Failure, Resiliency and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
When I was asked by Hello Bio to share my thoughts on failure, resiliency and imposter syndrome, I suppose it was quite appropriate that I initially felt completely inadequately skilled to do this. Despite being a lecturer in Cell Biology, running my own research group, being a module lead for an MSc in Regenerative Medicine and a founder member of Skin Microbiome in Healthy Ageing (SMiHA) research network, like most academics I still encounter feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome from time to time.
In most scientific career journeys, the path is littered with instances of failure and rejection which must be overcome in order to reach our goals. In this article I hope to inspire others by sharing my varied career path, describing some of the setbacks I’ve faced along the way, and looking closely at the importance of resilience in academia.
Failure is part of science
In science research, most people don’t talk about the number of rejections they’ve faced or the amount of experiments that have failed. The majority of papers submitted to journals are rejected but we don’t discuss this. We talk on our Twitter accounts (and I'm guilty of this too) about our latest, greatest paper, or the exciting new grant we’ve been awarded, but we don't talk about the many, many papers that were rejected along the way, or the number of grants applied for that didn't get funded. This gives an artificial image of success to people who are coming into the field, especially junior colleagues, and the reality is that in science research, failure is almost built in.
An interesting (and slightly depressing) exercise is to look at the published success rates for grants. Below are rates from UK funders for grants that have got through the triage phases and have reached the final phase:
- Wellcome Trust: 11% success rate on grants 2019-2020
- UKRI: 21% success rate on all grants 2020-2021
- BBSRC: 28% success rate on all grants 2020-2021
- MRC: 17% success rate on all grants 2020-2021
We can see that at the Wellcome Trust nearly 90% of grants that get through to this phase will get rejected. Across all of the government-funded research organisations in the UK, 80% of applications will be rejected. In biological and medical research, it’s between 70% and 80% of all grants that are rejected. And it's the same when it comes to publishing:
Publishing Your Work
- Nature published 7.6% of papers submitted in 2017
- Science published 6.4% of papers submitted in 2021
- PLOS ONE published 48% of papers submitted in 2020
Looking at two of the top journals, Nature and Science, they are rejecting at least 92% of papers submitted to them. Even wonderful open access journals like PLOS ONE who have a much more open approach to publishing still reject more than half the papers that get submitted to them.
So if failure is built in to research, should we really be talking about it as failure? I like the idea that it's not really failure, it's feedback from which we can only learn. I have a favourite quote from Dr Abdul Kalam, the 11th president of India who knew a fair bit about success and failure, and he suggests that you shouldn't read success stories, because you’ll only get one message:
“Don’t read success stories,
You will only get a message.
Read failure stories,
You will get some ideas to get success.”
Dr Abdul Kalam
My personal failures on the path to success
Resiliency is an interesting idea. It means the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It's synonymous with toughness, but if you consider it in the context of material sciences it's also synonymous with elasticity. So resilience is also the ability to be able to bounce back from failure or from setbacks, and definitely throughout my career, being resilient has been incredibly important in terms of being able to continue doing what I love.
I didn't always want to be a skin researcher, in fact as a 6-year-old I wanted nothing more than to be a pirate. It was at this early stage in life that I suffered my first failure - I couldn't grow a beard - and everyone knows you can't be a pirate without a beard. So as I progressed through school and college I turned my attention away from the high seas to science research, and took my first steps into lab work at the Hofmann Lab in Edinburgh, looking at crystal structures of proteins. Later I moved to York to look at developmental biology, and then to Astra Zeneca as a masters student to study NMR structures of proteins. These were exciting opportunities, yet in all three of these roles I failed to secure funding for a PhD position. We were interviewed, we got quite far but they weren't able to get funding for me, so I was left looking for something else to do after these initial career setbacks.
I looked at different fields, particularly at skin and I finally found a PhD that was really interesting, looking at chronic wounding. This took me to Cardiff where I was introduced to Professor Phil Stevens who has been a great mentor and support through my continuing career. Here I learned about cell biology and extracellular matrix, things I still work on today. I presented posters - still couldn't grow a beard - but had some amazing experiences. A taste of success came in the form of my first independent grant, a few thousand pounds to go and visit the Babraham Institute in Cambridge. We put in for more grants in the hope that I could continue working in Cardiff as a postdoc. More success followed when I finally managed to grow a beard and was looking decidedly more piratey, yet my application for a postdoc fund looking at how skin recruits cells was unsuccessful, so I started looking around again for another position.
It seemed to me that getting funding in wound healing was rare, and all the funding seemed to be going towards cancer research, so I switched my focus and found a wonderful position at Imperial College working with Dr Justin Sturge and Professor Jonathan Waxman looking at prostate cancer metastasis (how prostate cancer spreads through the body). I started doing work on 3D models, and I presented my work all over the world. I applied for over half a million pounds worth of grant funding and fellowships in direct grants to me, some of which almost got funded. We came so close when we were ranked 10th out of 100 grants, with the top nine being funded. This was incredibly disappointing and it left me looking for a new job once more. But things weren’t all bad. During this period I got married! It’s always important to remember that your personal life goes on even though you might not be exactly where you want to be professionally.
One of the major problems I was facing with my research at Imperial was trying to get prostate cancer samples. It seems it’s really hard to get men to give you samples of their healthy prostate - I can't imagine why! So I switched focus again and turned my attention back to skin research, where it was much easier to get samples. I found an exciting project looking at the skin basement membrane with Professor Edel O'Toole at Queen Mary University. She took me on as a postdoc and supported me in applying for my own funding for research grants and for lectureships, all of which were unsuccessful. But my perseverance paid off and eventually the British Skin Foundation gave me almost £90,000 which I used to hire my first postdoc, Dr Eleri Jones. Eleri is still with me in my lab today and she's just been awarded her own first independent grant, also from the British Skin Foundation, which I’m incredibly proud of.
Things were looking up, yet I still wasn't doing what I wanted to be doing which was running my own research group. In my head, this was the dream job, the ‘perfect’ job. But sometimes it’s useful to remind yourself that the perfect job doesn't always exist and you might miss out on some great opportunities if you’re too focussed on something very specific. A good opportunity soon arose for me to become a teaching lecturer at Queen Mary. It was a teaching role that was not research active, but they agreed that I could spend half my time teaching and half my time still classed as a postdoc doing research. It wasn't ideal, it certainly wasn't ‘perfect’, but it did allow me to start calling myself a lecturer which definitely helped with future grant applications and gave me some level of stability. I continued to apply for grants to various funding bodies all of which were unsuccessful. However, my perseverance again paid off and I was awarded almost half a million pounds worth of funding which allowed me to start growing my research group. I now have a full time research focused lectureship.
Bouncing back & having a back-up plan
I hope that my story is an example of the importance of resilience in academia and how you should never give up, even if it seems like all is lost. I got the contract for my current position 45 minutes before I would have been made redundant. It was tight but I never gave up hope.
My mentors have been key to my resilience and have kept me going when I’ve felt like throwing in the towel. I have a number of different mentors who each share different parts of their expertise with me, be it in teaching, research or management. I cherish my mentors because they're the reason I'm here. One particular mentor, Vera, was a staff member during my time as a PhD student, and I would often approach her for general career advice. I’ll never forget the time she looked at my CV, shouted at me, and told me to stop being so English (she was German) and putting myself down so much! I’m certain that she was solely responsible for me getting my first job. The best mentoring relationships I've had have happened naturally and I’ve always preferred more informal mentor-mentee discussions over a coffee (or occasionally a wine or beer).
Networking has also been a hugely important factor in my career success, in fact I’ve picked up grants and got onto boards because of networking. It can open up so many doors, and I like talking to people about my research. Peer support is also valuable, and supporting your peers in return can lead to great things. I try to help my junior colleagues as much as I can, as well as the staff who are working for me, in fact anyone who needs help! I spend a lot of my time helping other people and I usually get that help back.
I've certainly meandered along my career path, and working on skin wasn't necessarily my Plan A, so it’s important to always have a Plan B, a Plan C and even a Plan D in mind. If science is what you want to do, pick yourself up after each setback and don't be afraid to ask for help.
You deserve to be here
Imposter syndrome is incredibly common within academia, and it’s the feeling that despite objective success, there is a persistent self-doubt, a fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter. Recent studies suggest that, depending on how you interpret imposter syndrome, up to 82% of academics may suffer with self-doubt and feel that they are a fraud in their positions. This is even higher amongst minority groups, whether those be ethnic minorities or LGBTQ+ groups. It can also be clinically associated with depression and anxiety, and ironically, with impaired job performance.
So how can we manage and overcome imposter syndrome? It’s important to remember that if the stats are right, most of the people working around you will also feel the same way, so talk with others, ask how they're doing and listen to their feedback. I presented a talk at a conference recently, and an amazingly successful professor came up to me and said that she had horrendous imposter syndrome and always feels like she's a fraud. She runs a large research institute and is a very successful person, yet still feels that she's not adequate. So you're never alone. Look at yourself objectively. If you're in a job, you were likely hired based on your abilities, and if you haven't been fired yet that's probably because you're good at what you do. Resist the urge to compare yourself to others. Other people are always going to be doing better or more exciting things than you, and that doesn't matter. What are you doing, and what are you doing well? This is a conversation I have with my students quite often... focus on how your task is progressing, not on how perfect it is, because as we mentioned earlier, ‘perfection’ rarely exists.
Celebrate the good times
Remember to celebrate your successes, and where possible, celebrate with your colleagues away from the lab environment. Social time strengthens teamwork and a sense of community amongst colleagues. Go out, talk to people, chat about your successes and share the love by thanking the people who've helped you. It's very rare that you'll have achieved something alone without support from your imaging facility managers, your administrators, or your lab colleagues who've helped you put the data together.
Keep a happy file. If people are giving you nice feedback and have said great things about you, note it down, keep it in a file, and when you're feeling low, look back and use those great comments to look at yourself objectively. If things are especially tough and you’re feeling depressed or anxious, please ask for help. I know my university has anonymous counselling services that are available to students and staff so do take advantage of what's being offered, and definitely don't suffer in silence.
It's often easy to forget the amount of hard work you've put into things that haven't been successful. Keep a record of the highs and the lows because it's nice to be able to appreciate where your time has been spent. Even if the outcome was not what you’d hoped, there are always positives to take from the journey.
More advice on failure, resilience & imposter syndrome from Hello Bio
For more articles on dealing with rejection and failure in academia, check out some of these other great resources on the Hello Bio blog:
- The Life Scientists’ Guide to Coping with Rejection
- Dealing With Feelings Of Inadequacy During Your Research Career - guest blog by Pearl Akazue
- Resilience and Success in Science: A Researcher’s Perspective - guest blog by Abiola Isawumi
- Building Resilience in Scientific Research & Academia - guest blog by Dr Enitome Bafor
- “I can’t believe they’re letting me write this blog”: Imposter Syndrome, Science, and the Rest of the World - guest blog by Brittany Berdy
Watch Matthew's talk at the Hello Bio LabLife Conference
This article is based on Matthew's talk on 'Failure, Resiliency and Overcoming Imposter Syndrome' at the Hello Bio virtual LabLife Conference in June 2022. You can watch the full video on the Hello Bio YouTube channel here:
About the author
Matthew Caley is a skin researcher and lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, UK. He received his PhD in Biological Sciences from Cardiff University in 2008 studying Chronic Wounds under the supervision of Prof. Phil Stephens. He then moved to Imperial College London joining the laboratory of Dr Justin Sturge and Prof. Jonathan Waxman to study prostate cancer metastasis and the role the extracellular matrix plays in controlling cell behaviour. In 2011, he moved to the Blizard Institute, returning to skin research in the laboratory of Prof. Edel O’Toole. In 2019, Matthew was appointed as a Lecturer in Cell Biology. His lab focuses on the skin basement membrane and investigates its role in healthy and damaged skin, in skin ageing and in skin cancer.
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