Home > Editorials, UC Davis > BMCDB Editorial August 2011: Facing Failure and Futility

BMCDB Editorial August 2011: Facing Failure and Futility

BMCDB Blog Editorial

August 2011

By Gordon Walker

Facing Failure and Futility

Undertaking a Doctorate of Philosophy in the biological sciences is no trivial task. As graduate students we have spent essentially our entire lives preparing for the opportunity to conduct our own research in an academic setting. As many students find out during their first year; they are woefully unprepared for the rigors of graduate work – leading to the common and understandable “imposter syndrome”. The feeling that one does not belong among such talented, smart, and motivated individuals who all (at least superficially) appear to be breezing through the challenges graduate education presents. Generally as one works hard in classes and in lab, this feeling subsides as time goes on. The trickle of success, whether it be getting a PCR reaction to work, or something as momentous as getting published restores faith in oneself. The imposter feeling fades and is replaced by the desire to not only survive graduate school, but to excel and advance one’s field. This trickle of success will ideally turn into a running river of accolades and a rewarding career in science; but what happens when the trickle of success dries up?

This is the real challenge of graduate school, not learning to deal with success, but learning to persevere through failure and futility. To quote Bruce Alberts “ success doesn’t really teach you much, failure teaches you a lot”. Research is never inherently easy, but when things are working it is much easier and more enjoyable to go into lab everyday and give it your all. However, when faced with major obstacles like an assay that just will not work, a protein that will not express, an antibody that will not recognize it’s target, a culture that will not grow, a disinterested and uninvolved PI, or even a botched Qualifying Exam – you have a choice to make; run away with your tail between your legs, or to endure and rise to the challenges presented. As with most of life, it is easier to quit than to carry on with an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, quitters do not make good scientists. To paraphrase advice from Dr. Graham C. Walker, “You never really succeed in science, you just kind of stumble forward hoping to run into something interesting. The way to overcome failure is to try, try and try try try try try try try try try again. As soon as you get something to work, make sure you can actually do it again.” Your best option for success in the world of science, is simply to just keep trying. Do not underestimate the potential of unflappable conviction.

I have witnessed and faced failure at all levels throughout my life and at times, have been haunted by the specter of futility. Regardless of the nature of your challenge, the best thing you can do is to have faith in yourself and the scientific process. Science and faith may appear to be diametrically opposed to one another, but I would argue that faith is crucial to the advancement of science. As scientists there are a dizzying array of things we often take for granted in our day to day lives; DNA is double stranded, DNA begets RNA begets protein, protein complexes interact in confluence of function, genotype dictates phenotype, etc… We have faith that these things are so because of the scientific process and community of scientists that have proven them through experimentation and deduction. As scientists it is especially important we are not blindly faithful in our beliefs. After all questioning the basic tenets of biology has led to some of the most exciting discoveries in recent times like RNAi and prions as epigenetic agents of heritability. While we must question, and continually reinvent and fine-tune our models and hypotheses, it is essential that we maintain our faith in the process of science. The kind of faith that Giants, Red Sox, and Cubs fans will understand, an allegiance to the idea that if we keep putting forth our best effort with the best guidance possible that regardless of the circumstances we will eventually succeed. To keep the faith that despite how hopeless a project appears, regardless of the number of failures you incur that if you continue to put in the work that you will obtain useful results.

Outright failure is never rewarding, except in the sense that you have hopefully learned from the experience. Graduate school for many is simply an extended exercise in failure and futility, which as long as you maintain faith that it will all work out, really just means you have learned a lot; and after all, is that not the point of graduate school? As scientists it is important to achieve balance in our lives but even more important is avoiding equilibrium, because as any biologist knows, equilibrium equals death for a living system. That being said I will quote Dorry from “Finding Nemo” and espouse the philosophical notion to “just keep on swimming”, maybe you will bump into something truly fascinating.

Hip, hip, hooray Research!



Categories: Editorials, UC Davis
  1. Rachel
    August 14, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Thank you very much for this article. I start on my A.A.S. in Biotechnology Technician Degree in a couple of weeks, have never been to college, am 30, scared to death and all at once excited. The only other courses I have had were developmental ones in algebra, starting this past spring. Thanks for the encouragment. Incidentally, I am possibly going to start my very first blog ever on my education escapades. What do you think? Please keep in touch, I feel like I could learn alot from you!

  2. UCD BMB Grad
    August 24, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Pardon my antagonism, but this blog post reeks of naive BS. Its one thing for accomplished scientists like Alberts to tell inspirational stories about looking back on how failures build character and steel perseverance (even then it can be off-putting), its another thing altogether when it comes a graduate student, regardless of their level or degree of success. The general attitude of this post (reflected in the phrases “run away with your tail between your legs”, “easier to quit than to carry on” and “quitters do not make good scientists”) reflects a much larger, endemic problem in the life sciences in the US. There is a general attitude in research environments that if you are the best, then you will succeed, an attitude that aptly stems from ‘survival of the fittest’. This was probably true during the 80’s and 90’s; however, after a decade of budget cuts and spending plateaus, a seemingly never-ending recession, an impending debt crisis and a political climate that promises, at the very least, to prolong the current spending plateau indefinitely or worse, slash life science budgets even more, this kind of optimism and ‘faith’ in the university-biotech-government R&D machinery is both naive and uninformed.

    Sure, some people who leave science may be ‘quitters’, but I argue that this is the rare exception rather than the rule. The people I know who have left science have done so because of incentives, both positive and negative… they leave science for better paying jobs and better work environments, they leave so they can live closer to their families, they leave because the opportunities for jobs in both academia and industry simply aren’t available, or they leave because they simply don’t get satisfaction from producing publications; they want to produce tangible things like drugs or marketable technology. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that in the next decade, the US will have trained 80,000 PhDs. They also predict that only 20,000 new PhD-level jobs will have been created during that same time across all R&D sectors: universities, government labs and industry. We already have a larger work force than we have demand for, so where exactly do we expect all those extra PhDs to go? We can’t continue to deride scientist who leave traditional career paths when those paths are much more limited than they have been in the past.

    This derogatory attitude towards people who leave science only adds to the selective pressure applied on graduate students and postdocs, but I argue that its not a pressure that is good for the health of our scientific community. It doesn’t select for the ‘best and brightest’ or the most creative scientific thinkers. Instead, it selects for those who know how to keep their ‘nose to the grindstone’, who ‘weather it out’ and who continue to accept low wages and delayed career development all for the glorious possibility that they might one day, if they’re lucky, get a prestigious publication that will help their established PI to get his or her first NIH grant sometime in their 40s. If they are really lucky, they might get a job that pays them as well as two year masters degree in engineering, only they would have spent almost a decade (and possibly more) getting to the same salary level and sacrificing their lifetime earning potential, which depresses their ability to make big life purchases (e.g., a home) and extends their age of retirement. (FYI: if you’ve ever wondered what other jobs pay around the same as a postdoc, they include driving a bus, being a custodian and entry level management at McDonalds.) These are very real negative incentives that drive people from science, not ‘my PCR keeps failing’, or ‘my gels always seem to run wonky’.

    Yes, failure makes you a better scientist. It teaches you to systematically solve a difficult problem. Yes, good scientists must work hard and be persistent, especially in the wake of failure. But does blindly walking forward along a career path that that appears to be going nowhere, or worse, in the wrong direction, make sense? The reality is that people leave science for a wide range of complicated reasons, and the current mess that our scientific community is in amplifies those complications. What we need are innovative solutions to funding problems, incentives for technology development, more applied research in the life sciences, new educational tiers to train (but not over qualify) lower and mid-level scientists and technicians, higher salaries for postdocs, and more strict time limits on both PhD and postdocs so they can advance in their careers rather than being held in an indefinite holding pattern (whether those holds due to their PIs, their program, their university, funding agency or themselves).

    What we don’t need is naive BS telling graduate students to keep their head up, smile and ‘have faith’ that it’ll all work out in the end. We’re scientists, and those tough decisions like whether you should continue to be a scientist, how to change the trajectory of a scientific career and whether to join or continue graduate school should be based on facts and logic, not Finding Nemo quotes. More importantly, those decisions need to respected and even encouraged… in the end, it means less competition and a better chance of survival for those that stay in the game, whether its because they’re the best, or just the most stubborn.

  3. Gordon Walker
    August 31, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Well thank you “UCD BMB Grad” for your detailed response. I simply tried to write something in the spirit of perseverance, and as a pick me up for anyone dealing with the challenges of graduate work. This is a monthly editorial, that we hope will have a positive outlook. If you want to discuss some of the major issues and concerns you have, then please feel free to email me or talk to me in person. Please do not use the anonymity granted by the internet to belittle me for writing a blog editorial. I really do appreciate the points you bring up, but really do not appreciate the general tone of your response.
    Why don’t you tell me your name, and we can have a spirited and civil conversation. Thanks…

  4. Katrina
    October 24, 2011 at 10:08 am

    BMB Grad, I appreciate your points. But there *is* something to be gained from obtaining a PhD in Science besides discipline, as you suggest.
    Scientific literacy of our country (and world!) is undeniably low (I have no statistic, not sure how this could be measured, but I know simply by trying to have conversations with ‘civilians’), and as technology and methods advance, this literacy will come crashing to a halt if 60,000 of those 80,000 who obtained their PhD in the past decade took alternate routes simply because there were no research positions available.
    Already, primary scientific literature is in a “vault” that can only be accessed by large institutions that can afford to pay their *outrageously high* subscription rates. It is unfair to assume a PhD is only worth the dollars and cents you get out of your stipend. What you get is a say in the scientific community, you get some trust in the country’s community. You are now an expert in your field. Period. You may not be a Nobel Prize winner, but you worked your butt off, as you know, for little thanks. And you learned something along the way. Critical thinking. Setting up a testable question. How to be persuasive while identifying and making valid points. You can get this without a PhD, of course. However, it’s more simply put with three little letters after your full name.
    A Nobel Prize winner (Carol Greider) visited UC Davis a couple weeks ago and she said she did not expect people in her lab to go on to further research endeavors, she believes that a PhD is to gain scientific literacy which is diminishing. The truth of the matter is that for science to thrive and live, we need to keep people (of the greater community) interested, and scientists are doing a terrible job at this. It is all too exclusive and jargon-ridden. We need to help our people understand basic science’s importance. Even we need to understand its importance. I believe, our society needs scientific literacy more than ever as we are approaching integrating controversial biological inventions into our society (Stems cells, GMO’s, even Vaccines are questionable!) These issues apply and affect everyone and everyone should be able to have an educated opinion/vote. Not just an opinion loaned to them by the nearest person to seems to know more about it then them, and makes naive points.
    And simply put, a BS is BS when it comes to understanding what’s actually happening in the scientific community. I vote, put your nose to that grindstone, go for graduate school.

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