Scientific success is often defined by how well your experiments progress and the results you produce. However, scientific research is driven by a curiosity about the unknown, and you cannot always be prepared for the unknown.
Inevitably there will come a time when your experiments fail. In this article I give you some of the best ways to deal with failed experiments and a reminder that “failures” may actually have some value hidden within.
Pause and rewind
When dealing with a failed experiment, one of the best things you can do is take a break. You might be tempted to continue repeating the experiment, but there is no point jumping back into an experiment when you have not given yourself time to assess the situation; doing so will only waste time and precious samples.
You are going to need time to resolve the issues with your experiment. This can be taxing on both the body and mind. So before you attempt to understand where things went wrong, consider recharging your body, and clearing your mind. Grab a cup of coffee or a sandwich, relax, and let your prefrontal cortex work away quietly on sorting out the next move.
Assessing the fundamentals
Once body and mind are recharged, it is time to focus on finding where the experiment went wrong. Was it due to poor technique, faulty equipment, or perhaps an expired reagent? The only way to know for sure is to repeat the experiment while taking note of each component.
At this point, it may not hurt to have a second pair of eyes looking over your shoulder as well. Asking for assistance from a colleague is a nice way of gaining a fresh perspective from an un-biased resource.
Is it the technique or the question?
If the experiment is proving to be tricky, and continues to fail despite your greatest efforts, then perhaps it is time for a new approach. You may find yourself very stressed, and doubting your skills. However, you should find solace in knowing that you are actually progressing; the problem is likely not technical.
Logic dictates that if you are not finding the correct answer, then perhaps you are asking the wrong question. It is quite rare for only one hypothesis to exist for any given problem. This is, yet again, an opportunity for you to pick the brains of your colleagues. Even within the same lab, the wealth of knowledge and experience can vary greatly allowing you to save hours of subsequent research time with only a few minutes of questions.
Leave the failures in the lab
When all is said and done, there are still times when the problems just cannot be solved despite the time, effort, and resources. This is when a scientist needs to focus less on recovering the experiment, and more on recovering themself. The physical days will come to an end, but there is always that mental side which has a nasty habit of following you home. Ideally, the best escape is whatever method allows you to forget the problem by the time you reach the welcome mat at home. This is easier said than done, but you must always remember that your experiment is neither you, nor a representation of you.
We are only human after all
The goal of science is to illuminate the dark corners of the world, and though scientists are at the forefront of this journey, we are still humans in awe of the unknown. Hence, failed experiments will always arise at the worst of times, and no one is immune. So, we must take our failures collectively with our successes. Like two sides of the same coin, their combined value only adds to our knowledge of the unknown, and should not be thought of as negative. After all, we would not know which paths are best for advancement if all paths were not ventured.