My first post here so pls be kind and don't take things too literally.
I am a 6th year post doc in Neurobiology at Cambridge, UK.
All of these words are my reflections - I am not wearing any special truth-spectacles. Choose to take a moral high ground. I find that explaing how to game the system is despicable and a reason to why science is as in-efficient as it de facto in these times.
Here and now
First things first, Don't worry about things that is currently out of your hands. See what the result is, and meanwhile talk to colleagues about your feelings and worries. They will be the type of people who gets you through this underappreciated type of work.
Still, I absolutely get your position and the accompying feelings. I am in 6th year as a post doc and feel im about to "fail" yet again ;)
Its natural to get scared or emotional about things that we are passionate about, it's a good sign! But do not let that fear control you. Planning ahead in this state is usually pointless. And if you do plan, use a best/worst-scenario type approach - find the 'lagom' middle scenario.
Failings? Control, authoritism and independent thought
It is essential to define what YOU mean with "about to fail". Is this your view? Does you supervisor, mentor, colleagues also agree you are "about to fail"? Find the likely scenario an come up with some alternativ career paths. Having a backup plan, regardless if that is a similar field or becoming a gardener. Plans do not have to be used. Backup plans ensure that you don't feel your life depends on this one result.
Most of us instinctively feel that if we don't ace things we are failed. (evo-theory would say its because our fear is evolutionary coupled to a very real risk of death).
These feelings seem to be particularly strong in those who tend to be hard on themselves, often people who ace:d undergraduate education. If you had to pay for uni, and relatives stepped in. Talk to them about your fears, as on some level you will be doing this for them.
"one who is in debt, is not free".
Being judged right or wrong by others is what teachers do in school, or if you have a contractual commercial boss. Not in science. In science you have mentors, collaborators and colleagues,- not bosses (despite this culture always tried to nestle it's ugly face in).
This fact has been of fundamentally importance to me. It puts me in control and is the fundament of independence and independent thought.
No one can order me what, when and how to work. It's all up to me.
If not I wouldve blamed others and left bitter and disillusioned. Now I fight on!
Naturally tho, clever people take advice from senior or trusted colleagues - but not before thinking it through and making the decision themselves.
What is Science? Novelty? Publications, goal or tool?
IMO Science naturally has a flat hierarchy. Either you establish something or you don't. Seniors do not sit on any absolute knowledge or skills.
If a professor has assumptions you can't get on board with, their whole argument hurts and there is no meaningful collaboration.
Therefore a professors word does not weigh heavier than a students (as long as thorough discussion takes place). This critically depends on both parties humbleness and asking yourself what you do know and what you don't.
As such, I if you think science is a competition you are missing the point.
Competition is a technique some people use to motivate themselves. There are better ways where if you "loose" you are not a looser. Say - actual interest in finding something out. Then negative results are just more data.
Neither is it about being first. Those are merely the people who did a large contribution and as a reward got an entire ecosystem attached to their name that we then remeber. Similar to how we remeber pharaohs but not the people building the pyramids.
Its not even about curing a particular disease or inventing a useful tool. Those are all potential products from doing Science. Can't and shan't be a goal.
Science is discovery, exploration and arguably the only way we can know anything in this world. First about convincing yourself. Then deciding if it is worth to communicate to peers who can independently confirm or disagree.
Instead of togheter discovering patterns in nature and increasing our understanding of the world around us. It is a common misunderstanding that science is about getting publishable results or ones theory being correct.
Publications is what we (unfortunately) are quantified by in lack of other organizational principles - but don't mix up publishing with doing science - something published is not automatically true. (requires a lot substantial repeated confirmation).
Science is not an umbrella term defined by what scientist choose to occupy their days with. Many people have long CVs or are good at writing self-similar grant applications (useful for a scientist) . But they are means to the end of doing science not the science in themselves. (chatgpt will tear these people a new one:)
Happy go lucky.
Like everything in life we usually don't (really) understand what we are getting ourselves into beforehand. Who was not surprised at all what their new job actually showed to be? What young adult actually grasps what scientific work is before experiencing it?
Remember. You learn different things from different projects, different PIs. It's about getting the collection of experience you require. Therefore personal advice like this forum is always better than (commercial) "10 common mistakes PhDs do"-sites.
With the shitty situation for (most) academics, many understandably do not want to sacrifice their entire lifes and leave.
I usually turn this around in my head to:
"Whoever leaves the room last gets to be Professor".
Final advice (slightly lower moral highground:)
I would recommend you already now start to contact people who are doing science. Remeber you are the 'essentially-free' workhorse that they have the opportunity to hire/take under their wing. Its a relationship.
Focus on making contact with scientists you like rather than aiming for a PhD in a specific field or university.
Any contact point that is personal is preferable to "open" applications.
You avoid competing with the rest of the world in the sport if writing CVs and doing official interviews.
Very often open positions are already earmarked anyway.
Potential collaborators (pi, proff, postdoc) that are appealing to You are all good people to email. Those who don't answer don't, re formulate and move on. They won't even register you exist.
However WHEN you find a good match, a position might very well materialize out of thinn air. And if they truly want you there is no problem in asking them where to apply for money.
Offering (for them free) summer internships or course-projects there are as many ways as there are Universities.
Hope some of this may penetrate through your skull, deep into your brain and there lodge itself to fester. :)
Burnout is basically part of today's academic education. Unfortunately. Everyone end up with it sooner or later. The earlier you can find a way that works for you instead of trying to fit the mold, I the better.