Science stories equal success stories. right? wrong. When thinking of scientists as successful people, we often assume that their career paths are clear, meticulously planned, and lead to positive outcomes. However, things do not always go as planned. Behind every small success, there may be a series of failures – work that didn’t make it to the resume, rejected papers, rejected applications, rejected grants, unsuccessful job interviews, and many closed doors.
Science thrives on these failures as much as it thrives in the glory of accepted manuscripts, grants, prizes, and patents. In this blog series My Science Failures we’ll hear some first-hand stories about these secret milestones in scientists’ lives – and learn how they turned these events upside down (or didn’t).
The real reason science succeeds is because of these failures, says Vijay Soni, MD, an instructor at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York.
In science, we fail more often and at a higher rate than in other professions. Hypotheses get worse, and experiments do not achieve the expected results. There are pollutants, misleading simplified or representative models, false positives, uncontrolled experiments, manuscript rejections, and failed projects. The real reason behind the success of science is all these failures. So it is necessary to know the true value of errors.
“Failure is a sign that you are inventing.” says Elon Musk. Curiosity guides us to learn better and faster. We have learned to associate semantics with words, and we are used to thinking that success is positive, and failure is negative. However, learning is never black and white – it is a complete rainbow. Each color is an experience to be enjoyed, lived and felt.
Scientists hardly talk about false starts. There is nothing magical about stories of the dead and the failed. Thus there is a great deal of knowledge that goes unreported or unpublished.
How do scientists deal with repeated failures and grow? On my own research journey, many times I wish I had known about previous false starts so that you wouldn’t have to go down an already failed path. I couldn’t find any source where scholars share their wisdom of failure. So, I started Failure To provide lessons, information, opinions, and guidance on such failures. The inspiration came from Brandon Mull’s words: “Smart people learn from their mistakes, but smart people learn from the mistakes of others.”
Each world has a personal relationship to failure, and you develop uniquely. I have it too. As an undergraduate biology student, I learned a big lesson early on when my lecturer in his name published all the data from a research project I was working on for a grant. Similarly, a colleague in the lab submitted my data without my consent or discretion for a postdoc position. Lesson learned: Do not disclose all of your data and research to anyone. Never publish lab reports or important data, even among close friends.
There are more things I learned as a researcher:
- I studied undergraduate in Hindi language. I always felt it would be a problem when I went to graduate studies. But I was wrong. Language is not an obstacle in science but a lack of knowledge. I never stopped reading books and research articles. If you don’t read background posts, keep notes, or connect dots to frame your questions, you will likely fail. Learn to ask better questions, you will automatically be directed towards better answers.
- Once I was told that I wouldn’t be hired if I wasn’t from a certain lab (Masters and undergraduate studies were from a very small state university in India). It was frustrating. But I reminded myself of that People who pursue their path with enthusiasm and sincerity make great scientists and laboratories, and may not necessarily work for a world-class institute. No matter your background, chase your dreams with perseverance.
- After my masters, I was working as a project assistant in a famous institute in India. I was treated like a worker there – I was never allowed to ask any questions, and was asked to help out with the chores of the principal investigator. Use foul language, forcing me to work at least 12 hours every day, even on weekends. I tried so hard to survive but after 6 months I gave up and joined another lab. Lesson learned: Stop (as soon as possible) if you are not being respected or treated properly. A mentor who is not thought provoking or gives you the freedom to ask questions will likely not help your career much. Choose your research advisor wisely. You can’t do science when you have a mini boss or a bad human for a mentor.
- During my undergraduate studies, I was selected to make a presentation for a national scholarship. I researched hard for a project on neural tube defects but wasn’t well prepared for the presentation. So I failed to get the scholarship. Lesson learned: Poor communication or presentation skills will dampen your knowledge. Work on it, and seek feedback from your mentor and lab colleagues. Make mock presentations, write notes, try to record and listen to them to improve your sentences and text.
- While I was doing my Ph.D. I’ve never explored anything outside of my lab. But during my postdoc, I started attending various courses on entrepreneurship and leadership skills. This helped me create my own company (businessman). Researchers rarely explore things outside of their laboratories. Remember that your network is your net worth. Try to participate in courses, meetings, competitions and networking events. Use social media wisely and to your advantage. Read bios, listen and watch good talks and podcasts. They will help you in many ways. Like how to manage stress and time, how to deal with failures, how to handle relationship obstacles, and how to visualize your future with a better goal? Conduct more informational interviews, where you ask the expert for time to discuss how he is achieving his goals.
- Entrepreneurship was always on my mind, but I never explored it because I felt like I lacked the required skills. I failed to start with some interesting ideas and later found that someone had worked on them successfully. It took me 6-7 years to realize this Ph.D. Postdocs benefit from many traits such as leadership, direction, communication, negotiation, perseverance, collaboration, and entrepreneurial skills. Don’t underestimate yourself. Learn to swim outside your safe zone and against the currents. It will not only boost your confidence but also your ability to face challenges.
- I’ve seen researchers working day and night but fail to achieve much. Donkey work rarely gives you great science and great breaks; Smart will work. You need to refine and implement your ideas, questions, and plans. Teamwork is the business of your dreams, so never hesitate to ask for help. Collaborate and discuss with your colleagues. I also learned to use technology the right way to speed up research and increase efficiency. For example, use software and languages for better and faster analysis, LinkedIn for better collaboration and learning, Evernote for writing and as a virtual notebook, a simple web-based program for calculating colonies and standard curve planning, and various online tools for creating beautiful characters and presentations.
We can’t predict failure, but we must keep the lessons learned in our minds. Collaborative learning and sharing help us see mistakes in a more positive light. Failure can rewire our minds and give us the confidence to approach problems from a different angle. They force us to question our hypotheses, plans, protocols, implementation, and experimental settings. The greatest thing the world can discover is a “better novel or question”. Give yourself permission to fail and explore.