How I Fail S0204: Susanna Harris (PhD’20, Microbiology and Immunology)

Susanna L Harris, PhD,  believes in building communities through communication. As a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Susanna works in science marketing and engagement. Susanna founded PhD Balance to break the stigma around mental illness in higher education and create spaces where grad students can have open conversations around their most difficult challenges. She hosts and presents public speaking events about mental health, academic support, and science communication. You can also find her on Twitter @SusannaLHarris

Hi Susanna, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?

Hi! I just finished up my PhD in microbiology and immunology at UNC Chapel Hill, and was one of the first in my department to defend virtually. Certainly not the ending I’d expected after nearly 6 years, but I am thrilled to be done and to have started a new career in science marketing and comms.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

I’ve talked about it before, but the biggest failure I’ve ever experienced was failing my written qualifying exam. This was extremely demoralizing for more than just the fact that I had to redo this exam and face expulsion from my program – my personal life at the time was really unstable, I wasn’t happy with myself, and I was having serious doubts about my ability as a researcher. Failing this written exam was like proof of not being good enough for grad school and that I wasn’t very good at anything in my life at the time. No matter what people told me, I saw this as the badge of dishonor that told everyone I was a fraud in selling myself as a competent student and scientist.

What helped me is that I had a therapist with whom I met twice a month. Although I didn’t tell her the full extent of what I was dealing with at the time, it was still helpful to know I had someone to talk to.

You have been working on normalizing conversations about mental health in academia. Can you say a bit more about how you got started with this?

The third year of my PhD, starting with the failure of my written qualifying exam, was hell. Yes, rewriting a grant proposal in isolation again was challenging, but my mental health had always been unstable and this was just a new catalyst for my mental illness. I was fortunate to have gotten through that year.  I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember (well before I was officially diagnosed) and began experiencing suicidal ideations in high school. I felt like I needed to hide my struggles throughout and keep it tucked away from everyone around me in academia. I knew that others struggled, but I had no idea that nearly 40% of graduate students faced symptoms of severe anxiety and depression until I read a Nature Biotech paper in 2018. Had I known about these statistics, I might not have waited so long to get help or felt as guilty in needing to take time off (something I didn’t do but should have). I started speaking so that others would know they weren’t alone, either.

Have you had any negative responses about this?

I’ve only directly gotten negative responses from people who knew me before I started speaking about my mental illness and preferred I keep on the always-optimistic facade going. They missed the “old me” that made them more comfortable, especially when they themselves had underlying mental health issues that they didn’t want to face. (Again, not all had mental health issues, but many who initially suggested that I was overreacting have since sought treatment and told me this was where their opinion had come from.)

Indirectly, I’ve gotten to see some private messages from folks who are annoyed by the press coverage of mental illness in higher education, because they feel that this problem is overblown or that students should get used to the system. To be honest, I’ve learned to accept that these people might never accept or appreciate the importance of supporting mental health and increasing awareness: I don’t do my work for them. I want to love academia, so I keep fighting to make it a better place for others. 

Why do you think mental health issues are associated with failure? Is it a general thing, or stronger in research/academia? Do you think this is changing? 

Mental health distress and failure are so often tied together – failures can affect our mental health, and failing mental health can cause us to not reach our goals. Thus, it’s easy to conflate the two. For me, the biggest differentiator is that someone with mental illness may fail more if they don’t have proper help and support, and failure might affect those with tenuous mental health more than others, nobody *is* a failure. Living with mental illness, whether I am currently struggling or not, does not make me less valuable as a person.

This is changing – we know that more people are speaking about their mental illness, their experiences with therapy and medication, and are championing change more than ever before. It’s a slow process, but every voice counts.

You are leading a platform, PhDBalance.com – can you say more how you got started, the format, and some future plans?  

I wanted to share my story and stories of others to break the stigma around mental illness in academia. To do this, I started an Instagram page (called PhDepression at the time) to allow people to talk about their struggles and triumphs while including a photo of themselves to show that mental illness doesn’t always look like someone crying in a corner. The page quickly grew and I brought on an entire team of amazing volunteers to expand into other platforms and collect resources. Going forward, this team is creating new content and formats to allow grad students to connect over shared experiences and talk about the struggles that so many face but are rarely covered in any sort of orientation. From in-person workshops to virtual writing sessions, we are hoping to create supportive structures for all types of dialogue.

What would your advice be for researchers, who want to be more open, but are afraid it will have a negative impact?

Start small. My biggest piece of advice is that everyone needs to talk to somebody, but nobody should talk to everybody. Share yourself and your thoughts with people you trust, and slowly expand outwards. This will allow you to grow your own support, which is crucial if you want to then support others.

What is your definition of failure – what things do others consider failures that you don’t, and vice versa? 

This is an interesting one, because my definition might seem harsher than most. For me, any goal I set or anything I “intend” to do that doesn’t happen is a failure. If I meant to finish writing an article by Friday evening and don’t get it done until Saturday, that’s a failure. If I applied for a position at a job and don’t get an offer, that’s a failure. If I wanted to wake up at 7AM but hit snooze until 7:05AM that’s a failure. I do this because it reminds me that 1) failure happens all the time, and 2) it doesn’t have to be a big deal. This mindset has helped to desensitize me against failure and allows me to try things where I am almost certain I will fail. I’ve already failed 5 times today, so what is one more?

What are some things about failure that people say, that you find absolutely untrue? 

I dislike when people say “failure is a great thing” – yes, it absolutely can be, but it’s also normal to feel sad or angry when we fail. I want to normalize being upset and demotivated by failure so that we don’t have to pretend we are always happy. Showing our disappointment and frustration allows others to connect with us.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

I’m doing a pretty terrible job of assessing how much I can accomplish in a day – somehow, even after 28 years of being a human, I think I can do much more work in an hour than is possible. And I predict I can work more hours in a day than I can over a long period of time. It’s setting me up to miss deadlines and underperform, and it’s a frustrating thing to try to overcome.

What types of things – successes, failures, habits – do you keep track of?

I keep to-do lists to make sure I’m accomplishing what I need to do. I track the amount of time I spend on different aspects of work. I journal a bit on how I am feeling. But I try to see these as ledgers, not judgements. I almost never look back unless I’m trying to remember what day I did something. It’s much more about being aware in the present moment and allowing myself to express how I am doing without fear of judgement.

Are there any resources you would recommend to the readers that have helped you? 

I love using Toggl (app and web-based platform) to track my time instead of tracking my accomplishments. Instead of saying “I need to write three paragraphs today” I say “I need to write for three hours today.” Maybe I write for three hours and get two pages, maybe I write for three hours and delete more than I write. Either way, I’ve accomplished my goal.

What would a ten year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

I think they would too-easily see the successes as my big moments and my failures as little stumbling blocks that eventually made me stronger. This is true, but my best advice for them is that the failures won’t feel good in the moment. Don’t feel like you need to see them as good things if they don’t appear to be yet. Trust that you are learning and growing, and that you will eventually appreciate them.

Using Kanban boards in Todoist

I only wrote about how I use Kanban for managing research projects quite recently. Here I described a physical Kanban board as well as “Kanban-like” workflows in various apps. What I didn’t know at the time, is that Todoist was working on a boards feature, which I first used in a beta version, and which has now been released!

Todoist was kind enough to feature one of my boards in their first blog post on boards, but in this post I give a few more details on how I now use the boards feature!

Research project overview

The board that I wrote about before, and that Todoist featured, is my overview of research projects. This was a picture of my physical version from a few months ago:

And here is how the Todoist version looks like (image credit: Todoist):

todoist board feature veronika

The columns are similar to the physical version, going left to right in chronological order (i.e. ideas on the left, published papers on the right). Several cards link to the projects for those specific papers.

Blog posts / How I Fail

Other boards that I use are for my blog posts and How I Fail interviews. The How I Fail board is especially important to emphasize, since multiple people are involved. Since I do not want to reveal the names of people I haven’t interviewed yet, I cannot post a screenshot, but I have several columns here:

  • Idea
  • Invited, waiting for response
  • Accepted, plan interview
  • Schedule blog post
  • Published
  • Declined
  • Dropped

Most of these are self-explanatory – if I invite somebody they can either decline, or accept, and if all goes well the card move to the “published” section. “Dropped” is for people who accepted but then stop responding.

An important thing about such boards is that I would still like to see the topics/names that are “done” but I should not address again, so I don’t want to check-off the todo item. To deal with this, I use priorities and filters, but it is not an elegant solution.

Experience Points (XP)

I also have a board with various tasks, that just need to be done, but are not necessarily part of a project. This often includes scheduling “life admin” appointments, filling in reimbursement forms etc. As somebody on Twitter suggested, “XP” (based on games) seemed to be a more fun name for these tasks :).

Whereas the previous boards have a logical ordering to the columns, this board do not have a specific ordering. Rather, each column is a particular category (stuff to buy, invoices to pay, etc). Once a column gets too long, I try to clear it by doing several similar-type things at a time.

Wishlist

I am enjoying the boards functionality in Todoist, and imagine I will be using it more. What I am still missing is being able to define your own rules for how a board works, for example:

  • Cards in “maybe” column do not show up in as “open tasks”
  • Cards in “waiting for” remind you to check the status, at a specific time interval
  • Cards in “done” are visible, but do not show up as “open tasks”

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If you are also using Todoist boards, I’d love to see more examples!

How I write cover letters

Following up on some recent (and less recent) discussions on Twitter, I decided to share a few of my applications for academic positions. Although the tips here are specifically about the cover letters, for context I am also adding the CVs that I applied with at the time. Depending on the application, other documents may have been required as well.

Applications

I am sharing three applications from different periods of time:

  • 2010 when applying for my PhD
  • 2014 when applying for a postdoc
  • 2016 when applying for a faculty position

These led to me at least getting an interview (see CV of Failures) and/or also getting the position. You can find them all in a single zip file here.

A bit of a disclaimer – I do NOT think these are the best examples out there at all, but I’m sharing these for transparency, as realistic examples. I also have to note that I have likely benefitted from applying to places “close by” in my network.

Cover letter structure

When I write letters – and I have tried these with the letters above, I try to use the following structure:

  • General introduction of the letter – who am I, why am I applying
  • My research background and how it fits the position
  • Another thing that is special about me
  • Summarize why it’s a good fit & plans for the future

Often this translates into a paragraph per bullet point, but as the examples show there is some flexibility there.

As much as possible, I try to address the person who is going to read the application, using their correct title. If you are not sure, I would go with “Dear committee” since that is the most inclusive version.

Tips

Above I have highlighted which parts I think are the most important. All of it is about personalizing your letter to the position. Researching the website of the lab, the long-term vision document of the university, etc., can give you a lot of information on what to write.

It is also important not to write too much – although I highlight a few things from my CV, I do not repeat everything in detail. And, I think it is good to write in a way that sounds natural to you. Although I think these are not the best letters at all, I do still find that I sound like myself, even though one of these is from 10 years ago! Note that I do NOT have an in-depth story of how motivated I am to solve a major scientific problem, because that is just not me.

Although I do not know it for a fact, I think my “another thing that is special about me” has helped my applications a lot. The exact contents have evolved over the years, but overall I think I tried to focus on activities that can be seen in a leadership context – from organizing student events to outreach on social media.

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That’s all I have to say about my cover letters! I hope these documents are helpful – if you have any questions please leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter!

How I Fail S02E03: Zoë Ayres (PhD’17, Chemistry)

For this How I Fail episode I have the pleasure of introducing Zoë Ayres, PhD. She is a research scientist in the water industry, creating and innovating new technology to ensure water is clean and safe for all. A passionate analytical scientist, her interest is in all things analytical, with a PhD in electrochemical sensor development and X-ray Fluorescence. She is also interested in improving mental health provision in academia, working as a mental health advocate in her ‘spare’ time. You can find out more about her on her website or on Twitter (@zjayres).

Hi Zoë, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?

Hi Veronika, 

I am an analytical chemist by day and a mental health advocate the rest of my time. Although I left academia a few years ago, my mental health experience left a lasting impression on me, and I am still working in the space to improve academic mental health resources. I’ve aimed to improve awareness of common mental health issues people face with my poster series, as well as running campaigns and initiatives such as my #100voices project in order to normalise mental health within academia.

My scientific career up to this point has been varied, studying forensic science at undergraduate, before doing a master’s degree in analytical chemistry (and loving it), which inspired me to go on to do a PhD in electrochemical sensor development. I postdoc’ed for a year before landing my dream job in industry where I get to research and tinker with things most days!

I do, however, like to make sure I’m not all work and no play, so I have a range of hobbies and things I enjoy when off the clock. I like to go on walks, do field archery, and bake a lot (macarons are my favourite!) I’ve recently started doing wild swimming and I love it!

What’s a memorable failure for you?

I have two that spring to mind. The first, failing to get the grades to do straight chemistry at University. This was devastating to me at the time, with all my friends getting their results and crying with happiness whilst I cried with absolute misery in the corner. I ended up going to do forensic science which I loved. This ultimately led me to discovering analytical chemistry (which I feel might not have taken centre-stage for a pure chemistry program). I also felt I had something to prove and worked really hard, graduating at the top of my class, which set me up well for my future steps.

The other major failure was during my PhD. Even though I did checks before running my analysis, I managed to flood the X-ray Fluorescence instrument with water, damaging the optics. I’m to this day embarrassed by how much the repairs cost. It was a real low point for me. Ultimately this led me being put on another project which went much better than the other one I was on previously (as I had no equipment to use! Eek!), leading to a range of publications and even patents, which set me up well for my industry job, so I wouldn’t change it for the world!

You have been working on normalizing being open about mental health in academia. Can you say a bit more about how you got started with this?

I struggled with my own mental health during graduate school for the first time. It came as a real shock. As I slowly started opening up to my peers about it, I realised how common it was. It was a natural response as a researcher to delve into researching it, and it has become something I’m very passionate about.

One of the things that really compels me is that so often the onus of managing mental health is placed on the individual, yet there are so many similar themes that tie many peoples’ mental health stories together (impostor syndrome, failure, financial concerns etc), that there are clear patterns and behaviours. I believe institutions should be helping their students and staff manage these common themes for an improved (and healthier) graduate student experience.

My mental health work has largely taken the form of creating posters to raise awareness of the issues faced at each career stage of academia. I really got into (scientific) poster creation when I was feeling down and like a failure during my own PhD – it really helped me to channel myself into something creative – so it means a lot that I can use this skill now to help people.

Do you think (mental) health issues are associated with failure? What problems does this create for early career researchers?  

Yes – I really do. At undergraduate level we are often given scenarios or experiments which are designed to work based on pre-defined and well understood theory (provided we can follow the instructions properly!). When we get round to doing novel research in academia, it can be the first time we have ever experienced failure. This can be crushing as an early career researcher – it can lead us to question our capabilities and whether we belong in research at all. Because many of us don’t talk openly about failure, it can lead to early career researchers looking round at their peers, and only seeing their successes, further compounding feelings of inadequacy and making it difficult to speak to people about what they are experiencing. All of which can have a negative effect on wellbeing. 

Is the situation changing? And are there differences between different fields, countries etc (perhaps some are more open to change than others)? 

I think mental health provision for graduate students is at varying different stages across the world and even across institutions within countries. The variability and no available “best practice” is one of the things that I am actively working to change. This is also why I love Twitter as a social platform to distribute my mental health work. It allows it to reach different corners of the globe. I had someone recently contact me that was absolutely mind blown that I was talking about mental health in academia so openly because it is still not even mentioned within their research institution. There is still a lot of work to be done!

Have you had any negative responses about this? What would your advice be for researchers, who want to be more open, but are afraid it will have a negative impact?

Luckily, most people have been very kind to me, and I’ve had no major negative responses. I’ve had a few people tell me I should be more positive about academia – I’d rather be truthful.

It’s common to be afraid of opening up about mental health concerns for fear of negative repercussions. My advice would be to speak to someone close to you that you trust about how you are feeling – it’s much easier to share the weight of our feelings with someone else. Seeking medical help is also really, really important. We can often feel like how we are feeling is “not enough to bother the professionals with” or “others have it worse”. In reality, how we are feeling is just as valid as anyone else. You are deserving of help.

What is your definition of failure – what things do others consider failures that you don’t, and vice versa?

It would have once been not making the grades, not getting the publications, not getting my dream house. Now, I think failure to me would be not putting myself and my well being first. It’s often said, but I genuinely believe that you can’t look after or help anyone else if you don’t look after yourself first. I have so much more capacity if I prioritise myself first. 

I often feel in academia that we are meant to be at our apex of only one subject area and be the ultimate expert in one area. I pride myself in having different interests – not all science related. I’m sure that is seen as failure to some. 

Some might see success as getting the most publications or getting a big grant. For me I see success as putting people first. Get that right, everything else follows suit.

Often people say “the only failure is not trying” – do you agree with this, why/why not? 

Absolutely not. There are a range of situations where continuing to “try” can be really damaging. I think some people regularly have to deal with trying to survive in academia, be it due to bullying, harassment or systemic racism, ableism (to name just a few). Sometimes the biggest show of strength is acknowledging that the situation is not conducive to our mental health and getting out of the situation. I wish this wasn’t the case and that academia was a space for everyone to thrive, but sometimes this simply isn’t the case.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

I try not to think I’m “failing” at anything, and that everything is a learning opportunity. I also try not to be hard on myself – if I’m not willing to fail, due to being a perfectionist, I can find it hard to try new hobbies because I am scared of being “rubbish” at it. I try and push past this and do it anyway.

Now I come to think of it – there are a pile of books under my bed collecting dust that I’ve been meaning to read…a challenge for the future I guess!

What types of things – successes, failures, habits, mood etc – do you track regularly?

I try to keep a list of my successes (academic and otherwise). I find this to be a really valuable way to help combat impostor syndrome when it raises its ugly head. 

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

I think, for me, it’s that there are so many stories that normalise failure – I think it is this collective set of experiences that helps highlight just how common failure is. By having all the stories there to access it amplifies that failure does not define us, but we shouldn’t miss it out of our narrative either. It is part of us all, just like mental health is.

What would a ten year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

I think they’d be a bit sad (I didn’t become a world-famous archaeologist). But in all seriousness, I like to think that I’ve turned out okay and that 10-year-old me would be happy with how I’ve turned out.

If I could teach me anything at that age, it’d be to worry about what others think less. I’ve learned that you can be kind and still irritate people, be gracious and still grind someone’s gears, be accommodating and still have it thrown back at you. I honestly think we can’t please everyone and we can be much happier if we accept that early on. 

I’d also say to find happiness in other people’s achievements as well as my own – our own achievements are all too often few and far between. It’s good for our own mental health to find joy in other people’s success. Lifting others up rather than scrabbling to compete is a much happier environment for all involved!

*****

Thanks again Zoë!

How to share papers with your students in Evernote

Although I have only supervised a couple of students during my tenure track, I already found often saying the same thing during each meeting – in particular, what are good papers to start reading about a particular topic. Since I was already an avid Evernote (get 1 month premium for free here) user, I decided to see if shared Evernote notebooks could be the solution to share papers with students. This might be also an option if you are organizing a journal club. Read on for the solution!

Initial setup 

I was already keeping track of the papers I read in Evernote – see this post on organizing my bibliography with Evernote and Jabref, but I will recap some things here. 

Remember that Evernote is not a reference manager, but it is where I store the paper PDFs and notes about the papers. Jabref is where I store the references. The only link between the two is the Bibtex key, which is how I name the note in Evernote. 

This is my paper collection i Evernote – 864 in total – and each note is a paper (or report, etc).

Each note is at least the PDF I saved (below), and perhaps some notes I made about the paper, like this: 

And this is how it looks like in Jabref:

Since there is no direct link, I might have a paper in one place but not the other, but papers that I cited in my own research in the last few years, are definitely in both.

Sharing your paper collection with others

Since Evernote allows sharing notebooks, to have a shared collection of papers all you need is to share the notebook with the people involved. For the students I was supervising, I used the “can edit” as permissions so they could also add new notes, annotate papers etc. But you could also choose “can view” option if you prefer.

Sharing a collection of 800+ papers is probably not effective 🙂 But what helps here a lot, is the tagging system of Evernote. When I add a paper to this notebook, I add several types of tags:

  • Type (paper, thesis, etc)
  • Topics (specific types of machine learning, applications etc)
  • Projects (a specific project where I might want to cite this paper)
  • “Priority” (p1, p2, p3 or p4)

I have been using the type, topics and projects for a while, but the priority was an addition after I shared the notebook. Roughly, the priorities translate as:

  • p1 – everybody in the lab should read this
  • p2 – important paper for many projects in the lab
  • p3 – relevant to some projects
  • p4 – not related to our research but more “general interest”

With these tags, you can then do queries on topic & priority. So for example if your project is on transfer learning and you want to find all papers I might suggest, the query “tag:ml-transfer & tag:p2” gets you 43 results. Still a lot, but now it’s doable to screen the results and narrow them down. 

It’s good to mention that since the notebook is originally mine, only my tags can be used within the notebook. So somebody with edit permissions would be able to add more of the tags that I use, but not add entirely new tags. 

Pros

  • The system is easy to use, paid account only needed if you want a lot of storage
  • Saves time both for me and for students
  • Less chance to miss a relevant paper
  • Everybody can use their own reference manager if they want

Cons

  • Could limit the way students explore literature
  • Limited commenting possibilities (notes from everyone appear the same by default) 
  • No true integration with a reference manager

Conclusion

This system has been quite helpful for me with several student projects. However, there are many things I am still missing, such as creating your own fields for each paper, and interacting with the annotations through a spreadsheet. (This is possible in Notion, but that is something for another post…)

However, an important quality of any system is that you actually use it. Since I already use Evernote on a daily basis, it works for me. But I’d love to know what everybody else is using for sharing literature with others – please leave a comment below or let me know on Twitter!

How I Fail S02E02: Natalia Bielczyk (PhD’20, Neuroscience)

Dr. Natalia Bielczyk is an entrepreneur, researcher, author, and philanthropist. She graduated from the College of Inter-Faculty Individual Studies in Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Warsaw, Poland, with a triple MS title in Physics, Mathematics, and Psychology. Thereafter, she obtained a PhD in Computational Neuroscience at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In 2018, she launched a public foundation, Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling, aiming to help early career researchers find new careers in industry. She also owns Welcome Solutions, a company developing new tools and practices to help professionals in navigating on the job market, and in finding/creating their dream jobs. Even though she chose to work in the open market, she is still a researcher in her free time and has a strong belief in the compatibility of science and entrepreneurship. She recently released the second edition of her book entitled “What Is out There For me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks”.You can find out more about her on her website or on Twitter.

Hi Natalia, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?  

Hi Veronika, thank you so much for inviting me! 

Well, I guess the best way to start is to say that, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist – a physicist at first, and then a neuroscientist for the last ten years. In recent years, my enthusiasm towards doing science for a living started fading away though, and for multiple reasons. I recently reviewed these reasons here. Funny enough, this text probably got more attention than all my research papers combined ever did!

To briefly summarize this process of disillusion, two important things have happened. Firstly, I understood that the rules of the game in science is not what personally suits me. To make it clear, academia is neither better nor worse than any other place; in every working environment, you have some – written or unwritten – rules of the game and you have to accept these rules or you need to go. I felt that entrepreneurship suits me better for many reasons. For instance, I like the fact that entrepreneurship promotes hard work and the sky’s the limit: the more you work, the more functional products you create, the more problems you solve and for more people, the more you will eventually earn and the more colorful people you will know. On the contrary, in academia, and many other environments it’s often the case that while you are working hard and producing ten papers as a PhD candidate and someone else doesn’t publish anything but rather, sips coffee with the boss at lunch every day, they get the postdoc contract and not you. I also highly enjoy the fact that I have the opportunity to meet the beneficiaries of my work, shake hands, and observe their progress in real-time. This is very rewarding to me – especially given that I used to do fundamental research in neuroscience and I never had that opportunity.

Secondly, the fierce love for neuroscience that I felt in my twenties, slowly faded away. I realized that I’m like an onion – I have layers, and that somewhere deep underneath, I always had yet another interest, namely, interest in people and in their decision making, their choices, and life trajectories. Now, this hidden passion came to the surface and I pursued it.

You recently published a book on careers after a PhD entitled “What is out there for me? The landscape of post-PhD career tracks”. Are there some lessons about failure that you have learned from the people you interviewed? 

Yes, indeed! While collecting materials for the book I interviewed many researchers who moved to industry (as well as a few researchers who made a journey in the opposite direction and migrated to academia to industry) – their testimonials are included in the book as well. What I learned is that the vast majority of these people don’t perceive their previous career choices – including a large part of their life spent in academia – as failures. I actually asked this specific question to every interviewed person. It turned out that only one among over twenty participants had an opinion that the decision to do a PhD was a mistake. This was a very optimistic result! Indeed, it’s better to treat our previous choices and their consequences as lessons rather than failures.

Can you tell us more about your book?

Sure. I wrote this book because over the last three years – ever since my PhD contract expired – I learned a lot about the job market for PhDs. I have a very broad academic background, as I was trained in Physics, Mathematics, Psychology, Economy, and Neuroscience, which is in itself a combination of multiple disciplines of science. I also have some personal interest in sociology, mentoring, self-development, business, and IT. Therefore, I was trying a ton of things and testing myself in multiple roles. I was coordinating a huge online mentoring program for the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, I was trading cryptocurrencies and other speculative assets (and I got completely bust but that’s a material for yet another blog post :)), I was writing white papers for blockchain projects. 

At some point, I decided to find a “normal job.” So, I started applying for jobs to corporations, smaller companies, public institutions. At some point, I realized that my knowledge and experience are not properly valued in the job market. At the same time, wherever I go to the job interview, I never really have the feeling that I’m in the right place – I feel that mentally, I’m very different from people interviewing me. I started analyzing this problem. Since no official textbook about “how the job market looks like” seemed to exist, I went “to the street” and I did a lot of field research by myself. I was talking to people in large organizations, corporations, startups, startup accelerators, consultancy companies. And I started noticing patterns as these people were reporting very common problems. For instance, pretty much every corporate person I talked to, complained that they have too many meetings which often prevents them from completing the actual tasks. After over a year of working full time on this know-how, I decided to wrap up what I knew and give this text a shape of a book. 

The main message of this book is that, 80% of the effort while looking for a job, is to get to know yourself very well – with your values, habits, strengths, and weaknesses – and find a group of people on the job market who think alike. Then, finding a fulfilling job will be only the remaining 20% of the work – learning how to draft a CV and a cover letter, and how to prepare for the interviews, is almost algorithmic. Therefore, in the main part of the book, I highlighted and characterized 8 tribes where PhD graduates typically go to, together which the perks and downsides of each one of them. I also included a lot of self-discovery exercises that will help to better discover where you mentally fit. The second edition of the book with 30 pages of extra information, has just come out on Amazon!

I also eventually found my tribe, and it turned out to be the tribe of entrepreneurs. When I’m among other company owners, I feel supported and understood. And I laugh a lot. Since I wanted to solve the problem associated with academics looking for their first jobs industry, I decided to create a company dedicated to this particular problem.

Are there any lessons or failures you can share about publishing a book in general? 

Ha, that’s a very good question! Even though I wrote one unofficial book as a kid (which was about adventures of my plush toys and it was a bit of a Sin City-style parody of Winnie the Pooh), this time I released my first official book. And this was a major learning point indeed!

Firstly, I decided from the very beginning that I would self-publish through Amazon. This was because I chose for the entrepreneurial way of living for the sake of personal freedom it offers, and after years and years in research, I couldn’t imagine handing my work to the army of editors and reviewers all over again [laugh]. I also knew that given the audience, i.e., researchers scattered across the world, this was the easiest and the most straightforward way to make the book quickly available to those who need it. Thus, I informally asked many people close to me to critically read the material before publication, and I pressed the “Publish manuscript” button on Amazon! 

So, one surprise that I got out of this, was that the whole process went relatively smooth. Since I had all the concepts I was going to cover in the book, planned out and on paper, converting this list into a full length book took me a few weeks of full time work, and I loved it! Publishing on Amazon is also very convenient and user-friendly. I was always wondering how it feels to be a book author, and now I know – it feels just great! It feels like doing something really useful; much more useful than publishing my theoretical research papers has ever been. It’s also good for a very practical reason: I often get repetitive questions from PhDs looking for their way on the job market, and now, instead of repeating the story every time, I can just point to my book where the topic is well explained. I think if you have that itchy thought in the back of your head for many years telling you that you’d like to try something, you should just try and see how that pans out.

But one thing also learned, was that it’s true what they say about sales – namely that it’s a very important part of entrepreneurship if not the most important. Without mastering this skill, you won’t get far in any area of the market. The same concerns writing books: even if you have good quality content, no one will notice your book without the proper online promotion, recommendations, and the exposition effect. And, it’s very good to promote a book without having a big publisher standing behind you, planting your book in stationary stores to expose it to customers and organizing meetings with the readers. I’m still working on mastering the skill of sales and there is still a long way for me to go! The good side of it, is that it’s actually a nice game to play: instead of staring at the charts and observing how some stocks jump up and down, you look at the charts showing the distribution of a real product that represents a real value. 

What’s a memorable failure for you? 

Where to even start! I will let myself skip the obvious, clear, binary failures such as rejections of all kinds, from paper rejections, through a ceased PhD project (yes, I had to reboot my PhD in another lab and start all over!), broken engagements, to rejections from dozens of jobs. I was thrown out from many places; I was even thrown out from MENSA Association for skipping the annual membership fee! I could write the whole book about all these formal failures. 

But I think what is more important, are these little, plain bad or a bit suboptimal, everyday choices that are not obvious failures at the first glance – but in the long run, they add up and can end up in a disaster. Life is an integrative process where not only strategic decisions when life takes a turn, but also everyday little decisions matter. It’s a position game, a bit like chess. That’s why most careers and relationships fall apart – it’s not an outcome of just one mistake but rather, a joint impact of multiple little missteps and misunderstandings on the way.

So, related to this point, I guess throughout my twenties, my biggest sin was always wishful thinking. For instance, I used to choose many subjects during my undergraduate studies solely based on the fact that my high school teachers praised me for my school test results (which I used to interpret as a “talent”), and based on the fact that I had a belief that this particular knowledge would lead to better jobs in the long run. I mean subjects such as programming, theoretical physics, or the most abstract branches of algebra. Whereas in fact, I didn’t really enjoy the process of learning these things… I would rather say it was very draining and frustrating to me. But I was telling myself, “come on, it’s going to be fine one day!” No, it won’t… If from the very beginning I had oriented myself at doing what I really enjoyed – such as writing, teaching, talking to people, building projects, researching people’s motivation – I would have been in a much better position right now, professionally. Not that it’s bad right now! It’s just that I feel that my development is now much faster than it used to be in the past, namely in the times when I was torturing myself in the name of what I thought other people expected of me. Going in the right direction for one year will bring you much further than going in the wrong direction for fifteen years.

Is there anything that you considered a success in the past, but in retrospect is a failure? Or the other way round?

Ha, another really good question! We often get stuck in the local maximum of our landscape of potential before we reach the global maximum. What I mean is, if you are really good at something at school, you might go in that direction just because no one ever told you that you are even better at something else that happens not to be a school subject. So, I was always good at maths at school (and in many other subjects, but I was guessing at that point that maths would give me the most transferable skills), so I went with that and studied maths instead of going for economics or straight for business as I probably should have. No one ever told me at school that I might be a successful company owner! In a sense, I could interpret this lost time as a sort of failure as most probably, I will never use the vast majority of the knowledge gained during my undergraduate and graduate studies in my future projects. And time is everything; time is money, time is life. 

Is there anything you regret not trying, even if you had to add it to your failure CV?

Hehe, I regret that I didn’t attend the FYRE festival 😉 I have a really weird sense of humor, and instead of being angry that my money just got bust, I would have probably had a blast watching all the chaos around me. I’m generally interested in crowd psychology (a.k.a. sociology) and I think that watching thousands of panicked millennials running around in mayhem on a deserted island would be just worth the money. 

But now seriously, I think that I didn’t spend enough time on music in my life. In fact, music is my respirator and it always has been. It pulled me out from the deepest ends, and it always gives me energy. So, what I regret not trying is that I didn’t dance more – especially when I was a teenager. I was raised in Poland which is still very judgmental towards females and female bodies, and this highly affected me when I was very young. I was so shy that I could even imagine getting onto the dance floor. Only after I went for studies, I discovered hip hop, street dance, salsa and other dance styles, and I discovered that I’m actually good at it, especially if I have autonomy and some space for improvisation on the floor. So, I regret that I lost the battle with my complexes. If not that, I might be a really good-class dancer now. Who knows, maybe I would have been a professional dancer and not a scientist today! 

I also keep on promising to myself that one day, I will go for a course of DJ-ing and learn how to make my own music but so far these plans always lose a competition with more urgent everyday matters such as running the company or releasing research papers. But my strong resolution is that in the future, as soon as the situation is stable and I can afford this time-wise, I will dance much more and go for my DJ-ing ambitions!

Can you share a success that traditionally would not be on a (regular) CV?

Hmm, I think what I succeeded at so far, is keeping good faith no matter what. Of course, there were dark times on the way, especially at the end of the undergraduate studies and at the end of graduate studies, when for a long time I wasn’t sure how to proceed further and I had to face a lot of insecurity. I had periods of depression and multiple neurotic phases when I saw the world in black colors. But, even in the periods when I felt very unwell and I looked miserable on the outside, I never lost energy to stand up in the morning and proceed with my plans and projects. Deep inside, I always had faith that I have a huge potential and a lot to offer to society, and that in the long run, I will get far and thrive in one way or another. I didn’t really need to hear this from anybody else to know that.

Is there anything that you are still failing at yourself?

Sure, many things! I definitely fail at telling people whom I value what I value them for, specifically. I somehow always assume that the fact that I choose to talk with them on a regular basis automatically means that I value them – but they just don’t know that 🙂

I also fail at making reasonable plans and I always put way too much on my plate. I made a plan for this year in January and I’m not even close to half of the pipeline while it’s already August. I’m just never good enough for my own standards… – I always have this feeling that I might have just worked harder to meet my internal deadlines! I need to preselect ideas for further execution better, most probably.

What do you think about sharing failures online? Should everybody do it, or are there caveats?

Well, this is a tricky question because this depends on who you are and in what field you work. In academia, we have a culture in which openly sharing everyday struggles, including mental health issues, is welcome and meets with a lot of peer support. But this is not true about some of the other working cultures. For instance, mind that successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, never talk about their failures in present tense but rather, they always talk about failures in a form of feel-good anecdotes many years after the fact. Humblebragging, to simply put. This is because as a company owner or a CEO, you need to be a strong leader! You can’t have public doubts or mental health issues as this will sink the image of the company, your employees will stop listening to you, and all your investors and clients will run away. You know, when I set up a company, I promised myself that I would do 100 crunches every time I fail at something. And then, I grew a six-pack after three months! But if you only know me from social media, you won’t have any idea of what mayhem was really happening behind the curtains.

Also, if you work for a private company, sharing your mental health status to the public might be taken as implicit criticism of the employer and result in removing you from the company (usually under some other excuse). For private companies, image is everything and if you share to thousands of your followers that you have yet another frustrating day at the office, it won’t be taken as a positive sign at your workplace, that for sure. You just need to be much more diplomatic when you work in industry.

What about sharing successes? Do we do it too much, or not enough? 

I personally like people sharing their successes and being proud of themselves. I think we would all be better off if there was more pride and fewer complexes in this world. Of course, there is always the question “How large does a success need to be to make it valuable enough for sharing?” Like, if you cook a good soup, should you let the whole world know about it? I think it’s perfectly fine if everyone develops their own personal criteria as people value things very differently. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure 🙂 

Are there any sources of inspiration [people, books, …] who have helped you deal with failure along the way? 

Of course. I would put people over books here and say that at least 90% of my success with dealing with failure is due to the wise and strong people whom I met on my way. I’m not sure if I should start listing names here as it took me 14 pages in my PhD thesis to even list people who influenced me during the PhD not mentioning about all the time before 🙂

About the books, sometimes the simple truths that you can find in classic books such as “Awaken the Giant Within” by Tony Robbins, just work. At the end of the day, everything boils down to whether you do what you really like in life, and whether your intuition tells you that you are going in the right direction. I think some popular books are just popular for a reason and there is no reason to frown upon them just because they became a part of pop culture.

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

I must admit that I didn’t read every single article in the series just yet 🙂 I like the fact that you ask a different set of questions every time! I wouldn’t even imagine that one can generate so many different questions on the same topic! Maybe you should do more journalism.

I see some interesting intrasubject differences here. Apparently, everyone perceives “failure” in their own way. For instance, when talking about failures, I focused on my own bad choices while most of the interviewed guests focused on specific events (such as job, grant, or paper rejections) that made them feel like being treated unfairly. That makes me think about myself once again. I think there were times when I didn’t have this internal sense of control, but I have developed it in recent years. Now I feel that in the long run, everything depends only on me. And all the rest, like rejections from external parties, are just unimportant hiccups whose digesting is not worth my mental capacity to the smallest extent. External evaluation is always a lottery to some extent, so I treat it as such. So, when I get a rejection, I do nothing – I just take a deep breath, keep on working, and put on some Tiesto on the headphones to work faster.

Is there any way we could reimagine academia or perhaps education in general, that would have been a better fit for you, and I think many other researchers?

When I think about this now, I can’t imagine academia or any other system to reshape in a way that it would perfectly fit me as a person. I think I was destined to have my own company and the signs of that were always present in my life ever since I was a child; I just didn’t see these signs or I didn’t want to see them. What I have now is “IT” for me and I couldn’t imagine it to be any better. 

But, academia could definitely reshape to make the lives of researchers who are currently working there, better. It might be less hierarchical in a sense that early career researchers might have more autonomy to propose their own research projects without the necessity to get an approval of their direct boss but rather, of some committee representing the whole institute. Also, to release a bit of the peer pressure and the employment bottleneck in academia, reducing the number of open PhD candidate positions would probably be necessary. 20 or 30 years ago academia was a much healthier place as the disproportion between the numbers of faculty members and PhD candidates was an order of magnitude lower. Now, it’s a jungle where people use elbows a lot just because they feel they need to do that to survive. Other than that, I genuinely don’t know how to improve academia. It’s an archaic, individualistic system that has no right to function in the XXI century when society is becoming more of a cloud and when only well functioning teams survive. I think it will stay more or less as it is, and it will live on only because the tax players are forced to pay for this malfunctioning machinery.

What would a five/ten year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

Buy some Bitcoin right now! Also, your life mission of making neuroscience great again is not as important as you think, and you don’t really need to spend 60-80 hours per week working like a maniac. Neuroscience will be doing as well without you. 

Also, pay more attention to the process and don’t fixate on the ultimate goals any more than necessary. At the end of the day, life happens now rather than starting for real once you crawl up to the level of the professorship.

***

Thanks again Natalia for joining this season of How I Fail!

Keeping track of your research projects with Kanban

Following up on the post about organizing student projects, I wanted to explain a bit about how I keep track of my own projects on a slightly higher level of abstraction.

When I started doing research, I was working on one, maybe two projects at a time. But as time went by, this number can increase quite quickly. I get easily excited about new ideas and starting projects (the “shiny object syndrome”), as well as joining projects by others. Over time this led to several situations where I had more projects than I could handle, leading to delays or abandoning the project altogether (see these 9 ways to fail a project for more on this!).

My solution has been to “just” limit the number of current projects. In this post I explain the tools I use to keep track of my projects effectively.

Visual overview of all projects

The tool that I’ve found the most helpful, is to use a Kanban board. The idea behind Kanban is to “manage work by balancing demands with available capacity” (Wikipedia) – sounds exactly like what everyone needs, right?

Here is how the Kanban board in my office looks like. A card is a project/paper, and it can belong to these categories: Idea, Incubator, Doing, Preprint/Revise, Under Review, Published.

Here is how I use the categories:

  • Ideas are just that – ideas. Perhaps I read a few papers on a topic and thought “I should do something about this”. Ideas can be good for starting student projects, since I probably won’t have time to get to this topic myself.
  • Incubator is a category for projects that are a bit further than ideas (for example, there is a preliminary experiment), but that I do not want to focus my attention on just yet.
  • Doing is a category for current projects, that you want to advance every day or week. There should be as few as possible projects in here!
  • Preprint/revise is for “mostly done” projects, but that still need a bit of time investment to complete
  • Under review are papers under review, that might return to the “Preprint/revise” category in a few months
  • Published are accepted papers!
  • (Bonus) Graveyard is for projects I decided NOT to continue, you can see it in the bottom left of the board. I thought “graveyard” sounded more dignified than “abandoned” but am open to other suggestions.

Next to these categories, I use the color of the card to indicate the type of project. Green are research papers, yellow are education projects (such as my portfolio), and red are grants. You don’t see any red right now, because this is already after I decided to leave my tenure track position :). I do not include various recurrent responsibilities on this board, but you could decide to do so.

Finally, I have a horizontal divider between projects that I’m leading, and projects I’m participating in. Overall, this gives a nice overview of all research projects I’m involved in! If you want to do the same with the board in your office, you might want to get some dry-erase magnetic cards, such as:

Project overview in apps

Although most of my systems are digital, I like this visual overview in my office (or at least, before the pandemic). But this is just one way to organize things, and it might not be sufficient for you if you get distracted easily.

Fortunately, there are various ways to implement the same idea in different apps. You can have the same type of Kanban board in apps like Trello or Notion. But even apps which are not organized like a board, are suitable.

Here is an example for Todoist which I use for getting things done. Here you can group projects under other, top-level projects. If you call your top-level projects “Idea”, “Incubator” etc, you can easily see how many projects you are handling at any one time. Similar to my board, you can use the color of the project to indicate research, education etc.

But for example, even in Overleaf assigning a tag to a paper can help you achieve the same. Here’s mine, with slightly different categories.

You can see that the board and the Overleaf are not 1-to-1, because some projects can have multiple Overleaf documents, and because I’m bad at updating tags 🙂 But, at least I’ve succeeded at not putting everything in “Doing”!

Verdict

I’m happy with this system overall, and imagine I will continue using it both for work and personal projects.

A feature I am still missing, is to have an indicator of time commitment per project, and for “what’s already there” on your calendar. For example, I could imagine having actual “slots” in the Doing category, and having larger projects take up multiple slots. And when you already have many things on your calendar, the number of slots decreases. So if you hear of an app like this, let me know 🙂

Organizing student projects with scrum

Project supervision is one of the many things you do during a tenure track. Since I was already interested in project organization, I did some research, which inspired my own lab scrum setup. I discuss why and how I used scrum to organize student projects, and my take-aways from the experience. To find out more, read on!  

Inspiration

At the start of my tenure track I did a bit of research about what others had recommended, and came across several interesting papers about project organization. This is a whole post in itself, but for today’s topic, here are a few papers that I found helpful: 

Patterns for Supervising Thesis Projects

Adapting Scrum to Managing a Research Group 

LabScrum: A Case Study For Agility in Academic Research Labs

The last two papers are about a technique called scrum, which is a type of process frequently used in software development (more background here). Traditionally in this process, a team is working on the same project. This is different with several students working on different projects. Another difference is the timing, which might be slower in a research setting. Nevertheless I was inspired by the ideas in these papers and decided to try it out.  

Setup with Kanban board

Although I was excited by the idea of trying a different type of organization, I had no previous experience with scrum, and didn’t want to introduce too many things that would be overwhelming for everyone.  What follows is the setup we (myself, 4 MSc students and 2 PhD researchers) used for 6+ months, where some things are loosely based on scrum, papers I read, etc. This setup has advantages and disadvantages, which I discuss later in this post.  

The main idea was to keep track of all projects jointly, via a shared Kanban board and two weekly meetings with everyone there. Typically we did the following meetings:

  • Tuesday – group update round, planning tasks (30 – 60 min)
  • Thursday – group update round  (< 30 min)
  • Tuesday/Thursday – individual meetings in time slots as needed (30 min each)

When planning tasks, we added “post-its” (I bought these reusable magnetic ones which are pretty awesome) to the shared scrum board. We initially used different colors for different types of tasks, but using different colors for different people might be more logical.  

 For me it was important that everybody created actionable, finite tasks. So, “literature research” is not OK, but “summarize 10 papers on topic X” is. When students had exams, they included studying as a task. We didn’t have guidelines for how small or big a task could be, although in practice they were probably things that could be done in days, rather than hours or weeks.  

New tasks always started in the backlog section of the board. On Tuesdays, tasks can be moved to the “in progress” section. The idea is not too have too many “in progress” tasks at the same time. 

Every group meeting was essentially a longer “stand-up”. Each person (including me!) would briefly say something about their “in progress” tasks. This involved saying something about what was done since last time (and if the task was completed, still in progress, or deprioritized), and any problems that came up. Suggestions from others about things to try usually followed. When it was clear that I needed to spend more time with the student, or some students could help each other, additional meetings were planned. This way this meeting was an hour at most, but usually closer to half an hour.

Everyone could plan an individual meeting with me via a shared calendar with 30 minute time slots. In practice, about 4 slots would be filled each week, so I would see each person at least once in two weeks (next to the group meetings). 

Alternative with Google Slides

While the initial setup had many positive points, there were two main things missing. The first was more of an overview of what has happened / is happening in the period of a few weeks. The second was the ability to show something, such as results (bugs, etc). 

For these reasons, we switched from the Kanban board to a Google Slides presentation, where each person had two slides, one for results, and one for a 6-8 week task planning and progress. The slides had to be prepared before the Tuesday meeting. Otherwise the meeting setup was mostly the same.  

This setup provided more overview, but I also missed the structure the Kanban board provided. In the end, I was thinking about a system that would have both features, but I didn’t get the chance.  

Here is an example of how one of my Google Slides looked like, with on the left the plan as I imagined it, and on the right an illustration of progress.

Pros

I’ve already mentioned a few advantages that this system had, but here is a recap. 

First, I think this is a great way to have a “lab feeling” if you are in a similar situation to me, and do not have funded projects with multiple students or physical lab space. Although the students all did distinct projects, it did feel like a team. Getting coffee, bringing cake etc also helped of course 🙂 

Second, I saved time by not having unnecessary meetings, but without compromising my availability. Further time is saved by less repetition when explaining something, and by identifying similarities across projects, where students might be in a better position to help each other. 

Third, I think this setup improved everybody’s planning skills, but also their awareness of how planning is hard. I also participated with my own projects, and I typically got the least done because of other responsibilities. I think this is important for students to see. Students seeing each other’s project plans likely gave them more examples to learn from, and perhaps a bit of accountability.  

Cons

The disadvantages of this system, from my point of view, mostly have to do with implementation. First, it takes a while to figure out how to do everything, if you try to adapt a system to fit a different situation. There is also time involved in figuring out how/where to meet (if you don’t have a dedicated space) and/or selecting which apps you want to use. 

Second, your adaptation may miss parts that you want to have. We did not have a clear separation of meetings (such as planning only, retrospective only) or project roles (such as scrum master). Perhaps these things might have felt silly at first, but I do think they would have been beneficial.  

It’s possible that this setup might not be the preferred setup for some students, who want to keep everything about their project private. I do not have specific advice for this situation. But ultimately different labs are organized in different ways, and it’s OK that this might not be for everybody.

Verdict

Overall I would say that doing this is a worthwhile experience! Do spend more time thinking about the exact implementation beforehand, particularly what meetings there will be, who will do what, and where all the plans/tasks/results will “live”. Once you have this in place, help people stay with the process for a least a month or two to evaluate if it’s a good idea. 

Acknowledgments

This post is inspired by a discussion on Twitter, started by Antony Caravaggi and continued by Christian Baumgartner, who also sent me several follow-up questions – thanks! I’d also like to thank everyone had first-hand experience of my lab organization ideas 🙂 – Ralf Raumanns, Ishaan Bhat, Tom van Sonsbeek, Rumjana Romanova, Colin Nieuwlaat and Britt Michels. Thanks a lot! 

How I Fail S0201: Pedro Leão (PhD’18, Microbiology)

Pedro Leão has a Ph.D. in Microbiology (2018) from UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). His thesis was named “Diversity of Magnetotactic organisms: New frontiers for magnetotaxis evolution.” At the moment, Pedro is an FSE fellow at the University of Groningen, working in the Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute (GBB). His main research interest is in linking genomics data with ultrastructure characterization. You can find Pedro on Twitter (@Leao_pel), where he mostly advocates about empathy and emotional education in academia.

Hi Pedro, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?

Thank you for having me, Veronika! I’m a Brazilian microbiologist passionate about two things: Science and Sports. I join a research group in my second year as a Microbiology and Immunology bachelor (2010). I end up staying in the same group for the coming 9 years, where I receive my bachelor’s (2013), master (2015) and PhD (2018) titles under the supervision of professor Ulysses Lins. In my second year as a PhD candidate, I had the chance to stay for one summer at professor Arash Komeili’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

All my research formation was done on the same topic: magnetotactic bacteria (MTB). More precisely, I analyze the diversity (phylogenetic, ultrastructural, morphological) of this group of microorganisms. I consider myself really lucky to have been “raised” in this scientific community, which is amazingly inclusive and, in general, super friendly and open to collaborations, but especially lucky to have these two mentors along with me through this journey in academia so far.

In the middle of my stay at UC Berkeley, I received a call about my advisor’s death in Brazil. I stayed there for one more month and went back to Brazil and decided to finish my PhD 1 year earlier. Here I am two years after, as a FSE fellow doing some lecture and research work as a postdoc at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands! I’m currently under the supervision of professor Dirk-Jan Scheffers doing research in Bacillus subtilis’ cell wall and membrane structure.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

My most memorable failure is a recent one! Right after I finish my PhD, a position at the institute I had been working during my whole career was open. Not any position, a position to fill the chair left by the premature death of my supervisor – a guy I had worked with for the past 9 years! At first, it did not even cross to my mind to apply for it. Our group was in great hands, led by a young professor who had been mentored by Ulysses also.

Two weeks after the announcement of the position, some friends and professors approached me, telling me that I should apply for it. “You have all the requirements?”, “What can go wrong? It is worth the shot”.

Long story short, I applied for the position with 16 other people, and I did not even pass the first round of selection (which in Brazil is a writing exam). I failed to get the position, but that is OK. For me, the big failure was to not fulfill the expectations of my peers and from myself that I would be at least competitive in this scenario. I was crushed for a while. That impostor syndrome that we all know about in academia hit me hard. In the end, I had a PhD, was unemployed, and my self-esteem was on the ground.

Lucky, a 2-years visiting professor position in the same institute was open, and I was able to be selected for this one. After 18 months in this position, I had to start to search for a new job, but because of significant cuts in science funding in Brazil (as always), no one was hiring. At this point, I gained my confidence back and started to apply for some postdocs abroad.

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

Sort of. I keep track of all applications I made, so I can check some old ones when preparing new ones. Doing this helps me in two ways: (i) I can keep track of improvements that need to be done; (ii) It allows me to travel back to the time I submitted that application. By remembering the will to get these things, the high hopes and plans that I had while applying keeps me ground it. I know that I fail to achieve those goals, but I still here! Things did not go as I wish, and that is OK, I was able to set the route and find alternatives to keep seeking my pathways towards my goals.

I still have a folder with all the 29 applications I made for postdocs while in Brazil. From those, I received 9 (31%) replies and was invited for 4 (13%) interviews. Now I see this as a huge success, but back then, it feels like a complete disaster.

Often people use the words rejection and failure interchangeably, what do you think about that?

I don’t think they are interchangeable. I believe rejection is when we don’t fulfill the standards of someone else. It could be a company, a person, an agency. Failure is something more deep and personal, as we don’t cope with our own expectations. We were unable to reach even what we set as a standard for ourselves. And as always, we are our worst critics, so a failure, in my opinion, always hit harder than rejection.

From my perspective, some rejections can be failures for you – like in my case, not getting the position, and performing way below my expectations.

Is there anything you regret not trying, even if you had to add it to your failure CV?

No. If I really want something I have to try it. I can’t live with the uncertainty of the “what if?”. To have this posture, you have to deal well with failure, because the truth is the chance to fail is enormously higher than the one for you to succeed.

It took me some time to learn this, but maybe it was one of the most valuable lessons I had: failing is fine, as long as you don’t fail to the point of no return. In other words: Crash! Just make sure you don’t crash and burn! How you build this to deal well with failure? Failing and mostly importantly, normalizing failure by not being too harsh on yourself and surrounding yourself with people that support you!

Can you share a success, that traditionally would not be on a (regular) CV?

I think a CV of failure itself. I’m really proud of all the rejected applications I had. It represents how many failures I could handle and still get to the place I’m today. Be proud of your failure is a tough call, but I think all of us should at least not be ashamed of them. They tell more about you than your successes.

Is there anything that you feel you are failing at yourself?

To be honest, yes. I’m in limbo at the moment. The thing is, I had a safe place in my advisor. He was a friend and a mentor who knew me thought all my academic career. I always thought I could do anything if I set a good plan because I would approach him to look for guidance at any point in this plain. Now that he is not here, I sometimes feel a little lost, thinking I’m aiming too high, sometimes too low. I miss the feeling that someone that knows me will keep me accountable in my ambition.

I built a level of tolerance to failure, knowing how much I could handle. This tolerance was taking into account my support system, and he was a big part of it. I need to relearn what are my limits, or build self-esteem and realize that I can do it with the people I have by my side now.

I feel I’m failing at this. I have some plans that are on hold because I don’t feel confident enough to make a move. I will learn my new limits, one fail at a time, but now I’m afraid to fail, as I hadn’t been for a while ad this is scary and frustrating. Fortunately, I still have great friends and colleagues that don’t know me as well as him but are valuable advisors to help me through this.

Are there any people who have been important to the way you deal with failure?

Yes! I have amazing friends on the field, some better established and renewed scientists, and others growing in the field side by side with me. The exchange of experiences with these people and the openness to talk about failure were really important in understanding that failure is a significant player in our career. Failure is inevitable in science, what you are going to do with it is what decides how healthy your work/life balance will be.

Everyone should have a support group! Dealing with failure on a daily basis is not something trivial. Surrounding myself with people having the same experiences that I was having helped me see that I was not alone, sometimes things go entirely unexpected, not only with me.

Are there any books, podcasts etc you would recommend on this topic?

I cannot recommend enough the book “Failure: Why Science Is So Successful” by Stuart Firestein. I think all scientists should read and reflect on it! It shows failure as an inevitable part of scientific progress, and do it in a fresh why without glorifying it. I love this book.

For me, mental toughness and emotional intelligence are key factors to deal properly with failure. A book that opens my mind to the importance of being educated on this subject was “The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance” by George Mumford. You can virtually interchange the sport’s scenarios for academic ones in this book.

Do you think there are any factors (field, country) etc, that influence how failure is seen?

Yes! In Brazil, it is common to see people saying they are sorry after committing a mistake. Even if what went wrong was completely out of his/her control. I think we perceive failure as always our fault. You can imagine how energy-draining a mindset like this can be for a scientist.

From one side it is good because if the problem is with you, it is easy to fix it, you can work on it. On the other hand, the problem is not always on you, and if you don’t handle this carefully, you can be trap in a self-depreciation loop. That is why it is so important to have a good PI as an advisor and a nice support group.

In the Netherlands, I think it doesn’t happen that often. People are more secure of their skills, and if they fail at something, it is how it is, they try to fine-tune some details, but if it keeps going to a dead end, they just move on to the next one. I’m about to finish my first year here, so this can be just a superficial first impression.

In the US, I believe the extremely competitive and fast-paced atmosphere in academia doesn’t give people time to properly handle failure. Once you fail, your first reaction must keep moving! Put that plan B, C, D in practice to achieve your results. In a scenario where productivity is the goal, this works perfectly, but if you want to form a good scientist, this is a disaster! Ignoring failures deprives you of learning how to deal with them, and once a big failure is inevitable, you have no experience to deal even with small ones. That is a recipe for that “crash and burn” scenario.

What about sharing failures online? Does the perception of people who do this differ? Should more people try to do it?

I understand why some people don’t do it. But my philosophy is simple on this subject. You can choose if you are going to be proud of your failures or not, but you never should be ashamed of them. They made the professional that you are as much as your successes.

Is there anything else we could all do to improve the conversations about failure?

We “baby doctors” (as some of my senior scientist friends used to call me) have a huge responsibility to normalize the conversation about failure!

The battle I picked to fight in academia is the spread of more empathy in our community. All of us are failing in something daily. More than that, all PIs were stressful postdocs with deadlines, all postdocs were insecure grad students, that once were fresh out of college curious bachelor students.

As new PhDs, we are still in contact with memories of the struggles grad students have and are starting to experience some of the responsibilities a PI has to deal with as well. Fight the speech of “Us against them (doctors/staff vs. students)” is essential for us to talk about one of the most important things that put us together: Failing!

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

I really enjoyed Mike Yassa’s episode (S01E18). At one point, he said, “I worry more about the ones who don’t get a sufficient number of rejections while they’re in grad school”. This is the same feeling I have.

He talks about mentoring his students to handle criticism and failure (his bulletproof and crocodile skin concepts). This resonates with my idea of knowing yourself through small failures, so you feel more comfortable each time with the feeling of failing. This comfort would allow you to aim for more challenging things because you can handle the probable failure.

What would a five year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

My younger self, 5 years ago, would be entering the PhD program. He would never believe me if I told him everything that happens in these 5 years, and where he would be now! My plans had changed drastically, but not my goals!

I would tell him that it is ok to be afraid. It is ok not to feel prepared for some situations. The worst thing that can happen is to fail, which is not bad, and he can trust it will be people to help him pick up the lessons from these challenges, and eventually, he will feel less scared and more prepared to move forward.

Also to enjoy as much as possible the beach and the sun! They won’t have such things in Groningen! 🙂

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I talked a little about empathy here. If you can take away just one thing from this conversation, that it be to be kind to yourself and others. Failure is part of life and an even more significant part of science. We can only normalize the conversation about failure if we understand we all have them on our past and will keep having them in our future, no matter how successful we became.

*****

Thanks Pedro for joining the series and kick-starting our second season! Enjoy the Dutch sun for now 🙂

9 ways to fail a project in grad school and beyond

This post is a collaboration between myself, and a guest author who wishes to stay anonymous. They are a researcher and PhD candidate in neuroscience, based in Europe, and in the post they are referred to as Alice

When people talk about failures, often rejections are the first things that come to mind. But what about other things in science, that did not work out? Today’s post is all about those – projects that don’t work out, and that do not end up either on your CV and probably even your “CV of Failures” (here is mine).

Read on to find out about the ways our projects have failed, during the PhD or after, AND the lessons from these experiences.  In short, here are the 9 ways to fail a project: 

  1. Inheriting a poor project setup
  2. Failing to plan
  3. Not enough redundancy
  4. Changing the scope 
  5. Underestimating the complexity
  6. No data available
  7. Collaborating for the wrong reasons 
  8. Starting too many projects 
  9. Forgetting to advertise your successful project

1) Inheriting a poor project setup   

Alice: My first project failed in a bad way. In retrospect the idea was not thought through and vague and the methodology was not sound. In fact this is what got me into trouble – as I tried to discuss these issues with my supervisor, he got angry and said that I am at no place to challenge his authority… After two years when he left the project was evaluated by a panel of group leaders at the department and found to be crap from the very bottom. The project was killed. 

Veronika: Of course a lot here depends on the supervisor. But from the researcher’s perspective there are still a few lessons here: 

  • If you inherit an existing project, verify that the objectives and methodology are clear
  • Ask questions early on, consult with others 
  • Remember that quitting a poor project early is not your failure, but might save time and stress

2) Failing to plan

“Failing to plan is planning to fail” – no post about failed projects is complete without this quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin. If you are responsible for the project setup from the beginning, definitely do not skip this step. 

This is particularly important for side projects that you might initiate next to your main research, that “shouldn’t take a lot of time”. While that may be true, in my experience things can go wrong is it is not clear who is going to be responsible for what. Or, all content-related tasks might be divided, but nobody is taking the lead on the project. Lesson:

  • Spend time defining the project timeline and contributions of all team members, including a leadership role

3) Not enough redundancy in the project

Alice: My second project failed for two main reasons. One was founded around a collaboration which was tied to one person who left. The lesson being that being dependent on certain people for connections or data is a weak spot. 

Veronika: I recognize this! I’ve experienced problems when parts of the project depended on specific data, code or tools that were not available / accessible to others. Again a lot about this depends on the PI, but for me the lesson from the researcher’s perspective:

  • Be your own best collaborator by using open science principles, sharing data/code where possible. Consider using public data or artificial data in addition to the main data, if the main data cannot be shared. 

4) Changing the scope during the project 

Alice: […] But there was more. In the course of the project, as I processed the data, the PI got ambitious and teamed up with his colleague who did similar things and was interested. He then wanted to do a much bigger comparative study and requested me to process large amounts of public data which slowed me down significantly. By then my PI left. The lesson is getting too ambitious can drown the project.  

Veronika: I’ve had similar experiences too and see it all around me – a PI invents things to try until there are “state of the art” results (similar to HARKing). I’m getting repetitive here but again you are quite dependent on the PI. What you might be able to do: 

  • Clarify project objectives and timeline in the beginning in writing (for example, type up meeting notes, and send them around after to confirm) 
  • Open science principles like preregistration might be worth a try, although this depends on your field and will also require the PI’s approval

5) Underestimating the complexity of the project

Alice: My third project did not fail as such but rather faded away., which is a failure of a kind. It was a collaboration with a postdoc who was an expert in the field and had a nice idea. The problem was that the implementation and most importantly interpretation of the data turned out to be much more difficult than she had anticipated and it required more input from both of us than we pledged for. A mistake here I’d say – wrong estimate of the complexity and resources available.

Veronika: Agreed – I’ve had several nice ideas that sounded great when brainstorming, but in the end did not receive enough attention to progress. I have a lot of thoughts about these which would warrant an entire blog post. Still, I wish I would have been better at planning my time. My lessons would be:

  • When agreeing on a new (side) project, agree on how much time you can put into it. I think this is hard to do, but if you did have this agreement in the past, the future you will have an easier time letting go of the project. 

6) No data available

Alice: The fourth project failed when I learned that I can not get the phenotype data on the cohort I worked on and at this point there was nothing I could do. The data was blocked due to disagreement and issues between my PI and the competitors with whom initially it was supposed to be a collaboration. I don’t really have a recipe how to help that, it is one of the things that I have little control over. 

The fifth project failed for a similar reason. But this time it was because we were not allowed to collaborate with the boss of our PI (who has a cohort with the exact phenotype we need) who did not want to publish with the previous boss in view of the career. We were thus pushed to prey on the public data repositories which a) did not have such precise phenotype we needed b) required downloading and low-level processing of large amounts of data which was very straining and hard for a single person and given resources. We managed with the published subset of the data and we found nothing. I spent almost a year working on it. 

Veronika: This overlaps a bit with my previous ideas about open science, but in this case there’s not a lot somebody in your position could do other than use public data. Lesson: don’t blame yourself for decisions of your PI!  

7) Collaborating for the wrong reasons

Alice: A friend of mine went to a prestigious university to collaborate with a research group there for a few months. He worked very hard, but faced open racism and bullying. The conflict escalated and the project was tabled. Instead of support, my friend’s supervisor was unhappy with him. This is also a situation which is hard to foresee. But perhaps trying out collaborating remotely first and building relationships slowly would be a safer bet.

Veronika: Sounds like a terrible experience for your friend! Agreed it is a good idea to try out collaborations first but perhaps that was not possible. There needs to be not only a research fit, but also a safe environment.

 But on the other hand, the environment alone is also not enough – even with people who really want to collaborate, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Getting along well with somebody doesn’t mean your research project will be complementary as well. My lesson would be:

  • Know who you will collaborate with, and aim for a combination of research fit & good environment

8) Starting too many projects

Veronika: A “favorite” reason why some of my projects failed, is starting too many projects and then not getting back to them. Often this would happen if I was waiting for reviews on a paper, and already planning the next project. But when a major revision would come in, I would drop new ideas to revise the paper, and once done, fail to get back to the new_idea.txt. Side projects could also end up in this category. 

In a way, this is a combination of “failing to plan” and “underestimating the complexity”, but on a larger scale. My lesson from this:

  • Keep track of how many projects you’ve agreed to do, and what stage the are in (for example with a Kanban board)

9) Failing to advertise your successful project

Veronika: Congratulations, you finished the project! What now? While this is not technically a failure, there’s still ways to increase the success of your project.

Once you do finish a project, you might not give the project output enough attention. It’s easy to become focused on getting a paper for the thesis, especially if your PI is pushing you to. So a natural response might be to just move on to the next project, leaving the published paper as is.

But maybe it’s good to pause, and give that effort more justice by sharing the paper with your colleagues, submitting a poster about it to a local conference, or writing a thread about it on Twitter. I know I am guilty of this – despite my rather active Twitter presence, I haven’t tweeted about my research this year. The lesson is: 

  • Give your finished projects (and your hard work!) the attention they deserve! 

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These were the 9 ways to fail a project during your PhD and beyond! These are based on Alice’s and my experiences, but there are probably more reasons there.

Let us know which ones are recognizable, or if you are missing any failures that can happen along the way. The best way is to leave a comment below so they reach both of us, otherwise as usual you can reach me (@DrVeronikaCH) on Twitter!  

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