Dr. Melanie Stefan, photo by Chris Coe

Failure in Science and the Science of Failure

01/26/2024
By Patricia Soochan

Science is paradoxical when it comes to failure: on the one hand, STEM fields ostensibly acknowledge it as part of the scientific process; on the other hand, they implicitly and explicitly disincentivize failure, especially for those from historically and currently marginalized groups or for those who are at vulnerable career transitions. In fact, when people from these groups do not achieve success in an endeavor, they can experience a cluster of negative feelings, including imposter syndrome and a sense of not belonging. Such feelings have deleterious effects on mental health— an adverse impact that science currently grapples with.

The good news is that STEM researchers who are most hurt by the stigma of failure are now speaking out. And some science media are giving them a voice.

Hear My Voice

About a decade ago in 2010, fresh from finishing her doctorate in molecular biology/bioinformatics at University of Cambridge and EMBL, Dr. Melanie Stefan received her first postdoc application rejection. The angst that accompanied what she perceived as her first major failure led her to submit an essay to Nature decrying the lack of transparency about failure in science. To her surprise, the journal published it. In her essay, she proposed that scientists share alternative CVs of their failures to accompany the typical ones of their successes. She didn’t publish her own such alternative CV, however. At the time, she knew that she was at a vulnerable career transition and could not bear the risk of outing herself in this way.  She hoped, nonetheless, that she would inspire more-established scientists to do so, thinking that this might help dispel the stigma that she and other young scientists were experiencing about their perceived failures. 

As she related in her essay, she realized that her CV reflected her string of successes: performing well as an undergraduate, going on to earn her PhD in her desired field, and publishing a solid number of articles. She acknowledged, “My CV does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts—it doesn’t mention the exams I failed, my unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication. At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed.” She concluded, “As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.”

Inarguably, even 13 years after Dr. Stefan published her essay in Nature, both the perception and the reality of failure in science remain challenging. We may acknowledge our career disappointments as being par for the course, but we do not reward anyone for being honest about them, nor do we celebrate these roadblocks. This, of course, is a paradox at the heart of all human endeavors, not just of scientific ones. Could science possibly lead the way in celebrating failure as an essential part of learning and as a key part of the scientific method?

These changes may gradually be happening. Since Nature accepted Dr. Stefan’s essay, the journal has regularly published features on scientific failures, especially articles in which young scientists tell their stories of disappointment and rebound. In summer 2022, five such scientists shared their stories about abrupt shifts in their doctoral research, brought about by issues ranging from problematic model systems to a poor fit between their research and their professional goals. In each case, a supportive adviser was key to helping the young scientist turn their professional setbacks around. In summer 2023, the journal featured essays by several junior scientists who had bounced back from the “stigma and shame” of an initial impasse with their dissertations. One such young scientist, Dr. Jess McLaughlin, now a postdoc at UC Berkeley, was afraid that a series of successive failures would be a “stain on my CV I’ll never escape from.” In despair, Dr. McLaughlin turned to other scientists who shared stories of recovery from professional failures. “This stuff happens more than we realize in academia. But there’s so much shame attached to it that nobody talks about it,” the scientist said.

A June 2023 Career Feature in Nature cited training programs in Europe that tackle both failure and recovery strategies head-on to help early-career scientists address future research challenges in big global projects, where the expectations for failure are high. One such program encourages postdocs to explore a new research area in a low-stakes way with no pressure to publish.

The Science of Failure

Not only is the topic of failure in science surfacing more frequently, but failure itself is generating its own “science.” In 2019, Dr. Yian Yin et al. published a paper in Nature on quantifying the dynamics of failure to elucidate the mechanism by which successful future attempts build on past efforts. The researchers tested their model in various domains, including in NIH research grant applications. One insight their model provided is that it is unnecessary to learn from all past experiences to achieve a maximal learning rate. However, they found, the faster scientists learn from mistakes, the more likely they will be to achieve successful outcomes eventually. The researchers hope that their model will allow users to detect early signals that will elucidate the dynamics that lead to ultimate success or failure.

Employing a qualitative approach to the science of failure, another researcher, Dr. Amy Edmonson of Harvard Business School, has examined ways to create a psychologically safe environment that encourages people to admit to and learn from mistakes. In a 2019 article in Leader to Leader, she discussed the requisite conditions she had identified that leaders can employ to create a psychologically safe workspace (Table 1).

Edmondson, A. 2019. “The role of psychological safety: maximizing employee input and commitment.Leader to Leader, Spring: 13–19.

Also, in a 2023 HBS Research & Ideas interview about her new book, Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, Dr. Edmondson explained that workplaces should characterize “intelligent failure” (as opposed to failure due to negligence or factors so complex that they cannot be disentangled) as a natural result of risk-taking because this type of failure is essential to facilitate a path toward innovation. She advised, “We tend to avoid failure at all costs. But our smarter missteps are worthwhile because they can force us to take a different path that points us toward personal and professional success.”

Dr. Melanie Stefan, photo by Chris Coe
Dr. Melanie Stefan, photo by Chris Coe

Dr. Melanie Stefan and a CV of Failures: A Decade Later

After years of both succeeding and failing, Dr. Stefan now heads her own computational neurobiology research lab at Medical School Berlin. For several years after she published her essay in Nature about scientists’ CVs of failures, she would only hear about her call to action periodically. However, in 2016,  economist Dr. Johannes Haushofer, who credited Dr. Stefan’s essay as his inspiration, posted his CV of failures to his website that included his “meta-failures” on Twitter (now X). His postings went viral. Since then, others are increasingly adopting the practice, including a career coach for women in STEM, Dr. Hannah Roberts, who posted her CV of failures to LinkedIn and developed a workshop on the art of failing gracefully.

“We tend to avoid failure at all costs. But our smarter missteps are worthwhile because they can force us to take a different path that points us toward personal and professional success.” — Dr. Amy Edmondson, HBS Research & Ideas, September 2023.

Over a decade after its publication, how has Dr. Stefan’s essay influenced her own professional practice? For one thing, she says that her understanding of failure has evolved in multiple contexts. She notes, “Every day as a scientist involves failing in various ways, which has made me better at accepting failure and rejection as just part of the scientific process.” She adds, “If you have a negative result, why is that a failure? It’s valuable information about the hypothesis you are testing.”

Similarly, she has come to terms with disappointment in applying for funding. “While it still is difficult to get a rejection letter, I can appreciate now that it’s a statistical probability that’s baked into the system and that part of the process is revising and resubmitting.” She also now views things that she used to think of as her own teaching failures as the system failing her, for example, when she is unable to grade 50 essays in a week. The kinds of failures that she tends to reflect on now are less tangible ones, like wondering if she could have done more to support a student.

In addition to contributing to her own growth, the essay has led her to become a sought-after role model and a better mentor. She is often invited to talk to student or early-career STEM groups about disappointments in scientific work. In addition, she has been intentional about creating a lab that is psychologically safe for failure by valuing the process, not just the final outcomes. For example, she encourages the lab to celebrate the submission of papers as much as their acceptance. She also tries to contextualize “failures” for her students, carefully going over the reviewers’ comments and helping students strategize next steps in response.

Dr. Stefan believes that science has made progress in dealing with failure and points to the increase in preprint peer-review processes that focus on ensuring soundness in methodology prior to known outcomes, like the many journals that participate in Registered Reports. She also points to the Journal of Trial & Error, an open-access publication with a mission to redefine failure.

According to Dr. Stefan, STEM researchers should also take a hard look at their pervasive focus on competition, some of which seems manufactured and all of which contributes to the unhelpful idea of winners and losers. She realizes that the culture of intense competition also disproportionately affects people who are historically and currently marginalized in science. She remembers that sense of constant failure as a woman majoring in math, and she encourages young scientists struggling with a constant barrage of failure messages to seek out strong support networks that include not just mentors but also peers who are experiencing similar challenges.

The scientist remains a champion of the importance of destigmatizing failure in the larger STEM community. In 2020 she gave a TedX Talk, “If You Sing Wrong, Sing Louder: How We Learn from Failure.” In 2022 she coauthored a PLOS paper on ten simple rules for failing successfully in academia, along with a list of resources about dealing with setbacks. She is now at the point of seriously putting pen to paper to write her own CV of failures, which she’s approaching very thoughtfully.  She knows now, as an established scientist, that her CV of failures will have an impact, so she feels a responsibility to curate it so that it is truly helpful to her potential audience of young scientists and reflects her growth in how to handle disappointments.

Dr. Stefan has also been invited to speak on failure in STEM at an NSF ADVANCE-funded conference. The conference, which will be held at the University of Virginia in June 2024, will examine the consequences of failure disclosure with respect to issues of power, gender, and race in the competitive academic context. It will also explore innovative and egalitarian approaches to failure and failure disclosure across identities and roles in an inclusive academic culture.

Patricia Soochan is a program officer and member of multidisciplinary teams at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2 and IE3) initiatives. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants provided primarily to undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She is a member of the Change Leaders Working Group of the Accelerating Systemic Change Network and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and The Nucleus. Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University.

Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.