-by Louise Schoneveld

Being an experimentalist, coping with failure is something I have to do on almost a daily basis. When I started my PhD, coping with failure was not one of my strengths, but practice makes perfect I guess.

There are a few different types of failure:

(1) the unavoidable catastrophic failure. 

This is usually not your fault and involves a lot of swearing, panic and broken things.  Some example are the piston cyclinders not doing what they are told, power outages, and unexpected shutdowns of equipment.


The best way to approach these failures is to calm down, if its not dangerous; leave it and go talk to an expert so you can both stare at it together and scratch your heads trying to work out why it failed. Usually, this results in “that shouldn’t have happened, you should try it again”.

(2) Yep, that was definitely my fault.

These failures usually involve something small that slipped your mind or half a second of bad decision making that leads you to wish the world had a rewind button. There are many examples of this type of failure including not labeling something correctly, mixing up samples, adding the the wrong amount of something to something else, mixing up dates and fiddling with something and breaking it.


Whoops. These happen frequently, you will be mad at yourself, but this is the best type of failure in my opinion. You should think about what happened and why it happened. Make a mental note of how to fix it, it was your fault so you can make the decision not to make the same mistake again.

(3) common failures with unknown cause

The two that come to mind with experiments are the water tripping or getting no contact. There are a number of reasons these can happen. Go get an expert to check, you’ll probably have to start again and you’re going to feel frustrated and tired but hey, these things happen. Don’t put it off, just do it again. Now.


You just have to do it.


I can tell you now, it was not. You could have been instructed incorrectly but that’s okay too, people make mistakes. You should take responsibility for your own research, including data collection/ process/ experimental procedure. If something is just not working for you STOP and try and work out why.


(5) That didn’t turn out how I had hoped

If the machine works, and you get back the results and it hasn’t grown crystal when it was meant to or your results are not as expected, that’s okay. It is interesting! Go ask someone for their opinion, don’t throw the sample away or pretend you never obtained that result, this is bad science.


You will probably have to repeat the experiment/process to make sure it is correct and if it is great! You have discovered something. If it gives a different result the second time it was probably a failure #3.

There are a hundred other students around, if you’re doing something and it is consistently failing, ask others, don’t continue to flog the dead horse. You’re not alone.

(6) Feeling like a failure

We have all felt like a failure at some point in our study or lives. I can tell you now that you are not. With the exception of your supervisor (who has been studying this topic for longer than you have been alive) you are the expert in your topic. You are brilliant. Maybe you’re feeling a bit sick of your topic, that’s fine. You’re strong enough to stick with it until its finished.

You’ve got this.


If you’re feeling a bit down also talk to someone about it. There are many of us going through the same thoughts and feelings. There is always someone around for a coffee and a chat.


If you feel like things are getting a bit too much for you to handle, there is always the ANU counselling centre who can offer short same day appointments if you need them or longer sessions booked in advance if you need to work through something.