F

our weeks into my first semester of college, my academic confidence was completely shredded. I had back-to-back tests in cell biology, chemistry, and calculus, and my time management skills weren’t quite there yet. I failed my calculus exam, and suddenly I wasn’t sure I had the intelligence or the ability to get a degree in science.

My story has a happy ending — at least to me. Through stress eating, meltdowns, and support from my professor and older students, I studied my way to an A-minus in that calculus class. But, even better: I learned how to fail, something I keep learning and relearning as I come to the end of my second semester in graduate school. It’s the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience — failing repeatedly, and picking yourself up to try again.

It’s what I think is missing from many young Americans’ educational experiences, and, in part, why I think so many of us, as smart and creative and technically adept as we are, shy away from scientific research as our careers.

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Learning resilience is fundamental to a successful career as a scientist. The experiments we try will fail many times before they work, whether as an undergraduate, a PhD student, or a postdoc gunning for a faculty position. I’m dealing with this right now in my third laboratory rotation: In trying to study a protein in zebrafish, I made a mistake and all my embryos died. So, I’m troubleshooting and doing the experiment again.

But actually overcoming failure is challenging. Many students who began science degrees with me switched to other majors the first time a project failed. One failure and they were gone.

This dropout situation has lasting implications for American science. The US has plenty of scientists, but fewer and fewer are being born in the US. These foreign-born scientists are welcome, as far as I’m concerned, but with all the recent changes in immigration and visa policy, it’s an uncertain future — large numbers of our scientists-in-training could be forced to leave after they finish graduate school or postdocs.

Without these scientists, American science will suffer.

So, why are more immigrant students and fewer American students pursuing science education? Obviously, many factors play into this shift. With proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health budget, a science career doesn’t look all that attractive to many people — the already fierce competition for money to fund research will likely become cutthroat. Research scientists make lower wages than doctors or lawyers, our early science and math education doesn’t always make these subjects interesting, and for a lot of scientists, our prime research years also happen to be our prime parenting years.

But again, I think resiliency plays a role. A 2011 study looked at resiliency in disadvantaged students in the US, Japan, Korea, and other countries and found that non-US students were more resilient. We produce too few students who can recover from academic challenges.

So how can we encourage greater resilience in students passionate about science but discouraged by failures? Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says students who believe their intellect can grow, rather than it being fixed, are more resilient in pursuing their goals.

For me as a scientist, this happened when I realized that one failure wasn’t the end of my career; I could grow intellectually to overcome failures. However, I only came to this realization when successful older science students shared their failures with me, including one who told me how she failed an exam her first semester. Since then I’ve remembered her encouragement as my first two semesters of grad school have thrown me numerous small failures: experiments that refused to work, test scores lower than I’d prefer, and time management setbacks while learning to deal with the unique challenges of graduate science education.

Talking about personal failures isn’t enjoyable. No one wants to relive the ego-crushing bruises of a poor test score or a rejection from a coveted job or graduate program or summer internship. But we need to keep talking to younger science students, when appropriate, about our failures so that they’ll know their own similar failures aren’t career-crushers. That’s something my mentors have done for me, and it’s something I’m working on right now.

By normalizing the experience of failure in the pursuit of science, my hope is that we can keep American students in the field, so that we can remain competitive with other countries in uncertain times and in uncertain budgets. Resiliency in science and innovation is how we got to the top, and I believe that our ability to bounce back is key to staying there.

Sara Whitlock is a first-year graduate student studying structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh. 

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  • I’m sure there is some truth here, but coming from someone currently in graduate school who experienced plenty of failure during undergraduate in chemistry, there’s just a lot of issues at play. I think the lack of funding plays a huge part in this. I’m currently looking at getting a “dissatisfied” on my yearly review because I couldn’t get as much lab work done my first year as my advisor expected. I have until the end of the summer to start a brand new project and get it finished. I’m looking at being half way to kicked out just because I couldn’t get the results my advisor wanted because things aren’t working as we expected. I’m now seriously considering just leaving with a Master’s because I don’t want to stay in academia that is saying “you don’t have room to fail at all.”

  • A good book to read on this subject is “the only woman in the room” by Eileen Pollack. She talks about being the first physics graduate with a BA from Yale .
    For our own work, the current impossible project is learning cell by cell have a brain works and what learning and memory are. Surprisingly, we are making great progress and don’t have And overwhelming number of failures.
    OK, it took 40 years of not giving up to get to our current successes.

  • Actually this problem boils down to dollars and work-life balance rather than “resillience.” Insourcing graduate slave labor from the third world puts pressure on wages and quality of life. Even if there was a decline in scientific output, which is the case because most research is fraudulent, the government wouldnt notice for years because innovation has a long lead time. The pharma pipelines are dry. The best students are rational enough not to enslave themselves for 10 years. You need to double the science budget along with wages. Also, fund labs instead of particular projects like HHMI and Wellcome does.

  • Hi . My name is Kimhab and my family name is Chou. I am a Cambodian who nowadays learns medical doctor in 5th Year . I really want to know how international students can apply to continue Specialist in University of Pittsburgh.

  • For me, my first semester of college I received a C in calculus 2, and struggled to get a B+ in physics. What sent me into a panic was that my college informed me that my grades were too low, and if I did this poorly in the second semester I would lose all my financial aid-which would mean I could no longer afford that school. I realize financial aid comes with stipulations, but I, like rko below, still have a chip on my shoulder for being scared out of the program after one less than glamorous grade (C isn’t even terrible!).

  • Maybe I overlooked it, but it sure seemed like this article didn’t grapple with the fact that most science professors and students I’ve known over the years relish the thought of their “weed out” classes and their incredibly high standards. Many of these teachers always seemed to me to delight in the fact that only a portion of their classes pass, or that the expectations for anyone interested in pursuing a career in the sciences that they’d maintain an extremely high GPA if they even wanted to think about going to grad school.

    There’s nothing necessarily wrong with high expectations and rigorous standards. But I recall very clearly when my psychology advisor, instead of telling me what I might do to improve, just flatly said I would never be a psychologist. Perhaps the resiliency of students might be improved if the sciences and their gatekeepers didn’t present themselves as imposing pursuits only meant for the very best? Maybe professors would see more students sign up for STEM majors if they were actually supportive of students who fell short of the often unreasonable expectations? Maybe students would be less afraid of STEM majors if they weren’t expected to memorize entire reams of knowledge that are wholly unnecessary to a career in the sciences?

    I doubt I’m the only person who read this who still has a chip on their shoulder about getting crushed by a STEM program that wouldn’t bend to meet their needs as a student. Sure, it’s important that students learn to fail gracefully; maybe it would be nice if professors, teachers, and administrators gave them the opportunity to fail more than once or twice before kicking them out of their rarefied fields of study.

    • I completely agree with you. Most Science Professors are very proud to kick your dream out of Science. I had a Professor like that who constantly told me to change my career. Luckily I do not give up easily. Now I am a Microbiologist working for National Institutes of Health doing research.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. It is my personal belief that if science was made accessible to all types of people. We would have a myriad of approaches to some of our most difficult dilemmas we face today. However, as you said the gate keepers keep doing their job with artificial selection. We all know natural selection trumps them all.

    • “…a chip on their shoulder about getting crushed by a STEM program that wouldn’t bend to meet their needs as a student” This is the problem right here. The program should not have to bend to meet your needs. This would mean, eventually, that standards would be lowered to accommodate students who don’t quite meet the requirements. I’d like not to have a surgeon who barely passed his state boards on the 3rd go-round, or like another commenter mentioned, drive over a bridge signed off by a civil engineer who took an exam of lower standard so he could pass. There is a weeding out process for a reason. Some professors delight in it, yes, but if you plan on going for the higher degrees (MS, PhD), then be prepared to work for it and meet or exceed the rigorous standards. I had a genetics professor who had change major forms on his desk, and offered them up with a suggestion for Hotel & Restaurant Mgt as a potential major for anyone who complained about how hard the class was. Was that not nice? Maybe, but genetics was an advanced level bio class; if you’re complaining about it being hard, you’re not going to like what’s ahead.

  • Sara incorrect here about failure being insufficiently emphasized in science training. But this shouldn’t wait until the graduate level. We teach science from high school through undergraduate as a long line of successes, a heroic narrative of geniuses making remarkable discoveries … and apparently never failing. This gives students, both science and non-science majors, a distorted view of the scientific process -and by the way it takes all the fun out of it. It’s precisely when experiments fail that the game is on, when you must bring your must most creative, inspirational, puzzle solving abilities to the effort. And failure is not just for developing perseverance, it is a valuable part of the discovery process. If you don’t fail at a sufficiently high rate you are probably not doing anything very interesting. Failure is what makes science such a successful method for finding out about the world.

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