This past month, I submitted an abstract to present my research at my first international conference. After three years of pursuing independent research endeavors and developing transferable skills, I anticipated few obstacles to my pursuit of submitting a successful abstract. I could not have been more wrong.
After spending an exorbitant amount of time tweaking seemingly unimportant words, I sent my abstract over to my research advisor for some peer-editing. Despite only being seven sentences long, the paragraph had nearly 50 suggestions of things to change. I was shocked, and extremely upset with myself. How could I have received this criticism? Did I do a bad job? How could I spend so much time writing a piece that I thought was high-quality work, but receive such a large amount of feedback?
Throughout my research career, I have faced several situations like this one. As an undergraduate researcher, it’s vital to be able to use your shortcomings to further your pursuit of success. An effective researcher must not just be curious, but motivated and resilient. To all, I hope you are able to find ways to cope with failure and motivate yourself to use it for your own self-benefit. Personally, each time I face humbling experiences such as this one, I develop this same plan of action:
My first step: self-care. Research can be an incredibly difficult process and facing failure is always a mental strain on the individual. After receiving dozens of edits on my abstract, I immediately decided to close my laptop, made myself a nice cup of hot chocolate (with extra marshmallows), snuggled under a warm blanket, and read a nice book. Only when I was mentally ready did I decide to re-engage with my abstract.
My second step: re-frame how you think of failure. Scientific writing is a process. Although it’s hard to realize this in the moment, you are not expected to produce landmark research products on your first try. Perhaps not even on your second try, or third try! Not every seminal paper in the scientific community starts out perfect. Writing is a dynamic process that requires failures to ever produce greatness. It involves engaging with academic peers who may think differently than you, and provide perspectives that you never originally considered. In order to accept the many, many suggestions on my abstract, it was important for me to realize that those suggestions were there to help me. The edits I received were a means to an end, just as my writing “failure” was a prerequisite for my success.
My third step: improve! Failure is useless if you don’t use it to improve. Once I was in the proper mindset, I sat down in a quiet place with my laptop and reviewed each suggestion one by one. I thought critically about how to best use the advice my research advisor gave me, then implemented it. After a few hours of editing, I submitted my abstract to the conference and it was ultimately accepted!
This example is but one of numerous failures I’ve had to overcome throughout my undergraduate research career. In fact, I’d argue that these failures are almost inevitable! What matters most is being able to hold your head high and use your failures to learn and produce better work in the future. No one’s research experience is perfectly linear, and failure should be celebrated and used as a means to success. Perhaps many of you are currently writing proposals to apply for summer research opportunities, or are in the midst of preparing an undergraduate thesis. While you work on these projects, remind yourself: failure is expected, necessary, and a prerequisite for your future success! You’ve got this!
Drew is a senior double majoring in Environmental Science and Political Science. Click here to learn more about Drew.