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  • Writer's pictureHelaina Stergas

Struggle and Failure: The ugly truth about science and how to find your inspiration again

A forested wood with a forked path.

No one wants to talk about failure. It is the aspect of life, and careers, that make you question everything. However it is a completely normal part of any career path - especially in the world of science. 

Experiments fail, sometimes over and over and over again. Tensions run high when on the brink of experimental breakthroughs. Interpersonal struggles with mentors, colleagues, and labmates are unfortunately common. There will always be less than positive reviews on your first pass at publishing (I’m looking at you, reviewer #2…). On top of these challenges, imposter syndrome plagues countless budding scientists with the idea that you aren’t cut out for this life or you made the wrong career choice because of those failures. If I could tell you the amount of times during my graduate career I would longingly daydream about quitting science all together to instead focus on my “back up career” of opening a bakery, we would be here all day.

I am here to tell you that these feelings are completely normal, and actually expected, at some point along your science journey. Science is just as hard as it is rewarding. It’s okay to question your path when you come against barriers. What is not okay is to feel as if you are alone in your feelings of being stuck. To combat this, here are my tried and true strategies for overcoming scientific (and life) obstacles to expedite getting back to the bench, and your unique career path, again:

  1. Talk to colleagues (aka friends). On my toughest days in science, I always had some amazing labmates to commensurate with. Science is not done in a vacuum, and I took full advantage of leaning on the other brilliant minds I shared the lab bench with to both vent about my struggles and also to help me come up with new ideas for the trickiest of protocols. I can honestly say that I would not be half the scientist I am today if I didn’t fail and then learn from those incredible people.

  2. Find your mentors. Mentors come from all walks of life. Your best mentors may be your research advisor(s), but they can also be other scientists at your institution, scientists in your field at other institutions, scientists who study the furthest topic from your own, or your next door neighbors. Seriously, cast your net wide and find those who best support the type of scientist, and person, you want to become. 

  3. Do an experiment that makes you feel good! Do you have an experiment that you’ve done 100 times that can give you data to put you back on track? Some administrative tasks that you’ve been putting off? Organize your data, clean your lab bench, teach another student how to do that easy experiment that always works for you. Work on something that is easy to accomplish to make you feel productive again. 

  4. Read some exciting scientific papers. Go ahead, get inspired! Do something fun in the name of science and see what others out there are accomplishing. Studying developmental biology but always wanted to read about what astrophysicists are up to? Either read papers in your field or find articles with fun titles in other fields - they may not have anything to do with your experiments, but sparking your innate curiosity can motivate you for your own work.

  5. Take a break - From the experiment, from the lab, or from science for a day or a week. Mental health breaks are a critical need when stress runs high. When things aren’t going your way, it is okay to leave it for a little while and come back to the challenge when you are clear and ready to approach the task with new eyes. Some of my best ideas were sparked AFTER I took a breather out of the lab to clear my head.

  6. Speaking of mental health… Utilize any and all mental health resources available to you. This is extremely important in any profession, but especially when there is so much pressure to constantly perform like there is in science. It is critical to ask for and get help when you need it the most - you are so much stronger for it!

  7. Remember why you love science. Take some time to reflect on what inspires you to do what you do. What are your core values? What excites you about your field or your research? Although this will not make the challenges go away, re-familiarizing yourself with your passion in the tough moments can give you an anchor to lean on. 

  8. Re-evaluate. This isn’t always easy but know that it is okay. Constant struggles can make you feel battered and raw. If it is hard for you to recognize your motivations, it is time to pause, reflect, and re-evaluate what you can do to get yourself back on a path that is right for you.. This may mean changing course - your field, your career, or your trajectory - which can be really scary! I promise you, you will be grateful that you stopped to make these crucial changes before you fall out of love with science all together.

Failures and struggles are truly gifts in disguise, even though they don’t feel good in the moment. When you listen to them, challenges can be the necessary beacon for navigating onto the path right for you - whether that requires forging ahead after a pause, an experimental shift, a career re-evaluation, or a scientific field redirection. Challenges in my own graduate work helped me discover my true career path, which was a big shift from the traditional academic position I had envisioned when I set out to complete my PhD. I leaned on my science friends, found my mentors, took those oh-so-important pauses, and found my way again.

I believe struggles are wholly necessary to find your way in science. From one questioning and forever curious scientist to another, I wish you nothing but the best, necessary challenges along your own unique science journey.


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