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This blog, written by EMB Young Ambassador Dr Rebecca Zitoun, discusses our relationship with failure in academia.

As anyone initiated within its ranks can attest, academia is tough. The scarcity of funding resources generates a fast-paced, highly competitive industry, where the success of an individual is marked by a complex assessment of research metrics such as the number of publications, number of citations, h-index, funded grants, number of scholarships, and the impact factor of publishing journals. As such, research productivity, and especially the ability of researchers to publish, is a major focus of most scientific performance assessments and plays a deciding role for hiring committees, tenure and promotion boards, as well as granting agencies. Such metrics, usually referred to as the ‘publish or perish’ culture, however, make academia a very high-pressure environment, especially for early career researchers (ECRs). Further, this metric-focused environment only represents the successes of an individual career and neglects to provide full insight into the individual’s experience, which also consists of ‘failures’. These ‘failures’ can manifest in many ways, including:

  • Mistakes and/or errors during experimental work, data analysis, or interpretation;
  • Wrong hypotheses, lost data, failing experiments (e.g. irreproducible results) and disrupted plans (e.g. broken instruments, lack of resources, global pandemics) leading to incomplete or altered projects;
  • Inconclusive or unoriginal experimental results;
  • Rejections of manuscripts (depending on the journal, the acceptance rate can be as low as 15% to 35%!), grant proposals, and funding requests.


Acceptance rate of a journal

Elsevier has a useful feature on its website called the ‘JournalFinder’. This smart search engine helps you find a journal that is the most suitable for publishing your scientific article. JournalFinder uses your paper title, abstract, keywords, and your field of research to recommend up to 50 of the most relevant Elsevier journals for you to consider. The search results include the Cite Score, Impact Factor, time to first decision, time to publication, and the acceptance rate of the journal. The latter yields important statistical information about the selectivity of the journal, however, journal acceptance rates are usually not set in stone and will vary from month to month, and from edition to edition.

The reality is that (i) nearly everything that happens in a laboratory will never make it to print, and (ii) nearly every process and aspect of an academic career is learned through ‘failure’. However, these “downsides” of academic life are rarely celebrated as a chance for ECRs to learn and improve. More often than not they are seen negatively, as a waste of time and resources, because most of the time they do not directly lead to outputs. This viewpoint is not only demotivating, but also catalytically self-fulfilling. It is important to realise that the process of ‘failure’ is embedded into all aspects of scientific training: We observe, we hypothesize, we test or measure. If the hypothesis proves to be wrong, we go back, observe more, maybe change the set-up, get new measurements, come up with a new hypothesis, and test again, until we have reproducible and good-quality data. Science is also high-stakes, and if we want to make new discoveries, taking the so-called leap into the unknown, to work on exciting, ground-breaking, or cutting-edge science, we need to take risks, which also increase the chances of ‘failure’.

Making progress through failure

To create an academic environment where researchers can reach their full potential, the stigma of ‘failure’ must be removed. ‘Failure’ must be seen as a learning opportunity for both personal and professional growth. When ‘failure’ happens, we should reflect on what we contributed, what we could do differently next time, and what we can learn from it. Publishing one’s first paper, the process of which can be a real eye-opener, provides an excellent example for this. It is not uncommon for papers to be rejected or to require major revisions. This is true for academics at all career stages, not only for ECRs beginning to build their experience and expertise. As such, instead of being discouraged by a rejected paper, we need to set this event into perspective, and be thankful for the feedback - the process of learning is very much based on that exact feedback - and the opportunity to improve the paper. While difficult, such an attitude will help us to develop the relevant skillsets to become better writers, i.e. writing more well-structured papers of publishable quality with nicely presented data, thorough discussions, and strong conclusions. So, with the appropriate perspective and attitude (persistence and resilience), setbacks will nurture intuition, knowledge, and technical mastery, providing the experience necessary to become successful academics over time.

Everyone ‘fails’

The competitiveness of the “success-focused” academic rat-race can be very draining on motivation and confidence, both of which are major drivers of a successful career. So, we need to put our ‘failures’ into context, realizing that everyone ‘fails’. Nevertheless, when it comes to our fellow academics and peers, we tend to consider only the surface of their careers: their successes, their celebrated accomplishments, their successfully funded proposals, their accepted papers, their finished projects, their fruitful collaborations, and their presence on the international stage. We don't see the ‘failures’ – and associated sweat, heartbreak, doubts, tears, and disappointment – behind all these achievements. When we compare ourselves to others, we are blind to all the downsides of academia that we feel and experience ourselves every day. We are trained by the system to forget that those successes are built on ‘failures’, and that routine ‘failure’ is built into the processes by which ECRs progress and become successful scientists in the first place.

Failure of fellow academics

Keeping a record of your setbacks, i.e. a ‘CV of failures’, can help you and others to relativize successes and failures in the competitive world of academia. It also helps ECRs to gain perspective and realize that failure and rejection are the norm rather than the exception.

Celebration-of-failure mindset

As our careers develop, it is also important to remember that academia is so much more than conducting well-planned research and publishing in high-impact journals. Report writing, funding applications, giving presentations, media outreach, committee positions, science communication, lecturing and teaching, administration, networking, and collaborating, among others, are all skills required in academia. Considering the plethora of skills scientists have to acquire throughout their career, errors, ‘failure’, and mistakes are inevitable. Thus, it is key to change our negative notion of the term ‘failure. In all cases, we should welcome ‘failures’ as learning opportunities and experiences - there is often as much value in knowing what does work as what doesn’t. Hence, we must emphasise the normality of ‘failure’ in the life of a successful researcher and start encouraging a culture of support in academia that allows everyone to talk about and celebrate their ‘failures’ as much as their successes.

Rebecca on an expedition near Iceland on board RV Pelagia