Going the Distance: Setbacks and a Meaningful Career in Science

On July 4th, me and 60,000 of my closest friends ran in the 50th Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, Georgia. This was my first 10K run and as a relatively new runner, my inclination for training for this race was to go hard and go fast – a manta not just for running but possibly for my entire generation. But as I would eventually learn, distance running is not about just getting it done. It is about being patient, listening to (and adjusting) my body, and having a long-term mindset focused on the process as much as the goal.

nih rejectionsThroughout my training, I was struck by how similar distance running is to a career in science and to grant writing in particular. When I finished my PhD 10 years ago, I was confident in my ability to write manuscripts and proposals, secure funding, and ultimately do and disseminate the science that would leave a lasting impact on the health of vulnerable populations. This confidence continued even when, during the last few years of my K award, I submitted grant after grant to the NIH only to have them be not discussed repeatedly.  I understood that NIH success rates were low, with institutes reporting a range of success rates from ~10% to 35% in 2018. Mentors reminded me that failure was part of the process and that everyone has a string of not discussed grants in the early phase of their career. I just needed to keep listening to the reviewers, getting more preliminary data, refining my ideas, developing great teams, and above all writing, and eventually my ideas would hit. However, when my string of not discussed/not funded grants grew to 15 (Figure 1), each set of pink sheets more soul crushing than the last, I knew that statistically I was failing more than I should. And I questioned if I should even be in science or if these past few years were just wasted time.

These setbacks can be devastating – causing approximately 10-15% of early career scientists to leave the field. But what about those who stick it out? What happens to them and, more importantly, what is their long-term impact on science? These are the questions explored in a recent article by Yang Wang, Benjamin Joes, and Dashun Wang, “Early-Career Setbacks and Future Career Impact”. Through a series of pretty cool analyses they examined if early success in obtaining an R01 award from the National Institutes of Health led to more success and a higher impact (measured as highly-cited manuscripts) compared to those who almost, but just missed the funding threshold. Essentially, they wanted to figure out among early career health scientists which perspective is true: Do the “the rich get richer” or will “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”?

Unsurprisingly, the results were somewhat mixed but encouraging for an early career scientist who has had many misses. While those with near misses had approximately a 10% chance of leaving the NIH funding system entirely over the next 10 years; of the scientists remaining, those who had an early career funding failure wrote higher impact manuscripts, compared to those who had early funding success. This is a striking finding which needs to be carefully considered (specifically that junior scientists do not need additional roadblocks in their path in order to become “stronger scientists”). Yet, the authors do suggest that for those scientists who persevere, “early failure should not be taken as a negative signal” rather viewed as a chance for refining and improving their program of research.

Wang and colleagues start their manuscript with a quote by Robert Lefkowitz, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, “Science is 99 percent failure, and that’s an optimist view.”  While he many have been referring to failed experiments, what Wang’s  new analysis reveals is that even the process of obtaining the funding to support research is likely to be fraught with heartbreaking setbacks. But if you’re in science because you believe in its power to answer important questions which will help us to better understand and improve the human condition, perseverance is necessary.

I finished my first 10K in under 60 minutes. Not a medal-winning time but I preserved through the heat, sun, fatigue, and even a bit of pain to cross the finish line. Similarly, late last year I received the Notice of Award for my first R01 from the NIH- leading a research study that I believe in with a team that inspires me every day.  So whether you are submitting your first or 15th research grant, know that setbacks are common and despite the outcome on any one application, with a long-term mindset you can have a lasting impact on science.