Dealing with Failure

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
-Albert Einstein

The majority of novels, television shows and motion pictures about scientific research often leave the mistaken impression that research is an almost mystical “eureka” process in which the researcher leaps from “A” to “Z” in one instantaneous, perfect step. The reality is that research is a lengthy, sometimes tedious and even laborious process in which the researcher may perform many experiments or sometimes repeat the same experiment repeatedly unsuccessfully before finally obtaining the desired results. Failure is a normal and integral aspect of the research process.

In research we form a hypothesis or best guess based on current understanding of the phenomenon under investigation and then we devise an experiment to test that hypothesis. Hypotheses are often wrong. In these cases experiments may not go as planned so it is critical for student researchers to understand that it is quite normal for experiments to go other than as planned and to not get upset and take it personally when this happens – even if it happens repeatedly. Remember you aren’t a failure if your experiment fails.

Science is all about being creative – thinking outside the box and about taking calculated risks. Failures can lead to new research ideas and new directions. Failures provide correction regarding long held but sometimes false concepts or ideas in a field. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

How can you minimize the risk of failure and maximize the likelihood of your success?

  • Acquire knowledge – read as much as you can;
  • Discuss – talk about your work with your peers and with experts in the field (note make sure that you have your advisor’s permission and that you aren’t giving away your ideas);
  • Review and reflect on failures – reflect on the process and the outcome of the experiment and try to understand why the experiment didn’t go as planned. If you are stuck, take a break, discuss your work with other knowledgeable individuals.
  • Implement corrective action – remember you won’t get a different outcome unless you change something about what you are doing.

Extreme Emotions

It is normal to be upset, become angry, cry, and to feel a loss of control when things go wrong and experiments fail in the lab. However, if you become depressed, feel that you cannot cope, or experience suicidal thoughts then it is important that you seek help from a mental health professional at your school or workplace.