A study has suggested that people who suffer an early career setback go on – on average – to become more successful later in their profession.

Experts examined the publication and funding history of scientists who had either just succeeded — or just failed — to land a particular grant early in their careers.

They found that the researchers who failed to land the grant went on to publish just as many academic papers later in life, even though they received less funding.


Those setback early on were also around 6 per cent more likely to publish a hit paper — based on the number of citations — than their initially successful colleagues.

Network expert Yang Wang and colleagues at Illinois’ Northwestern University studied the academic output of scientists who, early in their careers, applied for so-called R01 grants from the US National Institutes of Health between 1990 and 2005.

R01 grants are the institutes’ oldest program to fund research project to seek knowledge about living systems and applying such to improve health and longevity.

Each participant is given a standardised evaluation score as part of the funding application process.

The team split the applicants into two groups — the ‘near-misses’ who had only just missed out on funding, and the ‘just-made-its’ who only just landed funding. 


They then evaluated how many papers, on average, members of each group published in the decade following the application — as well as how many of those could be considered hits based on the number of times others cited the works.

Dr Wang and colleagues were surprised to find that those academics who persisted despite failing the application process early in their careers went on to be more successful later in life.

‘The attrition rate does increase for those who fail early in their careers,’ said Dr Wang, noting that 10 per cent of those rejected for the R01 grants never again apply for grants through the National Institutes of Health.

‘But those who stick it out, on average, perform much better in the long term, suggesting that if it doesn’t kill you, it really does make you stronger.’


Despite typically receiving less funding, individuals in the near-miss group published just as many papers — and scored more hit articles — than in the just-made-it group.

In fact, academics who failed to land the initial R01 grant were 6.1 per cent more likely to publish a hit paper within the next decade. 

The rate of drop-outs was too small to account for the success of the near-miss group — suggesting that the early-career failure was not simply weeding out the least determined researchers from their fields.

The findings provide a counter-narrative to the so-called Matthew Principle, which suggests that success begets more success while failure leads to more failure.

The researchers believe, instead, that the lessons learned from failure, as well as the grit and determination it can foster, may be import factors.

‘It turns out that, historically, while we have been relatively successful in pinpointing the benefits of success, we have failed to understand the impact of failure,’ added paper co-author Dashun Wang. 

‘The fact that the near-miss group published more hit papers than the just-made-it group is even more surprising when you consider that the just-made-it group received money to further their work,’ said paper co-author Benjamin Jones.

‘There is value in failure,’ said Professor Wang. 

‘We have just begun expanding this research into a broader domain and are seeing promising signals of similar effects in other fields.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Communications.

-Daily Mail