BMCDB Editorial August 2011: Facing Failure and Futility
BMCDB Blog Editorial
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!