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FAILURE IN THE LAB: How to handle?!

“Nothing really seems to work”! Have you ever had this feeling after spending many weeks (or even months) banging your head against one problem you had in the lab?!

Well, we did....many more times to even remember! We used to spend the majority of our time trying to make things work in the lab. And despite going down all possible roads, they never lead us anywhere! Failure in general is part of life. A career in science makes this more apparent than perhaps any other career. It is expected that we constantly fail because we keep asking questions we do not have answers for!

"Even the best hitters fail 70% of the time"! That's an old saying in baseball that shows the difficulty of hitting a round ball with a round bat! And in science, we fail more often than we succeed. This is essentially because science is high-stakes, and we are willing to take a leap in the dark toward - hopefully - a new discovery. Unfortunately, there is no "comfortable Science", where breakthroughs are guaranteed. For a young researcher - or for someone not in the field, the idea of failure is something hard to tell given our shiny posters, and polished conference presentations. For that, we need to talk more about failure in science and to learn how to handle it to keep moving forward. Here we share few tips that helped us overcome failure in science.

1. Be open and talk about it!

" I, personally, have encountered a quite disheartening situation during my PhD that was about to end my dream of getting my degree. After more than a year from starting my PhD, I have reached an impasse with my thesis director. Intellectually, we were in harmony, but we were not the best match when it comes to how things should be done in the lab! Long story short, the only available solution -for both of us- was for me to dropout! Such idea made me extremely frustrated because I felt that failure was inevitable. And if it was not for talking about my ordeal with my mentors (i.e. senior colleagues and professors in the department), I would not have found a solution for such nightmare. It turned out that there was a new professor about to be hired in the department and he needed to recruit a PhD student. And, yes, he did hire me, and such nightmare turned out to be a blessing! I ended up finishing my PhD with no delays and I even published my work in Science magazine as a first author, which was something I never thought of before starting my PhD!"

The moral of this story and many others we heard from colleagues, who also encountered other failures in the lab, is to be open to talk about it with others. Discuss failure with people around you. You will often find reassurance, and loads of support. You will be surprised that you are not alone and that they have also experienced failure before - probably many times even. It is only by talking more and more about failure, we learn about our experiences with it, and get inspired on how to better handle it.

2. Have a backup and change direction if needed

Science is full of failures. In the lab, for example, we often spend oceans of time trying to make a certain project work, but no matter what we do there seems to be no progress. And sometimes, we spend endless time in protocol optimization that seems to go nowhere. Not to mention the significant amount of applications (for a fellowship or grant) that all come back unfunded. This is usually true in all fields of research. There are things, however, you can do to protect yourself from projects not working out or from them failing you!

  • First, have a "low stakes" side project that you can always rely on when your riskier main project is unyielding! Sometimes bigger projects are like marathons that require a lot of work over a long period of time, so having a smaller project that you can run side-by-side is always a good idea. In our experience, these small less risky projects always tend to be ideal for quick wins and for boosting our self-esteem.

  • Second, sometimes the best move is to just drop a frustrating project and move on to something else. Letting go is often difficult, and it takes a great deal of experience to recognize a dead-end project. But in our experience, it is better to cut the losses done by an uncooperative project and move on to something else. Yet always keep in mind that just because the project failed does not mean you are a failure.

  • Third, and as we mentioned above, talk to others about your project. This is really helpful, and can offer a new perspective and suggest a new direction for you to try. Or maybe it will just provide commiseration over a tough project. Having a circle of colleagues, friends, and mentors (i.e. not your thesis director) who understand exactly what you are going through will definitely provide a lot of support during your struggle in the lab.

3. Celebrate progress over success

Instead of focusing on the finish line and the biggest achievement, take the time to celebrate the small wins (daily victories and incremental accomplishments). For example, celebrate a paper submission and do not wait until you hear back from the editor. Finally managed to get a relentless western blot to work? Make yourself a nice cup of hot chocolate with extra cocoa and cream on top and enjoy this tiny victory. You can even celebrate failure with cookies. Believe us, sugar heals everything (including lab frustrations) 😊! Just keep in mind that learning is all about your journey seeking knowledge. And such journey in science is usually quite long—may as well make it enjoyable, and pat yourself on the back every now and then! 😉

4. Be solution-oriented and focus on learning

Getting funding or having our research accepted for publication is quite difficult. Sometimes success rates for landing a funding or getting a manuscript published in a certain journal is lower than 10%. This is due to the high competition we have in science, and the very limited slots for funding or spots in a journal. Yet, we need to convince someone who may not be an expert in your field that your ideas are worth thousands of dollars or that your research is unparalleled and deserves to be published in their journal. Due to this challenge, it is rare to be successful on the first few attempts. However, it is important to keep that in mind when working on an application for funding or submission for a manuscript. A funding agency or a journal might not be looking for your idea to fund or publish, or maybe there is someone else came up with a better idea worth of funding or a manuscript that deserves publishing this round*! Our advice is to be solution-oriented and focus on the shortcomings mentioned by the reviewers.

For example, if your paper was rejected for publication, then you might ask yourself the following questions.

  • Where can I submit my paper to get it accepted?

  • Is it a priority getting it published as soon as possible?

  • Do I care about publishing it in a similarly-tiered journal to the one I just got rejected from?

  • Do I want to/am able to perform additional experiments related to the work that reviewers say may strengthen it?

Addressing these goal-oriented questions will guide you to focus your energy towards solving the problem and not dwelling on it. This will provide you with a huge opportunity to learn from failure, and get you back on track towards accomplishing your goals. A small switch to the mindset from "failure" to "learning and growth" is all what you need to refine your game and keep trying. At the end of the day consider failure as an addition to your personal knowledge bank, which helps you adjust your trajectory and get closer to success. Like this, each failure will be a step in the right direction! 😉

*Sometimes there is nothing wrong at all with your grant proposal or paper, and the sole issue is in the "imperfect" system that allows the reviewers to evaluate the work while NOT being "blind" to the identity of the authors. And sometimes having -amongst the authors- a big shot in the field would automatically render the work worthy of funding or publishing irrespective of the work itself. But such inequality will be a rant for a future blog!

5. Do NOT compare yourself to others

I am sure we have all worked with someone who was getting all the results, or papers, or awards. And sometimes it is involuntary to keep comparing ourselves to those people or to our peers and colleagues in general. However, we need always to remind ourselves that just because we do not see their failures doesn’t mean they do not exist! So, make yourself a favour and stop comparing yourself to anyone even within the same lab or group. And just focus on the "problem-solving" mindset, and spare your energy to stay on track heading toward your goals.

6. Cut yourself some slack!

In the lab, everything takes time, and doing research is more of a marathon than a sprint. This means that you will be spending a very long time in the lab. So, you need to learn to disconnect and take regular breaks. This can be a hobby or a sport that you do during the nights of weekdays (if possible), or longer breaks to go on vacation. At the end of the day we have vacation time for a reason, so please use it. Take long breaks on regular basis. It will really help venting off all the frustrations taking place in the lab.

"I, personally, spent my post-graduate years running and climbing, and before I know it I was awarded a PhD at the end of it! Honestly, if it was not for the activities and the time off I used to take every now and then, I would not have made it to the other side safe and sound!" - Ossama

"Keeping an active social life was my key to deal with all failures happening in the lab. Dinners, weekend travels or coffee breaks during working days were/are essential in my agenda. Sharing my failures with others allowed me to make them "lighter" and get new ideas, and perspective to move forward. It was vital to hang out with people unrelated to science. They always made me realize that a Western Blot or a PCR that does not work is not such a big deal. At the end of the day, we can always repeat it." - Cátia

Finally, this blog is not about how to succeed, but rather on how to deal with failure in the lab. How to stay focused on your goals and on the light at the end of the tunnel that appears to be dimming with every experiment. Here, we wanted to share the strategies we have developed over the years and have found useful. Hope you find this helpful as well. Tell us about your thoughts and experience with failure in the lab and whether you have more tips to share about overcoming it.

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