Failed Projects

As (social) scientists, sometimes we all experience a project that just never works.  Sometimes I underestimate the initial investment and it never really gets off the ground (e.g., I thought I could get these resources but I can’t).  Sometimes you do the whole thing and it looks great, but when you try to replicate it you can’t.  Sometimes the data just don’t tell a coherent story and you need to go back and think about your methodology, predictions, theory, etc.  I have had each one of these happen to me, some more than once.

How do you recognize when a project is failing, and what do you do with it afterwards?

Possible things to do with it:  set the data aside, maybe they will be useful for something later on.  Revise your procedure and start over.  Let a student have it for a small project that you know won’t get published anyway.  Shrug and chalk it up to a learning experience, taking the long view that my career is decades long and not every study has to pan out.  These are all painful, but necessary in the case where you don’t want to lose more time throwing good effort after bad data.

One more choice:  write an article about the methodology instead of the results, giving advice to other researchers who may want to do something similar.  This approach has worked for me at least once.

Each time something fails after an initial investment of time and energy, it hurts.  It sucks.  I could always just choose to do projects with lower initial startup costs and lower risk of total failure (p.s. design your study so you will still get some usable data even if your main hypothesis is uninterpretable).  However, I don’t want to stick with the safe and easy all the time.  I did a study my first year on the tenure track that was easy, fast, data collection went great, it looked simple — but then the data analysis turned into a bear and we’ve just now gotten the manuscript out.  I want to keep trying new things.

I’m trying to think that if you don’t fail at some projects, you aren’t trying enough things.  If you don’t get rejections on your paper, you aren’t aiming high enough.  (Thanks, CPP, for reinforcing this idea!)

I tell myself, you are allowed to suck.  Indeed, you must suck.  Get all your sucking out of the way so you can move on.  Fail better.

Any advice from the Grumpeteers on when to cut your losses?

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15 Responses to “Failed Projects”

  1. bogart Says:

    Not sure about the “when to cut your losses” part. I mean, I get the concept but lack a good heuristic.

    I have learned that if you are going to prepare a grant proposal for a federal opportunity, you want a project that isn’t so time-sensitive it’s “now or never.” Because you’re (I’m) not going to get funded the first time you (I) submit; you want something revisable and resbmittable.

  2. chacha1 Says:

    I had to abandon my first master’s thesis topic after over six months of work, because the materials I needed just weren’t accessible to me. I would have had to travel to England. My advisor helped me arrive at a different topic that our own school had plenty of resources for. My master’s degree took six years (working full-time and going to school in the evenings) overall so the six months of wasted work, and six+ subsequent months doing nothing in a sulky funk, were significant.

    I have rarely abandoned a project after less than six months of effort or consideration. I guess I mostly feel life is long, and there is time for things to develop on their own schedule – most of the time. There are certain areas, though, where intense effort is required, and if the goal simply isn’t achievable in the time I have allotted to it, I’ll strikethrough without many qualms.

    It helps that my personal life achievement assessment is not particularly project-dependent. There is always another project.

  3. First Gen American Says:

    Dammit..I just wrote a brilliant response and my comment got eaten. So disappointed. Here’s the abridged version:

    As an engineer, failure is an important step that eventually leads to answers. I didn’t like to fail, but it was necessary. As a young engineer, I still hated being wrong and I always felt personally responsible for failure. I also felt inefficient when I went down a path that led to failure. It didn’t feel good to fail, ever..even when I knew it was a necessary step.

    When I went into sales, failure became a sheer numbers game. Probability says you have to fail 7 out of 10 times on new programs, so you have to fail a lot in order to win a lot. This totally changed my perspective and outlook on failure. After 7 years of this, I now embrace failure and know I have to take 10 big risks in order to achieve 3 big gains. Yes, you have to have some basic knowledge of your field to screen out the duds, but innovation does not come from knowing all the answers ahead of time. You have to take a concept that “could work” and then project manage the hell out of it til you know one way or another.

    I grew tremendously as a professional from this experience, so much so that this year I put down a failure (killing a program), as an accomplishment. Guess what, my boss agreed. A program was in limbo for 7 years with multiple project leads. Within 6 months, I found a definitive root cause of why the program will never work as is and killed it. Failure means closure. We can stop wasting time and money on a dud and move on to the next thing. It rocks when done the right way.

    Failure from stupidity or lack of due diligence on the other hand sucks big time. Hopefully you learn from those mistakes and grow as well.

  4. Spanish Prof Says:

    I feel like those of us in literature are the ones who have it easier, since you can device an awesome project that only requires access to good library privileges. The only thing I have to offer, though it doesn’t compare at all, is one example: an article outside of my specific research project agenda that I had been wanting to write since my second year as a grad student, but never had the chance to go beyond final paper for grad seminar stage. Finally, I started two years ago, and realized that so much had been written on the topic since the yearly 2000s that I had nothing new to add to the conversation. I felt my article would be a cut and past of things other people had already said. So I abandoned it.
    On a more general level, I work with very contemporary literature. The cons of that is that there is very little secondary bibliography. The advantages are that you get to be creative, and that a paper I published in grad school has been quoted more times than I can believe by very respected scholars. I know, because of the way my brain works, that I could never be a Cervantes, Shakespeare, Borges, etc… scholar. I would feel I have nothing interesting to add to the conversation.

  5. ARC Says:

    I’m coming at this from more of a life philosophy perspective since it’s been ages since I was in academia. But honestly, I really feel like we learn SO MUCH from our failures if we would just stop and think about it a bit. Yes, it hurts, but I don’t feel like it’s entirely wasted time or effort. You might reuse the data, or maybe you met a contact who can help you out later, or maybe you just proved what approach won’t work or that you hate doing. All valuable stuff.

    I often think about this in the context of relationships. I spent 5 years dating someone in my early 20s and I remember getting so worked up about whether we were going to get married, and what if we didn’t and how that would be a total waste of ALL THOSE YEARS. When, in the end, I broke up with him because he was most certainly NOT right for me, and had we gotten married, it would have been a disaster to get out. My life is so much better now, in ways I never imagined at the end of that relationship when all I could focus on was that “lost time”.

    Same with my progress (or lack thereof) towards my PhD. My entire undergrad education was focused on getting into a good grad school, getting as many research opportunities I could, getting those recommendations and stuff for my applications. Two grad programs later (and only a consolation prize Master’s to show for it), I realized it was NOT my life’s calling. I could consider that all ‘wasted time’ but there is SO MUCH i learned there – what I do like and don’t like about science, what I want my day to day job to look like, how i can use all those mad science skillz for other things, like project management.

    I think there is HUGE value in cutting your losses instead of plugging through till the bitter end. And learning from what didn’t work. Maybe even more than doing everything right the first time.

    And save everything (data, contacts, etc) – you never know when you might need it, as long as it’s not taking up crazy space :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      So far I haven’t had to cut any losses or years of time in my personal life, knock wood. Education and partners have turned out well for us, but I think I would have a whole OTHER (potentially non-bloggable) set of problems if I were struggling with those!

      A grad school professor told us, “If, at the end of the study, there’s nothing you’d do differently next time, then you’re not paying attention.”

  6. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Yes, you have to have some basic knowledge of your field to screen out the duds, but innovation does not come from knowing all the answers ahead of time. You have to take a concept that “could work” and then project manage the hell out of it til you know one way or another.

    Very good advice, and equally applicable to the pursuit of research in the natural sciences.


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