Friday, August 26, 2016

In Failure, There is Hope

I read an opinion article at Scientific American this morning that bothered me. But Katie, my husband would say, many things bother you. This may be true, but my feathers are ruffled enough this morning to write.

The thesis of the SA article is that scientists are "fascinated" by rejection. That we love to hear stories of failure, of ground-breaking science that was rejected by many journals, of excellent scientists that were declined jobs at many institutions. The author posits that we are "fascinated" because:

1) We are saturated by news of others' successes on social media.
2) Rejection runs contrary to our belief that the course of science is a rationale one, where great discoveries are always met with accolades.

Perhaps these factors contribute to our preoccupation with rejection. But they aren't why stories of rejection are so popular. The author barely touches the REAL reason:

"Apart from being a source of comfort,..."

Ahh, here we go. A source of comfort. We are human, no? Not robots.

We are highly trained professionals that have reached the alleged pinnacle of scientific success: tenure track jobs in which we sit in our "ivory tower", doing what I hope each one of us believes to be important work. Because most of us tend not to hate ourselves, we are biased towards thinking that we've done a good job, that our work is of value, and that we've tried really hard. And we've bought into a narrative in which we're told that academic scientists succeed (at least the wide majority of them).

Yet, this outward perception of the successful world in which we live is juxtaposed against the fear and pain that privately lives in our hearts. We are all too intimately familiar with the sweat and blood, the personal sacrifices and loss of sleep that have gone into each one of our scientific endeavors. And when our efforts are rejected - efforts that we have coached ourselves into believing are worthwhile - we hurt. We hurt, as any normal human would.

When I was a grad student and postdoc, I was faced by occasional failure, but this was equally balanced (or so it seemed) by successes. And then I began my faculty position, a "reward" for being an excellent (e.g. successful) scientific trainee. And I submitted twenty-eight external proposals over 3.5 years before having one funded. If that isn't enough to give a person imposter syndrome, then I don't know what is. We all have different specifics - maybe you had to apply for faculty positions three times, maybe you had 12 or 172 proposals rejected at this stage of your career, or maybe you had grants funded, but your manuscripts were being rejected because you were simply ahead of your time. Whatever the case, I bet this made you feel crappy, too. And I bet you wondered if this was what you were supposed to be doing with your life-

Name: Katie Whitehead
Occupation: Banging My Overgrown Head on the Wall
Favorite leisure activity: Vodka

But then, there is a ray of hope. A famous scientist, or even just a successful one, tells a story about how he or she was once rejected, too. And it makes you feel like maybe you have a chance. Maybe you're not an imposter, maybe rejection is simply the way it is, and it's something we just need to get through. We are not "fascinated" by stories of rejection followed by success - we are encouraged by them. We keep going because of them.

My postdoc advisor, Bob Langer, tells a story in many of his seminars that has become a source of great comfort to me. It's the story of the drug Gliadel, the most ground-breaking therapy for brain cancer that the world had seen in decades. Bob tried to get funding to develop Gliadel from the NIH maybe 10 times over a span of 12 years or so, and every time, the reviewers came back with a show-stopping reason why the drug wasn't going to work. Ironically, Gliadel was FDA-approved in 1997 before Bob was ever able to get research support from the US government's main health-related funding agency. Gliadel was extending real human life before other scientists monetarily acknowledged that maybe this idea could work.

And there's the part of me, the part of many of us that believes that if Bob Langer's breakthrough idea was able to succeed despite heavy criticism, then maybe ours can, too. As human beings, we thrive on hope. Hope is more powerful than fear.

And so, in conclusion, scientists are not fascinated by failure. What a weird word to describe this phenomenon. If not fascinated by failure, then, we are embedded in it, sometimes overcome by it. And we want to extract from whatever sources are available the motivation to put our heads down and keep going.


  1. Yes, the glorification of failure is truly a mystery to me. I guess we *talk* about failure all the time because we spend most of our lives jumping from one failure to the next. And even after having done this for a while, every single failure still hurts.

    A famous scientist in my field with many top publications, will often talk about his rejection index, which is the average number of rejections before a paper gets accepted. His was something like 2.4.

  2. Interesting. Never heard of the rejection index before.

  3. "But Katie, my husband would say, many things bother you." Ha, sounds familiar.

    This is like the expansion pack that I needed after reading that SA article. Thank you.

  4. Wonderful piece. Thank you! Rejection has been so difficult throughout this tenure process. I developed a severe case of impostor syndrome. Each rejection felt like a stamp of incompetence and I started believing my work is not worth a dime. I don't know how many "acceptances" will it take for me to recover actually. Every time I still feel I may have tricked somebody into thinking I'm worth it:/