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To Succeed In STEM, Learn To Fail

Topics: Career Advice
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It’s wise to consider a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Opportunities for professionals in these fields should continue to expand in the years ahead. But, there’s one major hurdle a lot of young people seem to be struggling to clear. These days, many students aren’t so great at failing. But, trial and error, struggle and perseverance, are innate and invaluable parts of the process of working in STEM. In order to succeed in STEM, first we need to learn how to fail.

“By normalizing the experience of failure in the pursuit of science, my hope is that we can keep American students in the field, so that we can remain competitive with other countries in uncertain times and in uncertain budgets,” wrote Sara Whitlock in Scientific American. “Resiliency in science and innovation is how we got to the top, and I believe that our ability to bounce back is key to staying there.”

Why We Have To “Fail” In STEM

It’s essential to embrace the experience of failure in order to work in STEM. Forming a hypothesis, testing it, and adjusting as needed are the foundation of the scientific method.

Being able to wade through this work is important for students as well as STEM professionals. Whitlock says that this fear of failure could even be the reason some scientists shy away from research. It’s essential every step of the way.

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“Learning resilience is fundamental to a successful career as a scientist,” she wrote. “The experiments we try will fail many times before they work, whether as an undergraduate, a PhD student, or a postdoc gunning for a faculty position.”

American Students and Resilience

American students might not be as resilient as they used to be. Have we forgotten how to fail? Maybe. But, more importantly, it seems we’ve forgotten why we do it. Being resilient allows us to persevere through new challenges and overcome difficult obstacles. Failure is an innate and essential part of the learning process. This is especially true when it comes to STEM, but it applies to every industry.

These days, colleges and universities are struggling to meet the needs of students who are increasingly needy in a psychological sense. Young people have come to fear low grades and poor performance, as well as admonishment and critique. And, it’s holding them back.

“[Students] haven’t developed skills in how to soothe themselves, because their parents have solved all their problems and removed the obstacles,” Dan Jones, former president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors told the Chronicle of Higher Education (h/t: Psychology Today). “They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations.”

This lack of grit impacts their skill development, yes. But, it also impacts students’ emotional growth. In order for young people to be (and feel) successful in their chosen field, particularly when it’s STEM, they need to become more resilient.

Here’s what we can do:

There are many things that students, teachers, parents, and STEM employees and employers can do to reverse the trend:

  • Learn to value resilience again. It should be emphasized and taught in schools and at home. Focusing on process over product is a good place to start.
  • Talk about failure, recovery, and eventual success, which could help others embrace their own learning process. Those of us who understand the importance of resiliency and grit should share our personal experiences with young people (especially science students if that’s an appropriate fit) when we see the opportunity to do so.
  • Experience failure for ourselves. We must personally experience falling down, getting back up, trying again, and eventually succeeding. It helps us to understand the importance of perseverance, but it also raises confidence, pride, and independence. Students, teachers, and parents ought to encourage, even manufacture, these experiences for young people rather than seeking to avoid them.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you think failure is an important part of the learning process in your industry? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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