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Failure Can Be The Seed Of Scientific Career Success


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

Aspiring scientists suffer many setbacks, both in their experiments and in grant applications. However, the latter can actually be a stepping stone to greater success. PhotoByTOR/Shutterstock

For every young scientist struggling to establish themselves, we bring good news. Not only are difficulties at the start of the career no barrier to eventual scientific triumph, they may even help.

Just as film heroes must suffer a crushing defeat to make victory more interesting, it seems scientists who have experienced some bad luck are more likely to scale the peaks of success than those who find it all smooth sailing.


Dr Yang Wang and Dr Dashun Wang (no relation but both at Northwestern University) collected the applications for National Institutes of Health grants between 1990 and 2005. They then tracked the careers of those who were still establishing themselves, and had either narrowly succeeded, or just missed out.

Much as we might like to imagine grant allocations being a pure meritocracy, few in the process believe much more than sheer luck separates those who just make it over the bar from those who are narrowly rejected. By excluding applications judged to be easy winners or clear losers the Wangs had a sample of 1,184 attempts whose merits were effectively indistinguishable.

Nevertheless, they expected those in this category whose grants won funding would go on to brighter careers, not because they were more talented, but because success breeds success. It's a lot easier to get subsequent grants once you have demonstrated capacity.

Instead the Wangs report in Nature Communications that those who were knocked back, but chose to stay in science, have done better since. Scientists who were narrowly rejected were 21 percent more likely to publish one of the top 5 percent most cited papers in their field over the next 10 years, despite having less money to pursue their research goals. Several other measures for research quality produced similar results.


"The attrition rate does increase for those who fail early in their careers," Yang Wang said in a statement. "But those who stick it out, on average, perform much better in the long term, suggesting that if it doesn't kill you, it really does make you stronger."

There is a survivor bias here. With more of those who were rejected dropping out, the pool of unsuccessful applicants is weighted towards those most committed to science, and perhaps those with the greatest resilience. However, the authors found the numbers who quit were not large enough for this to be the whole story.

It may be that having applications rejected early on causes scientists to think more deeply about their field, focusing on what is important rather than the more easily accessible but more minor discoveries on hand.

"It turns out that, historically, while we have been relatively successful in pinpointing the benefits of success, we have failed to understand the impact of failure," Dashun Wang said.


Yang and Dashun Wang previously combined to show people across many fields do their best work in streaks that can occur at any point in their career.


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