Response by Wang Hongyan, Professor and Deputy Programme Director, Neuroscience & Behavioural Disorders Programme and Principal Investigator, Laboratory of Neural Stem Cells
It is very common for a project or experiment to not yield good results. In almost all our projects, we experience setbacks in one way or another—it can happen as often as every week, if not every day. To work on research projects, researchers must be well-prepared for failure. On the flip side, following up on some of the “bad” results that are unexpected but reproducible can lead to surprisingly exciting discoveries!
For researchers, failure can come in many different forms: a failed experiment or a project, a rejected manuscript or fellowship/grant application.
After an unsuccessful project, I will analyse the reasons behind the failure and discuss the issues with my mentors and experienced senior members in the lab. If the project is workable but the direction or hypothesis of the project is wrong, I will change the direction or modify the hypothesis. If we have technical issues, I will try to solve them. If the project is totally faulty, I will give it up and work on another project.
So, my advice to the young researchers I mentor is to always look on the bright side. Focus on the lesson you have learnt from the failure and the valuable experiences you gained that can help you become better. But avoid making the same mistakes twice. I always view my projects as ways to approach the truth of nature, and sometimes, failure allows us to be closer to finding the truth, which is a form of success in my opinion.
As for grant applications or manuscript submissions, I will simply focus on making them the best I can and not worry about the outcome. If you have a good manuscript or grant proposal, they always end up finding a good home (or sponsor). The most important thing after experiencing failure is to know what to do next. Discussing with your mentors will help you to sort out the next step toward your future success.