Undergraduates need to know what academic failure really is

Undergraduates need to embrace failure, but what does academic failure really look like?

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Nov 09, 2018
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I recently read a great career column by Inrini Topalidou in Nature. The premise was that undergraduates thinking of doing a PhD need to be prepared to embrace failure. It sounds bleak but anyone who has done a PhD will recognise this as sound advice. PhDs are about solving problems, hitting roadblocks and finding ways to navigate around them. In other words, you will fail a lot.

I think in addition to understanding that failure is necessary, undergraduates should be taught to recognise real failure when compared with self-imposed “fake” failure arising from the pressures of the PhD. I think fake failure stems from the way that a PhD is framed from day 1. For example, many PhD students quickly come to believe that a PhD is publishing as many high-profile papers as possible in a short amount of time and this can quickly bias their view of the scientific world. If you’re rushing to publish a paper and the final experiment doesn’t give you the result you were expecting, it’s easy to view this as a failure. In actual fact, if you controlled everything properly and you had a good hypothesis, this result will actually lead to better understanding the system that you’re studying. This is a success, right?

This kind of pressure begins with grad students but runs right the way up to the top of the ivory tower, leading to inevitable problems. There is a huge incentive to ignore inconvenient results that don’t support a particular scientific narrative instead of investigating them. There is also a huge incentive to bury “negative” data. In my view, to bow to these incentives is the real academic failure, not necessarily of the individual but of the system that encourages these incentives.

This also sounds bleak, but I think there is an upside. Recognising these situations and having the confidence to avoid them can be taught to grad students, as long as the supervisor supports them. This means providing training and an environment that is safe, as well as setting a good example for how to fail and what academic failure really is.

Having left academia now, I have no skin in the game. I don’t directly gain or lose anything by the system changing. However, looking back on my academic years, I can say that the times when I saw negative results and “failure” as a curiosity to be followed up, were some of my happiest and most productive. Chasing “success” and results that supported my narrative inevitably led to misery and stress.

As someone who will benefit from science in the future, I really want to know that scientists in the lab developing cures and inventing new technology, truly know what failure is. If they don’t I really worry that science will not progress as fast as it could. 

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Ben Libberton

Science Communicator, Freelance

I'm a freelance science communicator, formally a Postdoc in the biofilm field. I'm interested in how bacteria cause disease and look to technology to produce novel tools to study and ultimately prevent infection.

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