How I Fail S01E26: Casper Albers (PhD’03, Statistics)

How I Fail - Casper Albers | veronikach.com

Casper Albers is chair of Applied Statistics and Data Visualisation at the University of Groningen. With a background and degree in mathematical statistics, he now works at the department of Psychology. You can find out more about him on his website, or by reading his tweets.

1. Hi Casper, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say something more to introduce yourself?

Hi Veronika, thanks for having me on your series! My main line of research involves the analysis of so-called momentary assessment data and other types of longitudinal data in psychology. With the rise of new technologies, such data have become more abundant in psychological research, yet still too little is know about the best ways to build relevant statistical models. Furthermore, I’m interested in statistical communication: how can we make sure that the main message of an advanced statistical model is conveyed correctly to non-technical end-users of the model. Furthermore, I’m a member of the University Council and thus involved in university politics.

I’ve done my undergraduate and PhD in mathematical statistics in Groningen, then did my first postdoc in bioinformatics. After spending four years as postdoc at the Open University in England, I returned to Groningen in 2009 and haven’t left since.

2. You recently wrote a column about being rejected for a prestigious grant (thanks for the shout-out!). Can you share a bit more thoughts about this?

This was an application for the so-called NWO Open Competition scheme. The goal was to obtain money for a PhD-student and postdoc on a project combining my two lines of research: momentary assessment data and communication. It was a ‘pre-proposal’, with a 500 word limit for the main text, and about half the candidates would’ve been invited to write a full proposal. I was part of the other half.

Initially, I felt frustration, of course. One reviewer mentioned a paper (published a week before the deadline) I didn’t cite, and asked why I requested a specific international visit. I did read this paper (but could not cite it due to the limit to the number of allowed citations), and the visit would be to the authors of this paper. This reviewer clearly did not read the proposal clearly. Having put in hours of work myself, that feels very frustrating.

Furthermore, all five reviewers indicated that I needed to elaborate in more detail, which to me seems impossible given the limited word count. Initially, you feel frustrated and wrongly treated. Once the frustration wears off, you realise that the reviewers reviewed multiple proposals. If all five of them claim my proposal lacked detail, then I guess others did succeed in providing more detail and did rightfully ‘win’ at the expense of me. It’s still frustrating of course, but I’ve come to terms with it. I’m now looking for alternative funding possibilities for (part of) the proposal.

3. Are there any other failures you’d like to share that were particularly memorable?

I was a postdoc at the Open University between 2005 and 2009. Near the end of my contract, we applied for a grant with me as named postdoc at a British funder, under the category ‘mathematics for business’. After the deadline, we received a letter stating that out of all proposals in this category, we were ranked first. Shortly thereafter, a second letter followed: due to a large amount of proposals in the medical categories, none of the proposals in our category would be funded. Thus, we had the best proposal, yet still received nothing.

Having participated in a funding scheme that turned out to have no money is a nice story for birthday parties, so I did get something out of it…

4. Next to grant and job rejections, are there any other things that fall under the word failure for you?

I would be hesitant to even call grant and job rejections failures. The word failure indicates that I did something wrong. Grant schemes often have a success rate of about 15%. There’s nothing wrong with belonging to the 85% – especially if you also occasionally belong to the 15%. If the system is such that the system expects you to be part of the lucky 15% every time, then the system is broken. That was also my point in my column, and I think is also yours in this series: failing is normal.

A couple of years ago, after working for this university for nearly 15 years, I got a permanent contract. Last August, I was promoted to professor. So, I’m currently in the more senior part of my career where grants are very helpful, but not essential anymore. That helps tremendously in being able to distance myself from this. When I still had job insecurity, this was much harder, of course.

Instead of failures, I’d like to call grant and job rejections major disappointments. Many other things in academia are as well: paper rejections (especially when the review’s poor or when it involves the first paper of your PhD-student), not meeting deadlines, etcetera. These disappointments are on a continuous scale. I guess how disappointing something bad happening is mainly depends on how unexpected it is and how much of an impact it has on me.

5. Are there are any caveats with sharing failures online?

With just sharing news like “I got rejected for this grant”, I don’t see any caveats. On the contrary, I think it is very good if ECRs get informed that established names also had to struggle through many failures. Having your grant proposal rejected or not being offered a job does not make you unsuitable for academia. Although there’s clear survivor bias in stories like mine. It would be interesting to also hear from people who decided to leave academia because of (too many) grant/job rejections.

But, of course, you can share too much information online. I can totally understand if someone doesn’t want to share the details of her/his rejected proposal online, out of fear of someone scooping your ideas.

6. Now that the grant rejection gave you some time to read all the How I Fail interviews :), what are your favorite take-aways from the series?

I like what Daniel Lakens wrote about mastery and performance goals a lot. I also very much liked various persons, e.g. Melanie Stefan, talking about privilege. For a straight white, male senior-researcher it is easy for me not to realise how privileged I am. It is good to read about the additional struggles that people from other backgrounds have, also in academia. This has certainly shaped the way I look at many academic processes.

7. Who should I ask as the next person I am interviewing for How I Fail?

It would be really interesting to read interviews with people who decided to leave academia because of failures, so to read about the other side of the survivor bias coin. As these people left academia, they also kind of left my ‘bubble’, so I don’t have any names for you.

8. What should I ask the next person I am interviewing for How I Fail?

Whether they have any experiences from the past that they at the time considered a success but now, in hindsight, consider a failure. As an example: massaging your data such that p < .05, making the paper publishable in some ‘good’ journal used to be regarded as a success; and we now know that p-hacking is naughty.

9. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?

Time management. I always plan to do more in a week than what I can do. This is not a one-off failure as a grant/job rejection, but a source of constant frustration.

10. What do you think your past-self of N-10, N-20, N-30 etc years would think of you now?

My N-30 me would observe that I earn my money by solving puzzles on a computer all day, and playing with LEGO in the evening. I think that would make my N-30 me quite happy. My N-15 me would also be quite happy: I wanted a job in academia, and I got a job in academia.

11. What is the best piece of advice you could give to these past selves?

I’d give my past self a copy of Grays Sports Almanac 1950-2000 and could then fund myself. This works, I’ve seen it in the movies.

More seriously: I’d advise myself to spend less energy jumping through the hoops the system had set up for me, and spend more energy on just doing what I like to do and what I’m good at (fortunately, these two correlate quite well for me). This is fine.

12. What do you think about the current way success/failure are influencing academic research in the Netherlands?

It’s not healthy. Apart from my four years in the UK, I’ve been working at this university since 1996, so that’s about eighteen years. And I’m still in a system where I have to prove myself: if I don’t obtain a grant within seven years (at that time I’ll be fifty and will have literally worked half my life for this university), the university could strip me of my professor title. This puts stress on employees where it is not necessary. If the university can’t decide whether I’m worthy of the title “prof. dr. Albers” after eighteen years, then that says more about the university than about me.

My university is not special in this regard, all Dutch universities are roughly the same in this. Especially when we know that so many things go wrong with grant funding, such as the Matthew effect which has recently been proven to be very prominent at NWO, this is not a very evidence-based/scientific way to run academia. (Note that the university obviously not only selects and promotes based on grant success, and also includes a lot of sensible measures).

13. Do you have any suggestions on how we could change this? What is a concrete step that somebody reading this post could take in this direction tomorrow?

Focus on quality rather than quantity. Success in the Netherlands is mainly measured based on how many papers you have, how many citations you have, your H-index, etc. You can have one excellent paper, or a paper with a lot of societal impact yet few citations. You can also salami slice a semi-decent study into a series of boring papers. If I had to pick which of these versions of you would get a promotion, I would definitely go for the first version.

Furthermore, we should step away from all kinds of quantitative ways of measuring quality and including these ways in assessments. Goodhart’s law – When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure – is over forty years old, but still spot on.

Criticising things is, of course, easy. I don’t have an easy solution either. Stepping away from emphasising the importance of all these quantitative, semi-objective measures and just using common sense should be a big step forward.

14. Is this something you discuss with the researchers that you mentor? Is there anything they can do too, to change things?

Yes, we discuss these things. With one of my PhD-students, for instance, we decided to combine two studies we did in one single, hopefully high impact, paper; rather than trying to get both studies published separately, which was the original idea.

But I think that early career researchers cannot do too much: they are at the bottom of the academic food chain, and for them it’s much harder to be heard, especially individually. When they join forces, such as in the Young Academy in the Netherlands, they do reach an audience.

But the main change should come from senior researchers, like me, who are in the position to demand change. With great power comes great responsibility.

How I Fail S01E25: Caroline Rowland (PhD’00, Psychology)

Caroline Rowland runs the Language Development Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, and is one of five directors at the ESRC LuCiD Centre. She studies how children learn language, or, more concretely: what are the mechanisms in the human brain that give us the capacity to acquire language?  She’s on Twitter as @CaroRowland.

1. Hi Caro, thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a Brit who escaped Brexit by miraculously being offered a job in the Netherlands in 2016. Before that I worked in various universities in the UK, except for one year when I worked as a secretary in various offices around London. I didn’t get a good enough undergraduate degree to obtain funding for a PhD so I did it part-time (self-funded) while working as a Research Assistant. I then moved to the University of Liverpool for 16 years before taking a job at the MPI in Nijmegen.

2. Would you like to share some failures with us?

Oh yes, indeed. There are countless examples; failure at exams (failing S-level history at age 18 still smarts), failure at job interviews (I was rejected from teacher training college), failure with grants and journals. Reviewers have told me that my work is meaningless (“Rowland and her colleagues just count things”), that I work too closely with a small group of people (One of my major reservations is the fact that many of the investigators have already been working together very closely), and that I don’t know what I’m doing (even with significant improvements [this paper] would still not meet typical requirements for peer-reviewed quality papers).

But these kinds of comments are quite unusual. Many of the rejections I have received have been kind and constructive. Even annoying comments like “do X”, when you’ve patently done X on page 12, can be useful – they help you discover what points a hasty reader will miss.

3. What does “failure” mean to you? Are there some misconceptions about it?

Actually, I think ‘fear of failure’ is worse than actual failure. By this, I mean the constant niggling worry in the back of your mind that you’re not quite living up to expectations. For me, it’s not just a fear of failing at research. I live with a background low level worry that I’m not a good enough boss, mentor, colleague and, especially, that I’m not a good enough mother. I find this much harder to manage that actual failure. If anyone has a solution …

4. Do you keep track of failures? Why/why not?

No. Absolutely not. I try to learn from it and move on. If it’s a rejected paper, I revise it to make it better and submit it somewhere else. If it’s something more serious (e.g. that I’ve dealt badly with an issue or colleague at work) I try to apologise, learn from it and move on. I also try not to live with regrets; it’s too exhausting.

5. What do you think about sharing failures online?

Well it’s certainly not objective evidence for a recipe for success, but then it’s not meant to be. It’s narrative, and narrative can be cathartic. Misery loves company. I find it much easier to deal with the immediate aftermath of rejection when I can open a bottle of wine and spend a couple of hours reading stories about how other people have failed too.

But it’s also useful. The recent Twitter discussion we had on grant rejections prompted me to start talking to our researchers and students about how we can better support them in grant writing.

6. Have you experienced differences in attitudes towards failure throughout your career?

Of course. For example, it is much easier for me to accept my own failures now I’m older. In my twenties, I found it really hard to acknowledge being wrong. This is partly due to experience – when you’ve spent 18 years being regularly rejected, you learn to deal with it or you spend your life angry. But in my case, I also had a perfectionist PhD supervisor, so I didn’t have a choice. This was difficult to deal with at the time, particularly when a manuscript came back for the 9th time with the comment “I still don’t like this”. But it was also the best training for dealing with rejection.

7. Do you think different groups of people experience failure differently?

It’s much easier to deal with when you’re older (see 6 above). It’s probably also easier if you’re privileged. This tweet on the #ShareYourRejections thread has got me thinking about that a lot ….

8. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?

Pretty much everything (see answer to 3 above). But my most spectacular current failure is my failure to learn Dutch. I *have* to learn Dutch – I’ll be living in the Netherlands for many years. And I’m a language acquisition expert, so I know that it’s going to be hard; it’s much more difficult to learn a language at my age than it would have been 20 years ago. But I am still constantly disappointed by my failure to be able to hold a conversation in Dutch. I know quite a lot of words already, but retrieving them at speed, in the right order, during a conversation, is almost beyond me.

9. If you could reach all academics with a single message, what would that message be?

Academia is hard, sometimes brutal. But most jobs are hard. So this isn’t a good reason to quit. If I ever start to feel that the problems of academia outweigh the benefits, I imagine myself in a different job; as a teacher, as a lawyer, or as a businesswoman. I imagine how I would feel every Monday morning, faced with a week of standing in front of a class, or week in an office, or a week in a courtroom. Would I feel more or less content? If the answer is ever “more content”, I will start looking round at my options.

10. If you were in a position to change how funding/hiring/etc decisions were made, what would you do?

This one’s easy. I’d allow the grant or hiring committee ample time to read the applicants’ papers, rather than relying on statistics like H indices and citation counts. This is how the Max Planck Society hires, and it’s been a wonderful experience to be given the freedom, and the time, to read what applicants have published.

11. What can this series do better to improve things for everyone?

I think it’s already doing a great job of raising awareness. It certainly helps me in my “misery loves company” moments. It’s also an opportunity to link to resources that might help people cope with the pressure of rejection (e.g. the Samaritans in the UK do a great job of helping people deal with catastrophic failure. But then I’m a psychologist – counselling is always my default option.

12. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

I’ve already tweeted it. But it’s not about being a scientist – it’s about being a working parent. I really wish I’d known this when I was younger.

How I Fail S01E24: Greg Wilson (PhD’93, Computer Science)

How I Fail - Greg Wilson | veronikach.com

Greg Wilson has worked for 35 years in both industry and academia, and is the author or editor of several books on computing and two for children. He is best known as the co-founder of Software Carpentry, a non-profit organization that teaches basic computing skills to researchers. You can find out more about him on his website.

1. Hi Greg, thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hi Veronika; thanks for having me. I’m Canadian, I wrote my first program on punch cards in 1980, and my family doesn’t let me use power tools (I’m kind of clumsy).

2. What’s on your list of failures?

Oh, I have a loooong list. Off the top of my head, I have half a dozen unfinished book projects that I only call “unfinished” because I’m not honest enough to call them “abandoned”, all three of the open source software projects I started myself fizzled out years ago, and when I teach software engineering, I use stories from my first startup as examples of what not to do.

3. Was there any particular event that made you decide to join this series?

I organized a workshop earlier this year for programmers who want to learn about community organization because I think it’s pretty clear that decisions about tech are being made by people who either don’t understand it, or don’t care about the collateral damage caused by their greed. About two dozen people showed up, and there was a lot of lively discussion, but there wasn’t much follow-up from participants. I’ve been trying to figure out why not, and I’ve been drawing on my past failures to give myself a vantage point.

4. What does “failure” mean to you?

I think of “weak failure” as “I put in a lot of work and nobody got much out of it”. I think of “strong failure” as “I put in a lot of work and did harm that could have been avoided”. By that standard, my thesis was a weak failure, and things like Twitter and Facebook are strong failures. The fact that many people think they’re successful is, to me, the biggest misconception people have about what failure actually is.

5. Do you keep track of failures?

Absolutely: sometimes, late at night, I’ll put on some Johnny Cash and line my failures up side by side and count ’em one by one. Then I’ll have a look at this cartoon and remind myself that I’m an idiot sometimes and then have some hot chocolate and go to sleep.

6. What do you think about sharing failures online?

Yeah, I used to be one of those guys who said “fail early, fail often, fail loudly”. I also used to tell people that their Stack Overflow profile was their real resume, and that if they weren’t contributing to open source projects they weren’t “real” programmers, so I guess by my own definition, my younger self was a strong failure.

What I’m trying to do now with pieces like this is help people like my younger self understand why these positions are wrong by saying, “This is who I used to be/what I used to believe, and here’s why it was harmful, and here’s a better way to think/speak/act.” I also find that I can only really know what I think about something when I hear myself say it out loud, or when I write it down, so sharing my failures helps me figure out what if anything I learned from them.

7. Have you experienced differences in attitudes towards failure throughout your career?

Yes, but they’ve mostly been self-inflicted: I dwell on my failures much more often than I take pride in my successes. I don’t think that’s healthy, but then, I just ate a completely unnecessary butter tart, so…

8. How do you think the changing landscape in computer science [men/women, number of people in general] affects our relationships towards failure?

There’s a lot more discussion in tech companies and open source communities than there used to be about inclusivity, mental health, and unearned/unrecognized privilege. Clearer and more critical analysis of things like “Stack Overflow is your resume” and “if you’re not working weekends, you’re not really committed to success” is part of that.

9. What can we learn from how failures are dealt with in software engineering?

I think we can learn that people are able to rationalize and explain away almost anything 🙂

10. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?

Yup. I have so many projects on the go that I’m not making much headway on any of them; I keep telling myself to set some aside, but that’s working about as well as swearing off butter tarts.

11. If you could reach any group of people with a single message, what would that message be?

I would tell everyone – everyone – to get out and vote.

12. I understand you’ve read all the previous interview of the series – can you share (i) something that was a new insight for you and (ii) something you disagreed with?

The thing I remember most clearly is Felienne Hermans’ comment that “Felienne of 2013 would not believe me, I’m sure of that”. I’m equally sure that Greg Wilson of 2010 would probably not believe how much and how little the Greg Wilson of 2018 has accomplished. I honestly can’t recall anything that I strongly disagreed with – I spent most of my time nodding and bookmarking as I read the other interviews.

13. What can this series do better to improve things for everyone?

Be more widely read 🙂

14. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Be kind; all else is details.

How I Fail S01E23: Daniël Lakens (PhD’10, Psychology)

How I Fail - Daniel Lakens | veronikach.com

How I Fail - Daniel Lakens | veronikach.com

Daniel Lakens works at the Human-Technology Interaction group at Eindhoven University of Technology. He publishes on how to design and interpret studies, applied (meta)-statistics, and reward structures in science, in addition to his empirical research lines on conceptual thought and meaning. He teaches a Massive Open Online Course on Coursera on how to improve your statistical inferences, blogs at the 20% Statistician, and comments on science related topics on Twitter @Lakens.  

1. Hi Daniël, thanks for joining How I Fail! I wasn’t sure whether you were joking when in response to my invite you said you never failed, so I’m excited you decided to join after all.. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I think whether you fail or not depends a lot on the type of goals you set – I’m also not sure if I was joking, but see my answer on question 6 for my thoughts on failing!

I got my PhD in experimental psychology, mainly studying how we think about abstract concepts (valence, morality, or power). Now I also work a lot on statistics and research methods. I live in Rotterdam (I’ve never lived anywhere else in my life) with my wife and our dog. When I’m not working, I’ll be listening to podcasts while walking the dog, going for a coffee or beer with friends, playing bass guitar, or exploring the cultural life in Rotterdam with my wife.

2. On Twitter you shared the story of searching for a PhD position for two years – could you tell us more about that experience? Who or what helped you to not give up?

After getting my Masters degree in Leiden, I had this idea of doing a ‘social service’ year. As opposed to military service, sometimes people suggest that youngsters should spend a year working somewhere in our society that would expose them to part of society they might not see otherwise. So I decided to work in elderly care for a year – mainly just cleaning and talking over a coffee. After a year, I started to apply for PhD positions. Back then, I was strangely naive about the fact that working in elderly care for a year was not seen as a positive career choice.

What worked in my favor is that my Master thesis supervisor, Dancker Daamen from Leiden University, had convinced me to present my master thesis (on the classic anchoring effect) at the Dutch Association for Social Psychology. His support and my interest in continuing to work on research with Dancker got me invited to many job talks – but people still wouldn’t hire me. I took on all sorts of jobs to pay the rent, and at the point that I started to apply with the same research groups because after 1.5 years had passed, they had a new PhD vacancy, I thought it might be time to try for other jobs. I was invited to a job talk for a PhD position at the VU university, and wasn’t hired – again.

However, Wilco van Dijk, who was in the hiring committee, had some money to hire a student assistant to program experiments. I had some programming experience, and he offered me a job for three days a week. I worked there for a year, and when I told people at the department my contract as a student assistent was ending and I was going to look for a PhD position, they apparently gotten used to having me around, and they offered me a PhD position.

This story has made me very aware that getting to where you are is largely a matter of luck. And when hiring people, I’ve realized that a messy CV happens. For example, I’ve hired two PhD students who quit their previous PhD position, which some people might consider risky – but both are doing great. Careers are often not a straight line – and that’s fine.

3. Are there any other failures you’d like to share that were particularly memorable?

Around the end of 2012, about 2 years after I completed my PhD, a researcher contacted two colleagues and myself about a paper we had written in 2009. His analyses showed that it was statistically improbable that we would have observed the results as we reported them. He was correct – we had indeed performed multiple comparisons without statistically correcting for them, and we didn’t report a study we had performed because it had not revealed a significant effect (which we immediately shared online). When we received this criticism, my statistics knowledge was not good enough to understand it, but more importantly,

I realized I did not consider myself knowledgeable enough to perform good research. I was quite disappointed in myself, and basically stopped doing empirical research for two years and tried to learn more about how to do better research. I enjoyed figuring this out so much, and I realized so many of my colleagues had similar gaps in their knowledge that I could now help them with, that I ended up switching my main research area. I still do empirical research, but most of my time I now work on how we can do better and more reliable research.

4. What do you think about sharing failures online?

Hearing from failures from people like me is obviously survivorship bias. My life would have been completely different if I hadn’t been hired as a lab assistant by Wilco van Dijk. What is now a nice story of struggle and success, would have been been a story of how I wasted two years trying to get into science, before finding a real job.

What I see online is mainly two failure stories: 1) I struggled, but I managed (like my story). Or 2) I struggled, and decided I didn’t want to work in academia.

But there is a third type of story we rarely hear: 3) I struggled, I didn’t get tenure, and now I’m not really sure where to work because academia was probably the best fit for me.

How I Fail - Daniel Lakens | veronikach.com I have two Chinese statues on my desk – on of a dragon, the other of a Buddha – that were given to me a decade ago by a colleague who was an excellent, meticulous, dedicated and cooperative scholar, but had to leave academia because he didn’t manage to get a tenured job. I keep these statues on my desk as a reminder that people who I really would like to see in science, and who really want to work in science themselves, don’t end up in science. I’m not always sure the selection filter of who ends up in science and who doesn’t is set to the right parameters, to be honest. And I don’t think we hear their stories enough.

5. Have you experienced it that people decide to downplay their successes, so as to not hurt others?

I got a VIDI grant in 2017, which is quite large (800k euro) and has all sorts of positive consequences for your career. I’m on the FWO grant committee in Belgium for psychology and pedagogy, and evaluating grants there has made me fully aware that people try really hard to rank extremely different grant proposals in a fair manner. But in the end, when the Great Excel Spreadsheet gets sorted, a good deal of random luck goes into making the final cut, or not.

I think almost all my colleagues work hard to do the best research they can do. When a single person then gets a large amount of money (and a lot of non-monetary benefits that come with this particular grant) it upsets the dynamics within a group. Both these things – the decent amount of luck you have when you get a grant, and the fact that at the end of the day, we are all doing our best – made me feel quite uncomfortable after getting this VIDI grant. I’m not sure my colleagues felt hurt by my success (we have an extremely collaborative department, and I think the group benefits when any individual has success). But I did try to make not too big a deal out of it, mainly because the amount of luck involved was substantial.

6. Next to the “traditional” failures such as rejections, are there also other types of things that we can fail at?

So this gets back to my first answer why I have a peculiar view on failure: I don’t consider rejections failures. In psychology a distinction is made between performance goals and mastery goals. Performance goals mean trying to achieve things like a number of publications, an amount of research grants, are recognition from your peers, and often involves trying to perform better than others. I have always tried to ignore this type of goal. When I started my tenure track at my current department, I received a list of goals that I needed to achieve to get tenure. I never opened that letter, but left it unopened on my desk.

Instead, I set mastery goals. I have spend a lot of time training myself to no longer compare my performance to that of others – I compare myself against my past self, or to the goals I set. And the goals I set are typically just to try my best, given the time I have. So I consider something a failure when I do something (e.g., teach a lecture) that I know I had the time for to prepare better. Or I consider it a failure when I write code that I should have checked better because I had the time for it, but I didn’t check it more carefully. Beyond that, trying our best is really all we can do. If you have tried your best, and you keep improving, you have succeeded. What happens after that is largely out of your control, so I try not to assign evaluations like success or failure to the outcomes of things.

This didn’t come naturally to me (I used to compare my performance to what others did, or what others thought was good, especially as a PhD student) but I trained to stop doing this during my post-doc. On the one hand, it has removed pressure to achieve things other people have achieved. On the other hand, it has increased pressure, because sometimes I have quite high standards for myself and I need to work hard to improve myself.

7. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?

I’m failing at time management. Things are currently moving quickly in my career, I’m not doing a good job of prioritizing what I want to do and what I say no to. As a consequence, I end up spending too much time on work. I love my work, but I want to spend more time reflecting and thinking, and less time reacting and responding in my work. I had blocked 3 weeks earlier this year, one week each month, just to think about stuff – but each week ended up being filled by activities with strict deadlines. I think this is a common problem for people in my phase of their careers – but I still would like to do better.

8. When hiring somebody or reviewing a grant application, how would finding somebody’s CV of failures online influence your evaluation?

I like real things. We currently have a science where we often pretend things are better than they are. This happens in our journals, where we tell stories that do not accurately reflect the research we actually did, which creates unrealistic expectations in young scholars of what doing research looks like. A CV of ‘failures’ makes things more realistic, which I value positively.

9. If you were in a position to change how evaluation of researchers would be done [at your university or country level], what would you address?

I think we greatly undervalue collaboration. Science is a collaborative enterprise – but we do not hire team players. We hire people who have their own research lines, but we don’t hire people who help out their colleagues all the time in incredibly important ways. As a consequence, we end up with a science where everyone runs their own shop – and their is not enough collaboration. If I could change one thing, I would try to much more strongly value scientists who do not pursue their own little thing, but dedicate their time to larger collaborations.

10. Have you made any decisions that helped you to be evaluated as more successful, but that you didn’t yourself fully agree with? What would your advice to younger researchers in such situations be?

I feel quite fortunate that I made the decision to large ignore external criteria for failure and success, and focus on what I believe in instead. So I don’t have any regrets – I’m just grateful these choices worked out. My advice for younger researchers would be to find a good working environment. I’ve worked in places where I would not have had the freedom to ignore external criteria for success. At my current job, I didn’t apply for any external grants for over five years, because I didn’t feel I had any ideas that were good enough to receive funding. And, crazy enough, the head of my department was ok with this was a very long time. It was only after 5 years he told me that he believed I should now write a grant, because the stuff I was working on had potential, and my I would have a chance when applying. I initially disagreed, but he convinced me, and he was right. I feel incredibly grateful to work in an environment where this was possible. So find a place where you can work the way that you want to work, but where you are also supported and pushed at the right moment to do something. This is an incredibly tricky balance – but try to find it. It will make your work-life a lot more enjoyable.

11. How do you approach success/failure within your lab? Is it something you discuss with researchers you mentor?

I think it is really important to make students feel as comfortable as possible to admit errors. This already starts at the level of a bachelor thesis or master thesis. Things will go wrong, and when they have gone wrong, it’s ok to feel bad, but we have to transparently report them.

12. How do you think adopting open science practices affects the way failure is perceived in academia?

People have a tendency to fool themselves, and to pretend things look better than they really are. Open science will make the research we do much more transparent. Now, we show photoshopped pictures when we publish research – it’s often not close to reality. We hide studies where our predictions failed. We hide imperfections in the data of the method. Open science will show a version of our work that is more realistic. This will also reveal much more mistakes we make, in data analysis, coding, the materials we used, etc. It is impossible that everything is done at 100% perfection. We currently don’t see the errors, even when they might be important. This is something we will need to learn to accept – especially when the errors are discovered in our own work.

13. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Don’t expect that other people know what they are doing. When I was in elementary school, I thought people in high school knew what they were doing. In high school, I thought people studying at the university knew what they were doing. While studying at the university, I thought staff members knew what they were doing. But now I’m a staff member myself, I realize we are all just stumbling along, trying to do our best, but there is so much we don’t know, it’s almost overwhelming. I’m really trying my best, but very often I have no clue what I’m doing while I am doing it.

14. What do you imagine your future self’s advice would be to the present day you?

People must almost by definition be horribly bad at this question! But let me try be slightly extrapolating from more recent thoughts I’ve had.

Pay more attention to the goals and motivations of your fellow scientists. There can be many reasons to want to work in science, and not everyone shares your viewpoints. A better understanding where other people come from makes collaboration easier and better.

How I Fail S01E22: Felienne Hermans (PhD’13, Software Engineering)

How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com

How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com
Felienne is assistant professor at Delft University of Technology, where she researches programming for everyone, from spreadsheet users to young kids. Felienne’s biggest passions in life is to share her enthusiasm for programming with others. She teaches programming in a community center in Rotterdam every week, she organizes the Joy of Coding conference, a one day developer conference in Rotterdam celebrating the joy and art of programming, and she is a host at SE radio, one of the most popular software engineering podcasts on the web.

If she is not coding, blogging or teaching, she is probably dancing Lindy Hop, running or playing a (board)game. Felienne blogs at felienne.com

1. Hi Felienne, thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am Felienne, recently tenured assistant professor at TU Delft. For my PhD thesis I worked on helping spreadsheet users design better spreadsheets, with techniques to find errors and to restructure complex spreadsheets. My recent research concerns teaching programming to young children, and their teachers.

2. Was there any particular event that made you decide to join this series?

As a community, academia is very much about celebrating successes, but not that great and celebrating, or even acknowledging failures. Which is weird. Since science is so much about trying and failing and learning from it. Also I love the fact how you put so much efforts into this series so I felt I wanted to give back to you for the amazing work you do on making failures a normal topic.

V: Aww, thanks!

3. What failures have been most memorable to you in your career so far? Were there any differences between your PhD and tenure track?

Well… define failure. There are different types of failure, so I will do a few if you are ok with that.

Immediate failures: An immediate failure is a failure that you know when it happens.

My biggest one or at least the one that hurt most is when I applied for a personal grant in ‘14 that I did not get. One of the reasons, I think, is that I felt like I needed to have that one grant to succeed in academic life, and therefore the writing took lost of energy and the rejection hurt A LOT. What I learned form that is that there is always another grant and there are multiple ways to success (although sadly there seems to be a Matthew effect from this particular grant)

Failed research: When you run an experiment but it does not work out the way you want.

This is an interesting type of failure that we talk too little about I think. I always want to write great blog posts about this, but it never happens. I once ran an experiment where we needed kids with advanced programming knowledge, and a teacher volunteered his class. We drove for 2 hours to get to the school, turns out the kids were not as advanced as the teacher thought. This taught me the value of assessment!

Slow failures: The type of failure that you only know happened in hindsight.

I think if you talk about failures you talk about the immediate ones, but the slow ones are interesting too. Sometimes you are on the wrong path for a long time, but it seems like the right one! For me I think the first year of my tenure track was one big slow failure. I had no research plan other than ‘continue my thesis work’ and in hindsight I was not so interested in that topic anymore. I also had no prioritization or planning skills, so I did lots of tiny things, but since I had not big goal, they did not really add up to anything real. I felt miserable about not achieving anything and about not loving my topic. Of course the immediate failure f not getting the personal grant did not help. I only got out of this failure mode by total coincidence, because I stumbled onto a new topic (programming for kids) not because I did anything concrete to face myself from this failure.

4. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at?

I would love to have more relaxed chat time with students. I do not like it that there is little time to just run into each other and chat, because to keep myself sane I need to plan my day well. I know it is the best for them ultimately, if I take good care of myself then I will be a better supervisor than when I engage on things I cannot keep up like ad hoc meetings, but I still feel bad about it because I would like to be the type of supervisor that can just do that.

Also I fail at being as good as Veronika in blogging!

5. What are your best tips for dealing with rejections, stress etc?

Stress and rejection are not the same, so I deal with them differently too.

Rejection

Rejection remains painful, but I have gotten better at dealing with it. When my personal grant got rejected for the second time (on a different topic) I told myself: ‘it is okay to just feel sad about this, no need to be strong, no need to fix this now’. That helped. What also helped was that the second time around I actually like writing the grant proposal. I had an idea, I was inspired and the background work I did was useful to me in exploring other ideas later on, and some ended up in related work sections of later papers. If you just write a proposal to get funding, getting the grant is the only thing that will make you happy. If you enjoy the process of thinking about a research direction, of finding related papers and of writing the grant, the success of the grant is less important.

Stress

Stress is different of course, just like with failure, there is immediate stress like when a grant is rejected and long lasting stress because of all the work we have to do. I learned a lot from the great post by Philip Guo why academics feel overworked? We have so many sources of work: courses, research, committees etc. I battle stress by doing rigorous time tracking and limiting my working hours to 5 days a week, max 9 hours a day, usually during regular hours. Limiting my time forces me to prioritize heavily and time tracking helps me understand where I spent the most time, and whether I am happy with that. Also I run! 20 km every week. No excuses. Health is more important than work (and also me doing this shows my students that I do not only say it but that I mean it)

6. Do you have any advice on how to approach discussing these issues with your colleagues?

Not sure I have valuable advice here… I think in these types of discussions it is important to know what you want. Take the running for example, when a collaborator suggested that I could also not run to make more time to work on a shared project, I simply said that was an outrageous proposal, as ridiculous as proposing to save time by not eating. But that is how I am. If you simply are not the type of person to do this, this advice is useless. Also things have gotten a lot easier since I got tenure. Both practically (I do not worry about not having a job) and mentally (I can tell myself I am doing fine and I also believe it now :))

7. What type of things do you wish would be given more weight in hiring and promotion decisions?

Of course it is hard to answer this question without bias! You are basically asking what parts of my job I enjoy 🙂 I like giving talks about my research to non-scientists, so that should count a lot more if you ask me.

But I also believe that, in the time we are in, it is important to keep a connection with the ‘general public’. Vaccination grades are going down because people do not believe scientists, funding decreases in many places because people think we aren’t doing valuable work. It is our responsibility to keep people informed and engaged.

A second thing I think should be given more weight is work regarding diversity. I time track so I can tell you I have spent about 50 hours last year on diversity initiatives inside and outside of the university. That is about an hour a week, ranging from giving lectures to young girls to advising colleagues. This does not help my career at all, in fact it could harm it. And the male colleagues that are already more privileged do not have to do any of this. Some do of course (thank you if you are one of those!!) but they are not expected to. Since I am one of the few women in our department, people come to me.

8. How do you think the difference in numbers of men and women in computer science affects our relationships towards failure?

It is hard to say because there are so many aspects at play here! I think that the hardest is that people in our field have an image in their heads of how female success looks like, of that the ‘story’ is for successful women. Does that make sense? Because of that they create new, alternative stories like: the woman in question was lucky, or supported by a smart supervisor or something else. The narrative that some women are just smarter is hard to swallow for some men still even though they might give lip service to diversity.
I tweeted about this a while back:

9. What about the recent rise in student numbers in CS? Are things going to be different for them?

Yes I think so, I spoke to a programmer from Silicon Valley last week and she indicated there is now a surplus of people that can program and it gets harder to find a job unless you possess specific technical skills. With so many 1st year students in our program (my program is said to have about 800 next year!) it will likely be harder in the Netherlands too.

10. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Not sure I have something here to be honest! Given advice to your past self is weird, it gets me thinking about alternative timelines. If I give the advice, does that affect my current self? How am I writing this when all my great advice should have resulted in me retiring and living on a beach somewhere and thus not writing this piece? 🙂

And in any case, Felienne of 2013 would not believe me, I am sure of that.

How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com

How I Fail S01E21: Ian Goodfellow (PhD’14, Computer Science)

Ian Goodfellow is a staff research scientist on the Google Brain team, where he leads a team of researchers studying adversarial techniques in AI. He was included in MIT Technology Review’s “35 under 35” as the inventor of generative adversarial networks. He is the lead author of the MIT Press textbook Deep Learning. You can find out more about Ian on his website and on Twitter.

1. Hi Ian – thanks for joining How I Fail! I have to admit, I almost failed by being too scared to invite you, so I’m very excited you agreed. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Thanks for inviting me!

I’m an AI researcher at Google and I lead a team of other researchers. We’re working to understand failures of AI better so that we can establish clear engineering principles for responsible AI development. I spend most of my own time studying how to make AI secure—for example, how to make sure that malicious attackers can’t fool AI-based systems into doing what the attacker wants instead of what the designers intended.

2. On Twitter you posted a list of rejections – can you elaborate on these a bit, for an “unofficial bio” of sorts?

My colleague Moritz Hardt tweeted to remind everyone that it was the “time of the year to keep in mind that the typical start of a successful academic career is getting rejected from a bunch of good grad schools.”

I replied with a list of grad schools and fellowship stipends that I was rejected from.

That one story probably is not much of a bio. Here is more of a bio mentioning some failures along the way:

  • As an undergrad at Stanford, I struggled in biology and chemistry classes while preparing for a career in neuroscience. I got OK grades, but I didn’t think I was doing well enough to become a professor.
  • After I changed my focus to computer science, I applied for several internships as an undergrad. Notably, Google rejected me from an internship.
  • I once applied for a summer internship with a Stanford professor. My transcript was included in my application. He replied “Why do you have an A in my class?” It turned out I wasn’t actually meant to have an A in his class. I thought there had been a generous curve, but there had only been a computer glitch. The result of my internship application was that Stanford downgraded my transcript.
  • Other large tech companies gave me internship offers, but not to work in machine learning or computer vision. On my CV, you don’t see these failures, just the eventual successes (I’m very grateful that Willow Garage and Stanford’s CURIS program gave me the chance to work on vision for robotics during summer internships)
  • In both my masters and my PhD, I spent most of my time without an outside fellowship. This meant I had to work as a teaching assistant or work on specific paying grants rather than focusing primarily on my research interests. I continually applied for fellowship’s like Quebec’s PBEEE. I spent 2009-2013 trying and failing to get open-ended funding until in 2013 I Google gave me the first PhD Fellowship in Deep Learning.
  • Vision conferences like ECCV rejected most of the papers I wrote before my PhD. I did a lot of work on perception for robots that never saw the light of day.

3. What factors do you think helped you overcome these setbacks?

In high school, I spent three years on my school’s debate team, coached by two really great teachers: Kerry Koda and Thomas King.

I’ve been surprised how many different aspects of a career in science my debate experience was able to help me with. In terms of overcoming setbacks, debate is useful because debaters all learn how to deal emotionally with failure. Every debate round has a winner and a loser. No one is so good that they always win. If you stick with debate for very long, you quickly get used to the idea of losing a round and then immediately going to another classroom and doing another round, failing to place at a tournament and then immediately going to another tournament the next weekend. You learn not to ruminate and beat yourself up. Also, your expectations get adjusted a lot. You get used to having a constant stream of both failures and successes.

4. There have been some responses to CV of Failures being a humblebrag or a sign of privilege – what would your answer to that be?

When I tweeted about this before, people didn’t react that way. A lot of people thanked me for sharing my rejections. I can definitely understand why people would see this as a humblebrag, but I think most people also understand that I’m doing this to help other people escape impostor syndrome.

5. On the opposite end, do you think that with failure being common, people might decide not to share their successes?

No, we’re all basically forced to share our successes, either for performance review at work, or in grant applications, etc. When submitting papers to conferences and journals, everyone is very incentivized to show the upsides of their paper and try to sweep the downsides under the rug. I personally fight this incentive as much as possible but I don’t imagine it going away in general anytime soon.

6. So far we are talking about successes and failures as things with discrete decisions, like positions and publications. Are there also other things that we can fail at?

I actually think that most discrete points of failure (acceptance / rejection to a specific grad school, or acceptance / rejection of a paper submitted to a conference, etc.) do not matter all that much.

I tweeted about being rejected from a lot of graduate schools, but that was fine, because I was accepted to a lot of others.

For example, in 2009, the largest obstacle for me was not that I had been rejected from some top schools, like MIT and Carnegie Mellon. The largest obstacle for me was that I wasn’t sure I would be able to do the research I wanted to at other top schools where I was accepted, like Stanford and Berkeley. It wasn’t clear who my advisor would be at either school (because there is a rotation program for new PhD students; the advisor is not assigned at the time of your admission offer), and relatively few potential advisors at these schools were supportive of deep learning research. I overcame this obstacle by going to Université de Montréal, with Yoshua Bengio locked in as my advisor ahead of time.

Probably the failure I consider the biggest is that I spent most of my PhD trying to solve supervised learning for computer vision using unsupervised feature learning methods, and was caught totally off guard when Alex, Ilya, and Geoff won the ImageNet contest with purely supervised methods. I think that in general wasting time writing papers that turn out to be dead ends is the main way that I fail in my own eyes. Especially now that it’s normal to post papers on arxiv.org, I consider my work a success if it influences other researchers, even if it gets rejected from a conference, and I consider my work a failure if it has little influence, even if it gets accepted to a conference.

7. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at, or you are hesitant about in the future?

For my own point of view: I’ve been working on understanding why neural networks are easily confused by small perturbations to their input (both through my own direct research effort and working to promote interest in the topic to get other researchers to solve it) for nearly 4 years, and still no one knows how to make a model with high accuracy in this setting.

From the point of view of traditional metrics of career success: The reviews of my papers submitted to ICML this year were particularly brutal and I expect most of them to be rejected.

Another thing I think is definitely worth mentioning: The way that I work, I rapidly try out several ideas to see if they show promise, and discard most of them. On a good day when I get a lot of time at my desk, I might code up 3-5 ideas and decide that none of them work. The time investment per idea is small but I can try out a large amount of relatively different ideas. From this point of view, failure of specific ideas is just a constant part of my workflow.

8. When we talk about successful researchers, what do you think about the distribution of weights that are placed on things like publications? Are there some factors that tend to be overlooked?

I think that our metrics for success are causing society to miss out on whole categories of successful people.

For example, we spend a lot of time evaluating work and evaluating people but we don’t spend a lot of time evaluating the evaluation processes themselves. There’s no one whose job is to make sure that conference review processes are fair and accurate. We know from the NIPS experiment that there is a lot of noise in the reviewing process (Eric Price has shown that area chairs disagreed more often than they agreed about how to handle a paper in this process), and yet there is no one spearheading efforts to develop better reviewing processes backed by evidence that they actually work. The research community should value efforts that improve the effectiveness of the community as a whole, but so far we just don’t seem to have any way of putting value on such efforts.

9. Do you think machine learning as a field has a different relationship with failure than other fields? Does this affect different groups of people in different ways?

Machine learning has very high expectations in terms of very rapidly producing a lot of successful work and exerting influence over the firehose of everyone else’s rapidly produced work. For example, Ilya Sutskever has over 50,000 Google Scholar citations, while in mathematics, none of the four most recent Fields Medal winners has over 5,000 citations. It is very strange that in our field success is so explosive. This is probably in part because we use arxiv.org so much rather than being more primarily focused on peer-reviewed publications. To be honest, I don’t know a lot about how it affects different groups of people.

10. What are your thoughts on negative results in machine learning?

I think it’s hard to extract value from negative results in machine learning because it can be so hard to tell what caused the negative result. A negative result might point to something very fundamental wrong with an idea, but it might also just be the result of a very small software bug, the wrong idea of the hyperparameter values to try out, too small of a model, etc.

11. If you could reach all senior academics in ML, what would you tell them?

If I could reach all senior academics / conference organizers / journal editors in ML, I’d tell them: The community needs to have a better way of settling disputes over sharing credit for ideas.

Currently, these are mostly settled by the person who feels they have not been given appropriate credit directly contacting the author of the publication that fails to give them credit. This works if the issue was a simple oversight (author of the new publication wasn’t aware of the old publication) but usually if the two parties disagree it can turn ugly. When there’s no central authority and persuasion fails, individuals fall back to a carrot or a stick, and most people do not have much of a carrot to offer.

This kind of experience is especially stressful if a senior, famous professor demands credit from a junior researcher, such as a PhD student.

As my work has become more well known in the machine learning community, I’ve spent more and more of my time dealing with this kind of conflict.

It would be much better if a conference or journal offered a centralized place to have these conflicts adjudicated efficiently by neutral third parties.

12. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

I wish I’d used some of those GPUs I bought for deep learning to mine some bitcoin.

How I Fail S01E20: Przemysław Pawełczak (PhD’09, Wireless Communications)

Przemysław Pawełczak is a tenured assistant professor in the Embedded Software group at TU Delft. He obtained his PhD in wireless communications (topic: Cognitive Radio) at the same university in 2009. Before joining the Tenure Track of TU Delft, Dr. Pawełczak was a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA (2009-2011) and a research scientist at Fraunhofer HHI Institute in Berlin (2012). He is the recipient of 2013 NWO Veni grant. You can find him on LinkedIn, GoogleScholar and Twitter.

1. Thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Great to be invited to this series! I’m an assistant professor in the Embedded Software group at TU Delft since 2013. I enjoy my work a lot. The ability to work and interact with diverse, extremely bright and open-minded people at my university makes me wake up every day and go to work. I’m Polish (and very proud of it) but spent almost all of my professional part of my life abroad (Netherlands, USA, Germany), and only at research institutions. This allows me to have a broad (not Dutch-centric) perspective on how things are handled in the academia.

2. Are there any “notable failures” you would like to share? “Most rejections”, or perhaps a failure that hurt the most?

There is no specific rejection that hurt me the most. After you got one rejection and another (and another) you start to get use to it and accept is a natural part of your trade. Of course, every rejection makes you feel bad. It is very hard to dis-associate criticism about your paper/grant application from attack ad hominem, so reading emails starting with the sentence “we regret to inform you” do feels bitter. What I realized, though, is that as you get older (or as you are longer in the business) that bitter feeling is becoming lesser and lesser. When I was a first year PhD student I could not sleep for days after my first-ever paper rejection, but now I embrace it and use it as an opportunity to improve my work and make it better (if I still can).

3. Do you keep track of your failures? Why/why not?

Yes, I do keep track of my failures. For instance, my “H2020 Rejected Proposals” folder has (as of now) eight sub-folders inside. Why do I keep track of my failures? Because it is good to see how much effort you put into papers and proposal preparations. Also tracking this lets you improve your time allocation and strategic decision-making (for instance: which proposals are worth the effort to re-submit and which are not).

4. Do you think this issue is more prevalent in academia than in other fields? What about differences between academic fields or different countries?

My core observation is that academia (anywhere in the world) is no different from other fields. Everyone competes for scarce resources (in academic terms: limited spots in conference proceedings and journal issues) and there are simply to many of us academics for available top spots. So naturally you will be rejected. Embrace it and be persistent. To say it jovially: law of large numbers (resubmit, resubmit, resubmit) will eventually help you.

5. Is failure/rejection in academia something you discuss with students that you supervise?

All the time! I am actually preparing them for rejection from the first day of their work. Statistically speaking there is a much higher chance that any work will be rejected, so it is critical to psychologically prepare students for this (quite common) event. And since I am the person that sees glass half empty (rather then half-full), projection of my defeatism makes it even easier.

6. What do you do when you receive a rejection?

I am a person that over-excites about many things (either failure or rejection), so to keep my head clean I run. I find running more of a meditative ritual, rather than a physique-improving task, I started running during my second year of my PhD and I run ever since. My PR is 48:27 for 10k, which proves I do not run for the records.

7. What about when you receive good news? Any traditions/rituals there?

See my earlier answer. Whenever I can, I go with my wife to a restaurant to celebrate. Also, I thank my students for their efforts (success is never a lonesome adventure) by inviting them to spend some time together outside the university.

8. Are there any opportunities you didn’t take that you wish you had (so you could add them to either your “success” or your “failure” CV)?

I was too late with my NWO Vidi grant proposal writing preparations, so I had just one chance to apply, which ended up in rejection. All the EU proposals I mentioned earlier that were rejected I consider to be a pure lottery. There were naturally some other (less critical) failures but overall I am happy with the choices I made.

9. Can you think of something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t find in a “success” CV?

Success is built on perseverance and daily progress, so the list of mini-successes would be long… but certainly not worth putting in your CV. Would successfully submitting a paper at 5 AM in the morning after a 24 writing streak would be something worth putting in your CV? I’m doubtful.

10. If you could add a compulsory section to all CVs you receive and send, what would this section be called?

If we could measure “grit” (how persevere one is in reaching ambitious goals despite all setbacks) effectively and objectively I would be happy to see it in all CVs.

11. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Accept that nobody (including yourself and all academics) is perfect, so embrace that things around you will not as fast and professional as you would anticipate.

How I Fail S01E19: Emanuele Trucco (PhD’90, Computer Vision)

 
For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Emanuele (Manuel) Trucco, MSc, PhD, FRSA, FIAPR. He is the NRP Chair of Computational Vision in Computing, School of Science and Engineering, at the University of Dundee, and an Honorary Clinical Researcher of NHS Tayside. He has been active since 1984 in computer vision and since 2002 in medical image analysis, resulting in more than 250 refereed papers and 2 textbooks (one of which an international standard in his days, with >3,000, Google Scholar Jan 2017).He directs VAMPIRE (Vessel Assessment and Measurement Platform for Images of the Retina), an international research initiative led by the Universities of Dundee and Edinburgh, and several large EPSRC and NIHR projects on retinal biomarkers and diabetes precision medicine. Recent projects have focused on robotic hydrocolonoscopy and whole-body MR angiographic data. Manuel’s hobbies (too many to do any well enough) include playing music (guitar, Scottish bagpipes), reading (avidly), drawing cartoons (not often enough), cooking (often) and running half-marathons (not every week, thank you).

1. Hi Manuel, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Genova, Italy, birthplace of Cristoforo Colombo who discovered America and is therefore indirectly responsible for consequences like Donald Trump. I live in Edinburgh, deemed the “Athens of the North” during the XVIII-century Scottish Enlightenment, and still a wonderful place to be for academics (three universities, various colleges), lawyers, tourist operators and, well, tourists. I work in Dundee, home of two universities and of the Tay Bridge immortalized by the unbelievably terrible poem by William MacGonagall “The Tay Bridge Disaster” (if you think you cannot write poetry, take a look). I have three children, now old enough to accept my many idiosyncrasies without being openly embarrassed; or perhaps they have learnt to disguise embarrassment effectively. I like people more than roles, and the well-known quote “it is incredible how much you can achieve when nobody claims the credit”. I try to organize my research group, and any group I am involved with, accordingly.

2. Could you share some of your own memorable failures with us?

I imagine you are asking about failures in my work career. The first thing which springs to mind is not grasping occasions immediately when they appear. I recall the very good reviews we got when my and Alessandro Verri’s book appeared in 1998 (yes, I am that old). That created a number of opportunities that we never embraced, including a second edition; we could have done several, thinking about it. Another thing, and a very important one, is recognizing the border between being realistic and undervaluing yourself. I think many of us can do more than we think ourselves capable of. Par contre, there seem to be people who think they have done much more than they have actually. We are all different, and clusters of people and collaborations form accordingly.

3. Do you in general keep track of your failures somewhere? If yes – how and if yet, why not?

I do not keep a written track or anything of the sort, but try to learn from mistakes. I think significant failures stay with us anyway, and we must learn to cope with them. I cannot help thinking of “significant” as meaning “having an influence on our feelings”. That to me does not include a paper rejected by an important conference, normally, but (for instance) being disappointed by a friend – or by myself – in something serious.

4. What do you think about the “CV of Failures”?

I think two things are important. One is to learn from failures so that we avoid similar mistakes in the future. The second is not to obsess about failures, which may lead to depression and underestimating ourselves. That is a very serious risk. We all fail every now and then. We must always look at the bright side of life (yes, this is a citation).

5. Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure? Has this process changed throughout your career?

Of course: I wait for the next full moon, I climb the nearest hill and dance waiving a ritual wooden stick. Not really. I cannot say I have a process or ritual. I have realized that the way we deal with failures depend on many parameters, including the kind of failure, your age, your experience, the people who support you, and so on. I can see that time plays an important role: you do change, and there are ways of controlling this change, but not all of it. A good thing is that you get a higher-level view of the world, and you should be able to contextualize better whatever happens. A bad thing is that you have to stop eating a lot of cheese.

6. What about when you receive good news?

I am a natural collaborator, so good news at work often involve other people, directly or indirectly. I love to share good news and normally organize little or big celebrations.

7. Do you think there are differences between how failure is perceived between different countries, different fields, or perhaps across different career stages?

Goodness! Definitely, all of it. Age makes a difference as the kind of things which may fail and the way you face failure both change. The farther you go in your career, the larger the initiatives you get involved with, be that money or impact or intellectual magnitude of your work. So failure may be larger and more impactful later in your career, and affect more people: if you have a team of contract-paid people working with you, procuring money to keep them employed is your responsibility, for instance. It is difficult to generalize, but it looks like work ethos does change across countries and institutions within a single country. I think a significant amount depends on personal temperament: some of us are truly driven by their work (and normally ipso facto excel at it: recall the 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration adage), some prefer a balance between work and other parts of life; some are born leaders, some born followers (which does not means they are less important: no leader would achieve anything without capable followers). And so on.

8. Would finding somebody’s CV of failures online affect how you assess them, for example if you are a reviewer for a grant?

This is a complex and indeed delicate matter. I think I would not personally look actively for a CV of failures, and suspect that, in the UK at least, one would have to be very careful with what information is considered to employ people. Then there is unbalance: it takes some self-confidence to air one’s failures in public, so some people would do it, some would not, creating probably a bias. So I would not look for a CV of failures unless it were made mandatory for everybody (alas, unlikely).

As to grants, I believe they should be (and are, I hope) assessed both for the value of the work proposed and for the track record of the proposers. In this sense failures do affect decisions, although a track record includes what one has done more than where one has failed. You can always think that a proposer should have done more than they declare, of course, but this is different.

9. Are there any opportunities you didn’t take that you wish you had (even if you would probably add them to your hypothetical failure CV)?

Yes indeed. I feel I have missed serious opportunities in my life, both at work and elsewhere. I could never forget a line in Italo Calvino’s Mister Palomar: “his life looked to him like an uninterrupted series of missed occasions” (my translation from Italian). My life does not look to me like that, fortunately, but there were several big occasions missed. I think it is hugely important to have good advisors, especially in the early stages of your life. “Early stages” depend on what you do, so they extend much longer than we imagine. And open, good-humoured friends are invaluable – always.

10. Can you think of something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t find in a “success” CV?

All successes you achieve in your non-work life qualify. Seeing my children starting to achieve their own success in their lives, independent of me, is one of the best experiences I can recall. I hope there will be much more if it. I also believe that maintaining a strong sense of humour in life is a huge asset. If I have one, of course, is not for me to say (unless I develop a split personality).

11. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Stop! Think. Take time. Is this really the best course of action? Have you considered the consequences for you, and for others?

How I Fail S01E18: Mike Yassa (PhD’10, Neurobiology and Behavior)

How I Fail: Mike Yassa (PhD'10, Neurobiology and Behavior)

  For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Michael A. Yassa, Associate Professor and Chancellor’s Fellow at the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the
Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences. You can find him on the web, FB and Twitter, and the same holds for his lab (web, FB, Twitter).

1. Hi Mike, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a neurobiologist by training, but tend to dabble quite broadly in other related disciplines. I received my undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University in neuroscience where I first fell in love with the brain and studying the human mind in particular. I took a freshman seminar called “Mind and Brain” by the late Steve Yantis, who I came to know and grew close with as a colleague when I started my first faculty position at Johns Hopkins, before his untimely and tragic passing after a hard-fought battle with cancer. The course, and Steve’s fervor in teaching it, simply changed my life. It sparked the interest, curiosity and passion for brain science that I continue to have today.

After getting my PhD from UC Irvine, I started my research program at Johns Hopkins in Psychological and Brain Sciences, where I stayed from 2010-2014. In 2014, I moved my lab, students and staff in tow, to UC Irvine where I have been since. In 2016, I was appointed Director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Today, my lab studies the neural mechanisms of learning and memory using multimodal imaging, neurophysiology, and behavior. We apply the work to several diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, epilepsy and others. My life is fast-paced and caffeine-fueled, attempting to balancing family, research, teaching, mentorship, and Center leadership with only moderate success.

2. Can you share any of your own memorable failures?

Gladly. There are so many it’s hard to pick just one. Let’s just say I’ve learned to develop crocodile skin from the sheer number of rejections and failures.

One of my most memorable experiences was applying to the DP2 NIH Director’s Initiative New Innovator grant. I applied in 2010 before I started my tenure-track position at Hopkins. Now you have to put this in context a bit. I had helped my PI secure two grants focusing on my research, an R03 and an R01, both funded on the first try.  I somehow managed to luck into a tenure-track position without a postdoctoral fellowship. Needless to say, I had supreme confidence in my abilities to write a grant and get funded through this initiative. I remember checking the review results at NIH Commons with much anticipation. And there it was. Unscored.

I refreshed the page, checked and re-checked thinking this must be some kind of mistake. But it was true. I spent several weeks in a state of confusion. I had just published several papers that I thought were my best work and compiled the best ideas I had into one bad-ass grant that should have been funded. What happened? Then the summary statement became available and the situation became very clear. Before I saw the summary statement, I expected that perhaps there was one critical issue I needed to address or that may be a resubmission can be done quickly for the deadline upcoming in two weeks. It was not to be.

The summary statement was my sudden crash back to reality. The reviewers tore apart every possible aspect of the proposal. It felt like every thought I had was somehow invalidated. It was soul-crushing to say the least. Worse, I came to realize over the weeks that followed that they were right. Every comment had a basis and every critique was substantiated. My ego was knocked down in a big way. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I look back on that grant now and credit the reviews with shaping my perspective on granting and writing as well as showing me that good scientists must be humble and persistent. Humility and persistence were my two biggest lessons. I still struggle with both occasionally, but I am certainly a lot better than I was in 2010. This failure, and in particular it happening so early in my career, shaped future successes.

3. You tweeted about your grants folder with several successes but also many rejections. Do you do this with other things as well, for example papers?

I have not thought about posting rejected papers but that’s not a bad idea. Those folders would be considerably longer and I would have no problem at all sharing them, except that I truly have never given up on any writing project (maybe it’s pathological persistence). Papers may take years sometimes to publish, but I don’t have a “unsuccessful papers” folder. It’s simply a “papers in prep” folder… that happens to be quite substantial.

I think that BioRxiv and other venues for posting preprints makes it so that no paper is ever really a “failure”. Papers are different than grants in my opinion. While one can have a failed grant that’s been submitted and resubmitted to no avail, and it becomes critical to shift gears and re-conceive things, papers a little bit different. They can get rejected for a variety of different reasons even in the absence of conceptual flaws. So I don’t tend to think of them as failures but more as works in progress.

I am still quite new to sharing about failure to be honest. And I was not sure I was ready for the response. Now that I’ve done it, I can tell you it has been extremely rewarding, especially to hear from others who have had similar experience or junior scientists who were somehow inspired by it. It was certainly a risk and in fact some colleagues reached out in disbelief. I did not regret it one bit. My highest priority at this time to mentor and inspire a new generation of scientists.

I think sharing for me stems from the fact that I been witnessing worrisome trends in the field, among junior scientists especially. Some feel discouraged by the relative paucity of jobs, funding, and opportunities in general. While I don’t deny that any of that is true, there’s a certain mindset that allows some to thrive and be successful. Those individuals tend to treat failure as growth opportunities. They wear those badges with pride and recognize that there is no success without failure.

4. Have you always been this open about failure or is it something that developed throughout your career? Were there any mentors that influenced this?

I’ve always been open about data, tools, sharing and collaboration, but perhaps not as open about failure outside my lab. Within the lab, however, we are very open with each other about rejections, revisions, writing and rewriting. The complete openness we have now came with time. As my lab got bigger, and as my daughters got older, I increasingly felt the need to be more open about what it takes to succeed.

In terms of mentorship, I’ve had excellent ones, too many to name, over the years and they’ve all modeled terrific handling of failure and shown me that rational thought in the aftermath of a grant rejection is critical for growth. This is one of the reasons why I think modeling this behavior for my students and for junior scientists in general is important. I had that opportunity and it shaped who I am as a scientist.

5. Is this something you actively discuss with your lab? Do you think this affects how your students approach submitting grants, papers?

My lab has seen the few days following a grant that goes unfunded, especially one on which we all worked very hard. The beard grows, the mood stiffens, and everything is tense for a little while. But it resolves quickly and we get right back to writing and doing research. That period of “grief” has become much shorter in recent times (as short as an hour for some very recent ones).

But every rejection still hurts. How can it not? We are all human after all and rejection is something we all detest. The key is to get over that basic human emotion quickly and recognize the growth opportunity that is available. It is of course much more difficult to see this perspective when the fate of a lab depends on that unfunded grant.

When we get paper reviews back, the first thing I do is send the email with brief comments to the student who took the lead on writing the paper. We may exchange a few words about “Reviewer number 3” but ultimately, we recognize that we could do better. We craft a plan to improve the paper, set a new timeline for resubmission or revision and take steps forward. Handling rejection becomes a part of the graduate student experience. It is critical for growth.

I worry more about the ones who don’t get a sufficient number of rejections while they’re in grad school. We do the same with talk critiques. No one needs constant pats on the back. Everyone could use constructive criticism, so that’s where we focus. We have two buzzwords in the lab, “bulletproof” and “crocodile skin”. My aim is to make each of my students and postdocs bulletproof when they give a talk or write a paper or submit a proposal. This is the first step. The second step is learning how to handle rejection well.. what I call, “having crocodile skin”.

6. Do you or your lab have any traditions associated with failures or successes?

Ha! Yes, we do. We have a paper pony (literally a small stuffed “My Little Pony” doll – don’t judge). The pony remains in the possession of the graduate student or postdoc who most recently got a paper accepted while in the lab. There’s a formal handing over of the pony from one student to another to celebrate each other’s accomplishment. We typically do celebrate new papers and new grants together in the lab. We do not have traditions associated with failure yet, but it’s never too late.

7.  I noticed in your Twitter bio you are passionate about science communication and open science. Do you think these things and being open about failures often go together?

I believe those two are highly interrelated. Being passionate about science communication necessitates that we are honest about the process. Failure is part of that process and weighs in much more heavily than success. I strongly believe we should be as open about it as we are about success.

8. Do you think that there is a more negative attitude towards failure in academia than in other fields?

It depends. If we are thinking of feelings and attitudes towards one’s own failures, I’ve certainly seen this affect people, including myself, in different ways. In some cases, it can lead to despair and in some others, it is brushed off quickly. It depends on the magnitude of the failure and the consequences for a laboratory’s research program. I don’t think it’s any more negative than other fields. Certainly, the same is true for business enterprises, perhaps even more so.

9. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Given what I know now, I would tell my past self to get over failures more quickly and move on. I spent too much early in my career worrying about failure and wallowing in self-pity every time I failed. That time could have been better spent learning from those failures and planning the next endeavor based on what is learned.

How I Fail S01E17: Melanie Stefan (PhD’09, Computational Biology)

How I Fail: Melanie Stefan

Photo by Chris Coe
For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at the Edinburgh Medical School: Biomedical Sciences. Melanie wrote the original “CV of Failures” Nature article in 2010 and since then has inspired many scientists to share their failures as well. You can find more about Melanie on her website, blog and Twitter.

1. Hi Melanie, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am interested in how we can use computer models to understand what happens in the brain when we learn. My research group is based in Edinburgh, Scotland at the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences and the Patrick Wild Centre for Research into Autism, Fragile X Syndrome and Intellectual Disabilities. But I also spend 12 weeks a year in Haining, China, where I teach on the joint Edinburgh-Zhejiang BSc in Biomedical Sciences.

Originally, I am from Austria. I studied Genetics and Mathematics (because I couldn’t decide), and then did a PhD in computational biology with Nicolas Le Novère at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge. After my PhD, I went to Japan for six months for a short-term fellowship, and then moved to the US to do a postdoc at Caltech. After that, I took up a postdoctoral higher education teaching fellowship at Harvard Medical School, where I worked on incorporating quantitative skills into the life sciences graduate curriculum. I moved to Edinburgh to start my own research group in 2015.

2. Can you share any of your own memorable failures? Is the fellowship you wrote about in the Nature article still an important one, or have others overshadowed it since then?

There is one memorable early failure though, that I still think about: When I was working on my MSc project (in Developmental Genetics), my supervising postdoc sat me down one day and asked me to seriously reconsider whether science was right for me. Of course, my scientific career since then has turned out OK, but this still sometimes comes back to haunt me (especially when I fail at something or have a flash of impostor syndrome!)

The postdoc fellowship I wrote about for the Nature article was very important at the time, because I was getting to the end of my PhD contract, and I did not know where to go from there. I had a great idea for a project, and had identified the lab I wanted to work with at Caltech, but there was no money, so getting a fellowship was really essential. And because this project was what I really wanted to do, I hadn’t applied for other postdoc jobs, so I really had nothing else lined up. Looking back now, it’s easy to say it wasn’t so bad after all, because I did end up getting another fellowship (thank you EMBO!) and things worked out. But of course, when you are in the middle of it, you do not know that it will work out in the end.

Failures since then have not been so bad (though of course I have had my share), because I now know to put them into perspective.

3. When you wrote the article, did you also share your CV of failures? Is it a conscious choice not to share it right now?

I did not share it publicly, although I had one and showed it to people who asked to see it. To be honest, I was a bit afraid to do it before I had a faculty job. Indeed, when I was applying for jobs out of my first postdoc, I googled my name and the first thing that came up was “A CV of failures”. It’s not necessarily the first thing you want associated with your name, especially when you are on the job market!

Now, it’s a bit different. I like to think I am a bit braver (and also in a more secure position), but now the problem is more that I haven’t kept up with my failures systematically enough, so a CV would necessarily be incomplete.

4. Johannes Haushofer has called his CV of failures a “meta-failure” because it attracted more attention than his research – is this similar for you?

In some ways, yes. I joke about having become “the poster child of failures”, because often that is what people know about me (rather than the awesome and really interesting science I do). On the other hand, I think the attention that the topic of failure gets speaks to how universal an experience it is, and how important it is to many people. It’s nice to see that something you write resonates with people (and frankly, I don’t get that a lot with my work on theoretical neuronal biochemistry!)

5. Has the CV of failure changed the way you approach different opportunities, for example applying for more/less things?

It has made me aware that failure is a normal part of the process. A friend of mine said “If you never fail, you are not trying hard enough”, and I think that is absolutely true. So, I have a more detached view of failure, and I am more ready to take risks and go for opportunities, even if I might fail.

6. Do you keep track of failures in a different way? Does the list contain only “traditional” rejections (jobs/grants/papers) or also other non-successes?

I keep track of failures differently in different domains. When I was applying for jobs, I had a spreadsheet that listed every application I had sent with its status (open, rejected, second round etc.) I also have a spreadsheet with all my grant applications, including reviewer feedback, so I can go back and improve on future rounds. Similar for rejected papers.

In recent years, I have also become more interested in the idea of “gamifying failure”, in a way. It started when I was applying for faculty positions and complaining to my mum about how many candidates there were for each job. My mum suggested a deal: If I got to 30 rejection letters, we would open a bottle of champagne and celebrate. It made it a bit easier to deal with rejections, because now at least, they counted towards the champagne party.

I also buy a lottery ticket every time I apply for a grant. As long as I manage to bring in more grant money than lottery money, I feel like I am winning.

Those are maybe silly things, but they make it easier to cope with failure, and in particular, to go out and try again.

7. Is there a difference between what “rejection” and “failure” mean to you? Should we / should we not be using these interchangeably and why?

I use them interchangeably a lot, because in my working life, this is often the shape that failure takes (e.g. grants or papers being rejected). Those types of failures are also quite clear-cut, easy to quantify and quite closely linked to our career progression.

But I start to worry more about other forms of failure that are maybe less easy to quantify, less clear-cut and more internal. Taking too long to reply to an e-mail. Not giving a student the support they need. Neglecting a project. These are harder to assess, because it depends on one’s own standards, and often we don’t take time to check whether what we do is well aligned with our goals. They also vary in importance and consequence.

8. Do you think there are differences in how different groups of people (based on for example gender, nationality, type of academic position) approach failure? Is there a bias in the CV of failures we are seeing?

https://xkcd.com/license.html

Privilege plays a role. There is that thing where when a person from the majority in-group fails, it’s their own failure. But if a person from a minority fails, their failure becomes exemplary of everyone else belonging to the same group (like in this xkcd comic: https://xkcd.com/385/

There is also research that women are more likely to be hired on the basis of their track record, but men are likely to be hired on the basis of their potential. I am sure that people of colour, disabled people or other minorities face similar challenges.

So, there are definitely groups that have a higher in-built resilience to failure, because it does not affect them in the same way.

9. If you are in a position of evaluating a CV for a job or grant application and you find the applicant has a CV of failures – does that influence your decisions?

It would certainly make me take interest in the candidate. Compiling a list of one’s failures is an exercise in self-reflection. Having that level of self-insight is something I value, as is having the confidence to be open about their failures and start a conversation. I think it would make me look on the candidate more favourably.

10. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Everybody else is going through similar experiences. Talk to people. Learn from failures. It’s all going to be OK.

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