Just begin.


(URL is a short clip of this quote from the movie.)

Author Bio: Rosemary Chang is an academic developer, writer and researcher.