There are two types of situations that make you feel like a failure as a scientist. One is inevitable and important for your growth. For example, when you are having trouble with a new protocol, nothing you do seems to work, and you feel that you’re not cut out for a career in lab research. The other can be out of your control, and often unavoidable. For example, maybe you are in an unsupportive environment that makes you feel like you don’t belong, and nothing you do seems to remedy the situation. Because both situations leave you feeling defeated, it’s easy to confuse these two types of “failure.” They can feed into each other and make you doubt your ability to be a good scientist. Identifying the source of this obstacle is the first step to overcoming it.
Sometimes, failing helps you build knowledge and experience. “Sometimes experiments fail for a reason. Sometimes experiments fail for no reason.” You might not succeed in getting the “right” results, or you may not even get to collect data, but you learn and grow from it. This type of failure lessens your fear to try a new, daunting protocol. It’s the type that teaches you that hard work can beget good luck and that sometimes luck is just luck. You encounter this type of failure every time you do something new. Maybe a protocol didn’t work because you made a mistake or you need to optimize a reagent. Maybe your grant got rejected because you’re still learning how to write effectively and clearly, or because your proposal wasn’t the right fit. These failures are what we chalk up to experience, and the failures we learn from going forward. Even an experienced researcher makes mistakes like this sometimes. It can be uncomfortable to deal with, as we are not used to voyaging into the unknown and doing things that have never been done before. When experiencing these failures, you need to tell yourself to keep trying. And sometimes the success comes in knowing when to give up. You might come to a point when you realize that you hate writing code, are bad at it, and never want to do that in your next professional step. You gave coding a try to see if you would enjoy doing it and concluded that you don’t. These types of failures are natural growing pains and are all positive learning experiences that promote personal and professional growth.
Sometimes you can’t progress due to experiences that do not improve your science but rather may be systemic, cultural, or independent of someone’s scientific abilities or potential to be a scientist. Feeling like a failure as the result of a situation you have no control over can feel overwhelming, and sometimes impossible to overcome. You feel ignored or micromanaged. You can’t communicate with the people you need to work with. Your lab mate is bullying you and you have anxiety walking into work. Your boss is sexually harassing you, you fear retaliation for speaking up, and no one is willing to take your side. Your stipend is too small to cover both your own living expenses and your family member’s medical bills. You are the only person of your identity in your department and you feel increasingly isolated. These obstacles affect your work. It makes it hard to be productive in the lab, it makes it hard to focus. These types of failures aren’t really failures at all, but they cause you to feel less productive and successful, making you feel like a failure. It’s important to remember that these situations do not reflect your abilities or potential as a scientist. Worst of all, it makes it hard to separate your natural growing pains from a hostile environment. If you can’t get your work done, it’s easy to blame yourself and think that you’re not cut out to be a scientist. No one can anticipate these situations, and no one should have to experience a hostile environment, but many scientists go through it.
To find your success, it’s important to learn how to figure out why you are doubting your abilities as a scientist. Reflecting on your experiences and talking to others can help you determine if you are struggling as many scientists do, aren’t in the right field, or are in a hostile work environment. It takes time, reflection, and a lot of talking. Find people and peers you trust and discuss these issues. If you find yourself in a hostile work environment or unable to manage the constant failures at the bench, seek a mental health professional or your institution’s ombudsman, and come up with an exit plan if needed. For sexual harassment (or really harassment of any kind), find someone who is not a “mandatory reporter” under Title XI. These people/organizations allow students to report harassment anonymously. Find a supportive community and you will certainly find that you are not alone. I wish there were more concrete solutions, but at this point in time, these are unfortunately personal and individual journeys, and there is no one size fits all solution. What works for one person may not work for another, and only you can make the right choice for you. You may choose to leave academic research because you don’t like the work or don’t like the environment. You may choose to stay because you learned from your experiences and want to do research. Whatever you choose, that is your choice, and it is valid. You will face many obstacles during your science (and life) journey, but that does not make you a failure.
About the Author:
Sara Wong is a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Cellular and Molecular Biology. She studies how myosin V-mediated cargo transport is regulated in space and time. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @sarajwong