The F-Word: Your Reaction to Failure in a Lab Matters More Than You Know

Last Updated on June 26, 2022 by Laura Turner

There is only one guarantee in research: sometimes things fail. It doesn’t matter what your major is, how much experience you have, or whether your research is basic, applied, clinical, or translational. A research project will test your reliance, discipline, motivation, and, at times, it might make you feel like giving up. However, when your project hits a wall (and most do at some point), how you handle the disappointment is the key to your future success. Your reaction will also influence your labmates and how much help they will offer to get you back on track.
Unfortunately, some undergrads let their frustration get the better of them when faced with failure in the lab. Not only does this make their experience less rewarding, but it’s unpleasant for the other lab members, and that can lead to unintended consequences for the undergrad.
For example, I once trained a student who didn’t handle failure at the research bench well. On one occasion, his objective was to isolate large plasmid DNA using a standard kit. When his isolation failed on his first attempt, his reaction was to immediately slump down in a chair and loudly declare, “I guess I’m not good at this.” It was uncomfortable and awkward—especially because everyone knew the student at a nearby bench had been quietly suffering though a series of failures with his project for several weeks.
I recall another student who routinely made mistakes while completing a widely-used lab protocol. The student was using standard materials but was unable to get the procedure to work. When it became clear that the mistakes he made while doing the protocol were the reason for his failure, he was uninterested in listening. Instead of understanding what he needed to do to be successful, he became defensive and continually stated why he was correct and the procedure was the problem. Whether it was due to embarrassment, or the belief that he knew more about the protocol than everyone else in the lab who had been successful with it, he sent the message that he was uninterested in investing in his own success.
And finally, a colleague of mine shared an experience about an undergrad who had a hard time moving forward when a procedure failed. Instead of taking a break and coming back to the lab with a fresh perspective and the determination to get a procedure to work, she choose to fall into a negative pattern of complaining about how hard her project was, or how her next experiment probably wouldn’t work so there wasn’t a point in trying. At some point, my colleague moved the student to a project that did not require her to learn new technical skills, but instead work on a project that involved cataloging specimens. Subsequently, her previous project was assigned to the next new undergrad who completed the project with little fanfare.
When an undergrad meets their first failure at the research bench, their reaction tells me, and the rest of the lab, how easy this person will be to work with in the long run. This matters most at the start of a research experience, because once a labmate decides that someone will be difficult to work with, it’s very difficult to change their mind. This doesn’t mean that you need to hide your frustration when an experiment fails—actually it’s a good sign to your mentor when you care enough to be disappointed. What matters is how you initially react, how quickly you regroup, and how much you prioritize making a strategy for troubleshooting and moving forward.
Take for example an undergrad I mentored who had significant difficultly at the research bench during his first semester. His project involved expressing, isolating, and purifying multiple proteins in bacteria. The first two steps went fine, but the purification step led to numerous do-overs as the purification conditions for each protein needed to be individually determined. With each failed purification, he expressed his disappointment appropriately and then mustered the self-discipline to push through, and start again.
He adopted the mantra: “What can I do differently to be successful the next time?” even when his project was a series of trial-and-error experiments, and he never knew how long success would elude him. Nonetheless, he stayed positive after each failure rather than let his disappointment define the remainder of his day, or put a damper on the rest of the lab. When he was finally successful with all the purifications, everyone in the lab was genuinely happy for him.
Nobody wants to work with someone who pouts when something goes wrong, or someone who is defensive instead of open to learning when faced with a failed experiment. Things will fail in research whether it’s due to operator error, Mother Nature, or because the parameters of an experiment haven’t been fully worked out. And it happens to everyone at every scientific level. Even the professor in whose lab you’re working might have a grant proposal denied, a paper rejected, or find that a project they have been working on for two years has been just published by another lab.
In addition to the advantage of being a good labmate, you’ll enjoy your time in the lab a lot more if you roll with the failure, rather than give in to frustration. And everyone around you will enjoy working with you more, which really matters when it’s time for your PI to write your letters of recommendation.