How to Practice Safe Failure

Julia Nolte offers five strategies for how you can minimize -- or ultimately benefit from -- experiences of failure in graduate school and beyond.

September 29, 2020
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If you have ever taken instruction in ice skating, judo or rock climbing, you have probably learned one lesson rarely taught -- but desperately needed -- in academe: how to avoid hurting yourself. Unlike the students in most graduate programs, athletes are first taught how to protect themselves against injury before they are pushed to excel in their field. Aside from stretching and wearing protective gear, that means hours of practicing how to avoid falls and how to complete “safe” falls that may leave athletes bruised but not broken.

As a graduate student whose spirit has been crushed more than once by the disappointment of not getting into the conferences, journals or programs that I wanted, I often wonder about the academic equivalent of falling -- or failing -- successfully. If strategies for avoiding failure or experiencing “safe failure” exist, why are we not teaching them in our graduate programs?

In my experience, preparation for failure is often neglected in academic circles, which take a “learning-by-doing” approach to rejection, botched experiments and other misadventures. Although failure is all too common in the life of most scientists, academe favors personal stories about dealing with mishaps over concrete advice on how to avoid or even capitalize on them.

This lack of training in safe failure is stunning, especially considering that resilience is high on the recruitment checklists of most graduate school programs. Interviewees are expected to talk about their strategies for coping with unexpected roadblocks, and personal essays are screened for anecdotes about what prospective students have learned from unsuccessful collaborations and other scientific setbacks. But once they are admitted into graduate school, students’ failures are rarely spoken about again.

To illustrate, my doctoral department sends out regular announcements about graduate students and faculties’ grants, awards and upcoming publications. But how often I, my peers or my professors struggle, and how we pick ourselves up again, are secrets well kept from even our closest friends and colleagues.

Given that all scientists fail but concrete advice on how to do so “successfully” is sparse, I offer five strategies for how you can minimize -- or ultimately benefit from -- experiences of failure. Although they might not eliminate the sting of disappointment that can accompany a setback, these strategies can cushion the blow of getting something not quite right and help you learn from it going forward.

The postmortem. As the macabre name suggests, a postmortem happens after it is already too late for you to avoid failure. Something, somewhere, went awry. Now what?

Comparable to an autopsy, the postmortem analyzes possible reasons for why you may not have achieved your desired outcome. Perhaps there was a flaw in your coding, you entered some data incorrectly or the measures you chose turned out to be less reliable than you had wanted. Often, you will discover such issues only retrospectively or when brainstorming in a team.

The postmortem is a strategy that will help you to not only understand your current difficulties but also to decrease your chances of failing in the future. This approach can be especially valuable if you and other grad students document any important insights in a lab manual, checklist or database, so that new incoming students can be warned not to make the same mistake themselves.

Although not always available, some funding agencies and other career opportunities offer optional feedback on why an application was rejected, which serves the same purpose as a postmortem retrospective. As an applicant, you will have to solicit this feedback yourself and should ask for it when the opportunity arises, even if criticism can be hard to hear.

Similarly, you should take the time to examine why a certain grant proposal, conference submission or manuscript was especially successful. Knowing that asking someone to review the study design, making a strong diversity statement or collaborating with a methods expert made all the difference can help guarantee you succeed again in the future.

The antemortem checklist. This checklist is to identify hurdles before they trip you up, as well as to find ways to avoid or overcome them. For instance, you might worry about what will happen if you suddenly become too sick to complete a project, accidentally delete part of your data or identify quality issues within your data set only after you’ve finished conducting an experiment. But by anticipating such issues, you can take extra steps to document the research process and, for example, teach other experimenters how to fill in for you in case you fall sick.

In addition, you will learn to back up your data at several time points or to several devices and how to implement different types of quality checks early into a planned project. Such an antemortem checklist will not only reduce opportunities for failure but will also make the research process less daunting and more transparent for you. That’s particularly true if you conduct the antemortem with more senior scientists at the beginning of a new collaboration or new mentoring relationship.

The safety net. While helpful for anticipating practical and technical problems that occur when collecting and handling data, the antemortem checklist might be less suitable for addressing issues surrounding research design -- or when writing up an experiment that worked as intended but did not yield the expected results. In these cases, it is good to craft a safety net by thinking about ways to maximize the chances of observing interesting results or to make potential null findings more attractive to publishers. Depending on your chosen field, that might entail running pilot studies to test new paradigms before rolling out a full experiment, preregistering designs or hypotheses before collecting data or replicating the same null finding across several samples in order to validate it.

From a design standpoint, it can be worthwhile to think about how to explain results if findings deviate from your initial expectations -- for example, if group A scores lower rather than higher than group B on an outcome of interest. By considering a variety of outcomes before any data are collected, you can include measures in your projects that will help to rule out or affirm alternative explanations, thus strengthening your manuscripts in the light of unexpected results or null findings.

Normalizing failure. As evidenced by the “CV of Failures” made popular by Princeton University professor Johannes Haushofer and others, even high-achieving scientists have their fair share of rejections to bemoan. Famously, Harold Kroto and Carol Greider were both passed over for research funding on the very same day they received notice of their respective Nobel Prizes.

But knowing that failure is abundant is not always enough for aspiring scientists to make peace with their own experiences of disappointment and self-doubt. Instead, it is necessary to normalize and humanize failure in our work environments, such as individual research laboratories or even entire departments. From the Stanford Resilience Project to research groups that hold regular “failure talks” about unsuccessful experiments, graduate programs, laboratories and students themselves can take many steps to encourage sharing and learning from experiences of failure. You might work with other grad students to help make this kind of sharing and learning happen in your department.

Capitalizing on failures. Although you won’t be sending out “CVs of Failures” together with your job or grant applications, you should still document rejected manuscripts, grant proposals and applications for your departments and supervisors. Being a productive scientist is a key achievement in itself, even if not every one of your submissions and applications ends in a “success.” Sometimes, failures even lead scientists to publish advice about how to target specific academic difficulties, thus turning an obstacle into a life lesson that can be shared with others.

At other times, what we perceive as failures are not really defeats at all. For instance, “almost-theres” -- such as scoring in the upper percentage of all grant applications or receiving an honorable mention in a competition -- are successes in their own right that you should incorporate, not leave out, of your CV.

Many of us grad students enter graduate programs with a track record of stellar grades, academic awards and at least some research experience. Although most of us will have had prior brushes with failure, a bad grade or rejected scholarship application don’t always prepare us for the frequency with which we will encounter failure in graduate school and beyond. Rather than nursing our wounds alone and in secret, we must learn how to prepare for, and gain from, the lessons of failure.

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Julia Nolte is a developmental psychology Ph.D. student in the department of human development at Cornell University.

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