Faculty Who Failed Series: Kelly Liu

Kelly Liu

Kelly Liu. Photo: Dave Burbank.


Graduate school is a time for students to push themselves, try new things, and explore. It’s also a time when students are likely to experience what feels like failure. These small or large challenges along the way to your degree are to be expected, and most faculty members experienced such stumbles themselves in graduate school.

To share stories of successful people who have overcome the setbacks that come with pursuing a graduate degree, we’re interviewing faculty members about how they “failed” in their academic careers. The Faculty Who Failed series highlights how resilience can carry you through the tough times in your degree program and come out of the experience stronger and better prepared for future challenges.

Read about Professor Kelly Liu‘s experiences.

Can you describe a time you felt like you failed in graduate school? This could be a time when an experiment didn’t work out, you considered leaving (or did leave) your program, etc.

When I first started my thesis research, I had a hard time getting my PCR to work, and even when it worked, I was not getting the amount of DNA that I needed for subsequent experiments. Yet this was the critical first step for my thesis project. Seeing some of my classmates making steady progress on their thesis research made me feel rather disappointed at my own progress and doubt my ability to do science. 

How did you bounce back from your perceived failure, or what got you through to the other side?

Both internal and external factors contributed to helping me push through. First, I realized after some self-reflection that being a hard worker myself, I was simply repeating the same experiments over and over without thinking deeper and being more critical about the experiments themselves. Therefore, I sought advice from people both within and outside of our lab who had experiences and expertise in PCR. I also worked on improving my troubleshooting skills and acknowledged that I could be working smarter in addition to working hard. Second, I realized that hyperfocusing on one thing was also contributing to the negative mindset that I had. My advisor gave me a side project to work on while I was struggling with the main project. Being able to make progress on the side project allowed me to regain my self-confidence and become excited about science again.

What lessons did you learn from this experience?

I learned that it is not a complete waste of time having failed experiments. I learned to be resilient, to think more critically, and to be more resourceful.

How did you use this experience to become better at what you do?

Recognizing the importance of learning from one’s own mistakes and the fact that the learning curves for different students are different helped me to be a better and more empathetic advisor myself, especially when working with students in their early graduate careers.

What advice do you have for current graduate students who might be struggling or in a comparable situation?

Graduate school is not always smooth sailing. Both the ups and the downs are part of the journey. What is more important is to learn from these experiences. When stuck with an experiment, try to seek advice from others, try to think of the problem from a different angle, try a different approach, try a different project, try to push yourself a little harder. Importantly, try to take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are not defined by only the “downs”. In the end, all your experiences in graduate school contribute to your future successes.