Accepting failure in academia

07 Feb 2020

This years ECS Research Symposium features a talk that sticks out amongst the others. Dr Miriam Gifford’s keynote titled “How to fail in Academia” has attracted a lot of attention – after all, it’s unusual to have a keynote that isn’t talking about research.

We don’t talk a lot about our failures as scientists. From early on in our education we are taught to disregard “anomalies” and chase positive results whilst still upholding scientific rigour. This tends to work out well all the way through schooling and undergraduate degrees, where the experiments are dictated and the expected results are known – but suddenly when we enter the world of research, the ‘easy’ results can come to an abrupt halt.

“I don’t know how you do it,” my dad (who’s worked in the building trade for most of life) once said to me whilst I was somewhere around the second year of my PhD, “if 9 out of 10 houses I’d built fell down, I’d have quit a long time ago”. He was referring to the fact that I couldn’t get my experiment to work. It wasn’t even that I was getting negative results, for various reasons I couldn’t get my bacteria culture to grow so I could start the actual experiment.

Being brought up on a diet of scientific rigour and experiments that work first time, it is very easy to start doubting yourself. After all, if your bacteria only seem to grow one in three attempts, doesn’t that make it the anomaly that you were taught about in school? Isn’t that the reason we repeat experiments? 

And that’s before we even get to the results. For many years academia has had a ‘publish or perish’ culture, meaning the pressure to get good (interpreted by some as ‘positive’) results is an ever-present burden. As good scientists, we are all taught that disproving a novel hypothesis is just as important as proving it, but unfortunately that doesn’t make headlines and often means you won’t make the high-impact journals – an output that you likely need to get further funding or advance your career, so it’s not surprising that that the pressure is at an all-time high.

That said, times are changing in academia. There are various journals out now that are dedicated to publishing negative results – that way if you do something and it doesn’t get the result you expected, you can still get your research output. There’s also a much greater focus on mental health and awareness around imposter syndrome, particularly in PhD students. One of the best things we can do is talk about our failures honestly – and culture an environment where others feel they can too. For me personally, SfAM’s ECS members have offered great solace and counsel when things haven’t been working; knowing others are going through it just the same as you can be a massive help.

Academia is full of failures: that’s the nature of research. If things worked the first time, every time, it wouldn’t be research. Being able to accept those failures and keep moving forward was one of the hardest parts of my PhD – which is why I’m so excited to hear Dr Gifford’s talk this March and know how useful it will be for everyone who attends.


Robert G. Millar
Society for Applied Microbiology