being stuck

being stuck

“You just feel stuck.”

The words sunk in my heart like stones.

“Stuck,” she pushed around the soggy quinoa on the plate with her fork, “you know, when you don’t know where to go from here.”

I had added too much water to the quinoa, then tried helplessly to save it by dousing it with Parmesan cheese.

I have my moments in the kitchen, but this was not one of them.

The great thing about the kitchen, though, is that the problems are normally easy to fix.

Add less water. More salt.

Set a timer for the oven (although I regularly overlook this one and thus subject myself many times to over-crusty bread).

And when you can’t fix them, there’s always Google. Or these new fancy cooking hotlines and forums where you can post your question.

And one of the thousands of quinoa-cookers out there will tell you what the appropriate ratio of quinoa to water should be.

Unfortunately, there is no such database of information with my PhD.

Only an assortment of papers with protocols that I may or may not be able to reproduce (either due to my own human error, the authors’ carelessness in not explaining it properly, or even intentionally not including a crucial piece so as to keep their recipe top secret…I know, academic drama…)

I do well with fixing problems when I know where to start. But, when the problem could be anything from an uncalibrated micropipette to the speed at which I’m adding my reactant to a  flask, I don’t know where to begin.

If there are two things that I hate with a passion, it would be a. not having control and b. wasting time.

Yet, these were the two things that were happening repeatedly in the last few weeks, and I didn’t have a way of fixing it.

Ending my full-day experiment with aggregated clumps of nanoparticles gave legitimacy to the murmuring doubts in my head:

You have no idea what you’re doing and soon people will find out that you’re an imposter PhD student.

How long are you going to be stuck like this for?

You don’t even know how to get out of this hole – you’re never going to publish anything at this rate.


“Yeah, that sounds about right,” I admitted, shovelling a spoonful of the goopy quinoa into my mouth, “I’m pretty stuck.”

Stuck. I chewed silently as the word hung distasteful and heavy in the air.

What do you do when you feel like you’re losing your sense of agency?

Darren was sitting right outside the PharmaPrix when I saw him the night I had finished sending off a package.

He had wrapped a pink, quilted blanket around his shoulders, a paper Tim Hortons cup signalling what he could not say.

I sat with him on his piece of the street, asked him how his day was going.

My simple question ended up launching him into a full account of how he ended up on the street (I guess he doesn’t get to tell people his story often).

His eyes stared into the distance, glazed over, as he told me of his son he was always trying to reunite with.

And at the part of the story where he landed a job at Morgan Stanley, he spoke rapidly with uncontrollable excitement of the stages of the interview, the phone call when he got the job.

But then came the termination, the downgrade to working Tim Hortons, the loss of motivation, the termination and the break-up.

In the middle of his story-telling, a fire engine squealed around the corner, and Darren immediately plugged his ears with his fingers, his head bowed until the street had resumed its normal bustle.

“Do you know what is the worst part of being on the street?” He looked up at me, his eyes betraying their pain.

“It’s that. You guys never have to think about it, because every time there’s a fire engine, you can choose to move away from it.

Not us – we have to put up with it multiple times a day. We’re stuck.”

I guess this “stuck-ness” haunts more than one of us.

So, I’ve been thinking more about being stuck, and what the appropriate response should be.

In fact, I believe it’s quite the biblical theme.

Wasn’t David stuck in caves, running from his enemies for months on end?

Weren’t the people of Israel stuck in their city while their enemies surrounded them on every side, threatening to put them under siege?

Weren’t Paul and the disciples stuck in prison, shackled in chains, with no power of their own to change their situation?

I read Psalm 27:3: Though a mighty army surrounds me, my heart will not be afraid.

And I think about Paul and Silas who were praying and singing while their feet were in stocks.

Or about how a lot of the Bible was written from a place of “stuck-ness” – Paul’s letters while he was in prison, David’s Psalms while he was running from danger, Isaiah while his people were in exile.

I don’t know if I’ve made any progress in learning to troubleshoot my lab problems, or if I have any answer to Darren having to sit on the street wrapped in his pink blanket, but there is one song weaved in this theme that my heart is set on.

David sings it, and I will again, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14)

And if there’s one thing that is still possible in this state, it is to hope in God’s goodness.

Hope that something better is coming, because He is faithful to His people.

This week, my experiments started to take a turn for the better.

At least my particles were stable in solution. Of course you can never be totally sure, but again, degrees of certainty.

Yet, even when I feel my steps being more sure, I am aware of the danger of believing the lie that the success and failures of my work is determined solely by myself.

I remind myself of Proverbs 16:9 which says that ‘the mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.’

It keeps me humble, but also sane when I am to encounter another season of ‘stuck-ness’, which I’m sure will come soon enough.

Open hands, I tell myself, to whatever is to come. If I didn’t have certain fixed ways of how I wanted to things to turn out, maybe I wouldn’t feel so stuck.

Maybe this wandering will lead to somewhere unexpectedly good.

I take another bite of the quinoa and the Parmesan melts into cheesy goodness.


2 thoughts on “being stuck”

  • Your writing is really impressive, always makes me stop and think about the bigger picture of what it is that I’m doing and how to go about tackling the dilemma presented — the questions you raise are always quite relatable! I wish there was more spare time so as to be able to expound my own thoughts in reply to some of these essays, still hope to do that sometime later.. In the meantime, good luck with your experiments!!

    • Hi Pavel, thank you so much for taking the time to read my writing – and I’m grateful that it speaks to you! Are you also in the PhD? And if you ever want to have a dialogue about it and share your thoughts with me, feel free to send me an email via the “Contact” page and I will reply with a more detailed answer 🙂

Leave a thought :)

%d bloggers like this: