Coping with Failure in Science – Try, Fail, Repeat?

 In for grad students, for postdocs, PhD/Postdoc Blog, Wellness

Almost all scientists have to cope with failure at some point. Despite the pain of every failed experiment and rejection, we somehow move forward. I have been thinking about this since my first attempt at snowboarding in January. In that small ski town of Davis, West Virginia, I was equally overwhelmed by the endless rolling hills as I was by the heartbreak of hitting cold hard snow after failing again and again and again. Laying in the snow, I wondered: Why am I failing? and How do I move forward? Questions I have asked myself repeatedly since starting research.

My first accepted manuscript is framed in my bedroom, an emblem of my inaugural research experience. My first rejected manuscript is more of a secret, tucked away in the shadows of my prouder moments. Josh Williamson, a Ph.D. Candidate at Ulster University, shared an article that was rejected six times before it was accepted. His tweet read: “Too often only the highlights are shown on social media. Rejection is normal at all stages of academia.” Christopher Wallis, a Resident at the University of Toronto, responded: “Personal record is 11. Congrats on getting it out.”

Williamson and Wallis both highlight the harsh reality of rejection in academia. Although it is important to identify possible causes of failure, it is essential to understand that everyone experiences it. Journals such as PLoS Biology, NatureCell, and Science reject more than 90% of submissions. Academics face so much rejection that some have even begun compiling a “CV of failures.” This idea was proposed by Melanie Stefan, a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, in a 2010 Nature article. Stefan explains that a CV of failures should include rejections from graduate programs, academic positions, funding opportunities, and publications to raise awareness of the constant rejection that is often eclipsed by our greatest success.

This is the glorious side of failure though. The side that gives hope that the job of our dreams and publication success are waiting for us if we just keep trying. But what if they’re not? Reframing this discussion of failure was the topic of a post by Dr. Ellie Mackin Roberts, a Teaching Fellow at the University of London. In “Talking About Failing in the Academy,” Dr. Mackin Roberts suggests discussing failure, but in an “ongoing, constructive, and open way.” This means privileging the experiences that have not led to stereotypical success stories in the academy as much as those that have. We are reminded that although inspiration is important, connecting honestly with one another, wherever we find ourselves, is essential to healthy discussions surrounding failure.

So what happens next? Often in science, moving forward looks like trying again. Science is hard, everyone experiences failure, just try again. But sometimes trying again isn’t the only way forward. After facing my first manuscript rejection, I stumbled upon “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Cool Off, Revise, and Submit Again,” in Science Magazine. In this article, journalist Lucas Laursen outlines the three options after a manuscript rejection: rebut (argue against the journal’s feedback), redirect (submit to a different journal), or revise (incorporate feedback and resubmit to the same journal). Looking back, I’m amused by the fact that just let it go was not presented as a viable option.

As a science community, we mistakenly frown on those that decide not to try again. As a result, we have Ph.D. students and Postdocs weighing their career options against the stigma of leaving academia. The phrases “terminal masters” or “mastering out” send shivers down the spine of any Ph.D. student. Because of the sunk cost fallacy, we jump to advise anyone to keep trying indefinitely. Even when trying isn’t working. We fail to consider that the best way forward may mean abandoning the current path and forging an entirely new one.

I’m still figuring out what moving forward means for my rejected paper (and snowboarding career). But through researching and writing for this post, I have started to develop a healthier relationship with failure.


What helps you cope with failure? Add to the discussion in the comments or on twitter (@WanguiMbuguiro).

Me failing.


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