In contemporary society, outcomes often take precedence in determining one’s identity. During job interviews, a few lines on a CV become the barometer of one’s professional experience. Academic prospects hinge on the numerical value of a GPA. All too frequently, self-worth becomes intertwined with measurable achievements, serving as benchmarks of personal validation within societal constructs. Amidst this atmosphere of quantifiable metrics, the researcher’s life struggles in a relentless chase for more publications and the significance of the research is weighed against the prestige of its publication or the magnitude of its funding.
An experiment needs many optimizations and the struggle one faces in that period is rarely considered. A good change in the last few years has been the rise of open-access pre-prints, journals, and blog platforms where you can submit methodology that you optimize and even get citations for. Along with it, a bias toward a positive result is still a norm in academia. A norm that sometimes funds projects that are overhyped. A norm that publishes positive results over an experiment that did not yield the expected outcome. A norm that researchers are supposed to work day and night. A norm where some PIs treat their students the same way they were treated by their supervisor, particularly if they were not treated well. A norm where one person’s attitude can make or break a budding scientist. A norm where no matter how many ways one addresses the problem, if the expected results are not achieved, they are not considered as the results. So, why don’t we hug negative results? Why don’t we encourage beautifully crafted experiments even if they lead to negative results? You never know who might find it interesting and discover something unexpected. After all, that is the way to find and explore science.
Transcending those metric judgments and the bias of positive results, as independent scientists, we are intrinsically motivated by an unquenchable thirst to explore lab life and unravel the verities of science. Here we are sharing some stories from researchers about their journey in science and various factors that determined or contributed to their careers in science.
Not appreciating efforts demotivated me
“My story has to do with conducting research for one objective of my project. I’m working to identify metabolites that predict flavor and map the genes controlling them. To be able to identify these metabolites required an in-depth knowledge of analytical chemistry. For a whole year, I struggled with optimizing methods and developing techniques for this characterization, as well as communicating my output to my advisor who doesn’t have good knowledge of the techniques as well. Due to these struggles, I didn’t have results to show and was considered unproductive in the lab. I was also denied opportunities to pursue my other passions since I had no results to show for my work. The only evidence I had was the long hours I put into optimizing my methods. This struggle has particularly sharpened my desire to leave the sciences after my PhD. I believe that academia needs to do more to acknowledge efforts and failed results, as that could shape new breakthroughs and inspire better science.” – Anonymous
Positive result bias killed my interest in science.
“In the middle of the second wave of COVID, I lost my fellowship. I was in a foreign land with a family of three, surviving on the manageable fellowship that postdocs get. And the reason was a lack of positive results as expected by the supervisor. I did many experiments to prove the hypothesis, but biology does not always follow the hypothesis. I even used positive controls that should perform well according to a reputed publication but did not perform as expected. My supervisor (now ex-supervisor) was not ready to agree that his expectations from the experiment were not right. He always claimed that I am not performing the experiments well. Additionally, my supervisor acquired the grant with over-promising expected outcomes, and he was taking a lack of positive results on his own capabilities. On top of that, most of the reputed publishing journals, where my PI wanted to send the manuscript also favor positive results over negative outcomes. All of this was adding a severe burden on me. I started spending more time in the lab trying different experiments, sometimes even 80 hours a week, and these long working hours were one of the only things that my PI appreciated. Sometimes, I even considered manipulating the results just to satisfy the PI, but my morality did not allow me. I even considered switching labs and convincing a new PI, but the second PI was indirectly threatened by the previous senior PI. Additionally, content work pressure without proper guidance and job security added to the depression. And when I was asked to leave on short notice, I completely broke down. This negative impression from the lab also killed my interest in science. With no publication in about 2 years of postdoc, I stood no chance of getting another good postdoc. I did try for some more vacancies, but everyone rejected me mainly citing a lack of publications from postdoc tenure.
Ultimately, I returned home after 2 months. A highly qualified, in my mid-thirties, but with no job to properly feed a small family. Since I was returning from a relatively reputed foreign university, everyone considered it my failure to deliver. After a few months of job search and parallelly counseling, I joined a firm where I am doing no sort of science.
Do I love science?
Yes, I do.
Do I want to go back to academia?
Recently I got a postdoc offer from one of the old applications. But we (my family) cannot even imagine returning to that toxic life cycle. I know my case might be exceptional, I saw many of my peers in other labs with better work-life balance. But the same I heard about my ex-lab from one of the lab mates before joining the lab. So, I think it is very unpredictable. And I really don’t have any courage left to go back. Now if I think back, what went wrong? Maybe if my PI was better trained as a researcher than a publication/grant delivery machine, I might have a better experience. If the journals/funding agencies also respect negative results, I might have a publication/extension. And since the publication from which I used positive control, which my PI was so obsessed with, got retracted recently, I can say maybe if researchers were more loyal in publishing science, I might have stayed. But not anymore.” – An ex-postdoc
Stumbling block becomes steppingstones to new insights
“While working on a project in a busy research lab, I was faced with a discouraging outcome that was completely opposite to what I had hoped for. The data I eagerly anticipated turned out to be a jumble of inconclusive numbers, a stark contrast to the groundbreaking discovery I had envisioned. As the PI of the project, my heart sank. I had worked with a dedicated team all of whom had invested their time and energy into the research. I had always prided myself on being a competent scientist, but this experience made me question my abilities and chosen path. Due to the unexpected results, I began to have doubts, and thought that perhaps I was pursuing the wrong career. The expectation and the project’s perceived failure weighed heavily on me. I was demoralized, and doubted myself, questioning whether the scientific journey was worth the constant struggle. My demoralization greatly affected my team too. Amidst my internal turmoil, I decided to do something that required immense courage: I reached out to my friendly fellow scientists to share my results and braced myself for the inevitable judgment and critique, dreading the moment I would have to lay bare my failure. But I knew that it was a necessary step to uncover the truth behind my disappointing findings. As I presented my work to my colleagues, instead of disdain or ridicule, I encountered understanding and empathy. Many of them had been in my shoes before, experiencing their own setbacks and failures. Their collective wisdom offered a different perspective on my results – perhaps there was something valuable hidden within the failures. With newfound determination, I and my team thoroughly reviewed our scientific methods, double-checking every variable, process, and equipment. We were determined to understand whether something had gone wrong in our approach. Amidst the rubble of our failed experiment, we found subtle errors that, when corrected, gave hope on an entirely new angle. The failure was not a reflection of incompetence; rather, it was an opportunity to innovate. Many people resort to editing results to fit their hypotheses, but this dishonest practice never appealed to me. If not for a bold step to seek assistance, I would have falsified my results or dropped my career. Reevaluating research methods led to a corrected analysis and illuminated a novel avenue of previously overlooked procedures. Those failures had now become steppingstones to new insights. Failure was not a dead end but a crossroads that demanded introspection, collaboration, and perseverance. I now mentor many and believe in listening and rechecking other than rebuke. No longer seen as personal failures, setbacks are embraced as opportunities for growth and contribution. The project, which had faced failure, now symbolized the tenacity of a team unyielding to setbacks. My story has resonated beyond the lab, inspiring researchers to embrace failure, confront doubts, and foster an environment of transparency and teamwork. I salvaged my career by sharing my flawed findings and reignited my passion for scientific exploration.” – Kenneth Monjero, Research Officer, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization.
Sharpened skills through the failures
“During my MPhil studies, I was to grow plant specimens and later harvest parts for tissue culture. Most of my specimens failed to grow, and those that did and were cultured faced a high level of contamination, rendering my materials useless. I had to repeat the process at least two times. This delayed my work, and I had to request an extension of the research period to have ample time to submit the final outcome. Although this was devastating, after my final submission, I realized I had developed sharp skills in molecular tissue culture and other lab techniques. These skills would not have been acquired or remained with me if I had not faced that challenge. The skills we acquire, the confidence we build, and knowledge we gain are usually overlooked because we only look out for the positive results.” – Dennis Baffour-Awuah, Graduate, School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences, University of Ghana.
Personal growth values more
“I was enrolled into Purdue University in 2018, an eager first-year graduate student stepping into a realm where everything was in English, and the academic bar was set high. The depth of the knowledge gap hit me, but it also ignited a fierce determination within. I dove headfirst into research papers, immersed myself in projects, engaged in seminars, and always stayed present at lab meetings. Each day’s dedication was a step forward, a testament to my growth. My research journey hasn’t been without surprises, but in every challenge, I’ve been bolstered by the image of that tenacious young woman who never backs down, no matter the odds. Every hurdle I’ve overcome has enriched my personal journey, constantly reminding me of the resilient, unstoppable researcher I’ve become.” –Diwen Wang, PhD candidate at the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Purdue University.
Small efforts, big impact!
“While outcomes, such as academic publications, are important, it’s crucial to consider non-direct research-related activities and efforts during the postgraduate study process. These habits and skills, such as project design, time management, problem-solving, and self-improvement, can benefit us in any job, whether in academia, industry, or other fields. For example, for more than 16 years, I was taught by my master supervisor that we should name all the files or folders with year, month, and date. More than 13 years ago, I was guided by my PhD supervisor to write a daily lab book as detailed as possible. I found those habits extremely useful and still use them in my daily work. Although I now have a tenure-track faculty job in academia, I am confident that the skills I mastered during this period are still useful for other kinds of jobs, not limited to industry, government, or other organizations. I still benefit from these skills to teach and mentor undergraduate and postgraduate students, design projects, communicate with companies, manage the laboratory, as well as hire postdocs, research assistants, and recruit undergraduate and postgraduate students.” – Dr. Pan Liao, Assistant Professor in Department of Biology, Faculty of Science at Hong Kong Baptist University
Good work ethics breeds success and satisfaction
“One of the quotes I like is, “Being organized and responsible in the way you make use of shared environments is the key to your success and everyone else’s.” Making small efforts to keep organized is one of the keys to success in a populated lab environment.
Lab environments are shared by more than one person, and there are some actions that helped my lab mates and me to navigate successfully through grad school. At the time I became part of the Aime Lab at Purdue University, there were over 20 people sharing the lab space that would normally accommodate 5-10 students conveniently. For the most part, the lab was generally well organized, and things were kept in the allocated positions, which made it easy to find them when needed. We bring issues like this during lab meetings to keep everyone in check, which enormously help us to keep things organized. A sticker with notes on an experimental bench instructing people what not to do helped a lot in avoiding situations of experiments being messed up. A sign-up sheet was introduced to help people indicate what days and times they intended to use certain lab spaces and equipment, which contributed to eliminating conflicts within the lab environment and increased productivity. To foster communication, we created a group on WhatsApp. This helped us to share our worries and plans regarding lab usage. Others also used it to indicate to the rest of the group when they were willing to give up on their signed-up time for any space(s) or equipment. I could recount the many ways we managed our lab space to guarantee success and minimize internal conflicts.” -Dr. Blaise Jumbam, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Maryland.
While publications, degrees, and positive results hold significance, unwavering inquiry, perseverance, and resilience truly anchor our research life. The numerous hours dedicated to labs, libraries, and fieldwork for researchers at all levels might not always yield immediate academic outcomes. Yet, this sustained commitment and passion for research refines our expertise, deepens our knowledge, and heightens our professionalism. The true essence of science is captured in the continuous journey of discovery, daily learnings, meticulous lab meetings, and comprehensive annual reports. This transformative journey from novice researchers to independent scientists can’t be merely quantified by the tally of publications, or projects delivered successfully, particularly with expected results. The countless hours of hard work behind every positive result truly represent every researcher’s life and deserve the utmost respect and admiration.
About the Authors
Dennis Baffour-Awuah is a science communication enthusiast who has many years of experience practicing broadcast journalism in Ghana, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He loves to be referred to as the pop scientist because he loves to blend pop culture and science as a lifestyle. You can find him on Twitter at @dennisgameplay.
Kamal Kumar Malukani is currently a scientist at TIGS, Bengaluru, and a 2022 Plantae Fellow. His research is in plant biofortification with a focus on generating rice mutant lines that exhibit higher nutrition values in the grains. You can find him on Twitter at @KamalMalukani.
Diwen Wang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Purdue University, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She is now focusing on the interaction between plant and plant pathogen. You can find her on Twitter at @Diwen_w.