How I Fail S02E08 – Jen Heemstra (PhD’05, Chemistry)

Jen Heemstra is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Emory University. Research in the Heemstra lab is focused on harnessing the molecular recognition and self-assembly properties of nucleic acids for applications in biosensing and bioimaging. Outside of work, Jen enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons, as well as rock climbing, cycling, and running. You can find out more about her and the members of the Heemstra Lab on her website or on Twitter.

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

Hi Veronika, 

It’s great to join you to talk about failure! This is a topic that I know well. From my 8th grade teacher telling me I wasn’t good at science to the grant proposal that was rejected last month, it is a topic that has significantly shaped my life and who I am as a person. The “unofficial” bio is that I’m someone who never thought I could be a scientist or a faculty member, so I still wake up every day in awe of where I am. And, while most people would call me a scientist, at this point in my career, I see myself more as a mentor and leader – science is just the vehicle for me to empower others to build their careers. To that end, my favorite thing about my job is getting to work with all of the students and postdocs who are my colleagues in the Heemstra Lab. People who know me on Twitter also know that I’m pretty outspoken about changing academic culture.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

Probably the most impactful failure of my career was my tenure vote at my former institution. It was not an outright failure (and I did ultimately get tenure) but it did not go as I had expected. It was definitely the most painful failure of my life, as I felt like I had let down my family and my research group members – basically all of the people I care most about. For anyone who hasn’t experienced that, it is a truly horrible feeling. But, it can also be a beautifully humbling experience as well. Seeing how all of those people stood by me in the midst of the struggle ended up seismically shifting my worldview and priorities. It gave me a new view of what academia could be and a fire to make that into a reality. It also made me fearless. This specific failure that I had long been afraid of ended up happening to me. It was the exact thing that I had deeply dreaded, and I found myself suddenly thrust into it and with no choice but to cope and keep moving forward. As I continued to work hard and succeed in spite of that and eventually came out of the situation, I realized that I’m stronger than I ever thought I was and that people’s opinions of me don’t have to define me.

On Twitter you have “embrace failure” in your bio. What does failure mean to you? Is there a story that made you add this line?

This is actually a phrase that I think about quite a bit and I’m not sure if I will always “embrace.” As researchers, we often talk about failure being a necessary part of the discovery process, but at the same time we know that we all need at least some success to move forward. As we’ve gotten involved with research on the psychology of failure, I’ve been able to better understand this dichotomy. Where I land right now is recognizing that failure is not inherently good, but rather being willing to fail can make us more likely to succeed. For example, if we are willing to dive into the hard experiment that might kill a project rather than saving it for the end because we’re afraid of the failure, we are ultimately more likely to advance our research in a meaningful way. All of that being said, the character limit for a bio on Twitter is pretty limiting, so I’m guessing I’ll keep the phrase there.

You are quite outspoken about various problems in academia. Can you say a bit more about how you got started with this? 

People who know me know that I’ve always been outspoken – Twitter and other media have just given me a public platform for sharing my thoughts more broadly. The motivation for talking about academia comes from realizing that early-career researchers should be at the center of all that we do in the context of academic research – after all, we work at institutions of higher education, not institutions of higher productivity. However, we have a reward system that primarily focuses on publications, grants, and awards, and this unfortunately can allow faculty to thrive in their own careers even if they don’t support the researchers working in their groups. I feel a responsibility to address this, not only by growing my own mentoring and leadership skills so that I can create a healthy and supportive culture in my own lab, but also by advocating for wider scale change.

Should everybody share failures, and/or be more open in general? What would your advice be for somebody who wants to be more open, but is afraid of the negative consequences?

This is a tricky one. I think we should have a culture in science and academia where people can be open about their failures without consequences. But, until we get there, I’ll say that our responsibility to share our failures is proportional to the amount of power we have in the academic system. For tenured faculty, when we are willing to share there is very little to be lost, but much to be gained in encouraging and supporting the next generation of scientists. I’ve also found that when other people are authentic about their failures, it actually increases my respect for them, rather than decreasing it.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

As we stretch into month 8 of the COVID-19 spike in the US, am I allowed to say “everything”? I know it’s not true, but it’s tough to not feel like I’m simultaneously failing as a leader, teacher, mentor, and parent. There is more than ever that needs to be done, and trying to get all of that done in the online environment is often far less effective. And, the stress of everyday life right now makes it more challenging to show up and be the person that I want to be.

What types of things – successes or failures, big or small – do you keep track over time? Why / how does it help you?

That’s a very interesting question, and it makes me realize that I’m probably not great about doing this. I definitely keep track of my growth in key areas such as communication and leadership, but I tend to celebrate the successes and mourn the failures in real-time, then let them go and keep moving. For me, the more important questions are “did I improve myself today?” and “did I improve the world around me today?” and those are often agnostic to failure or success. That being said, part of my job as a faculty member is to fill out an annual report where I cut and paste every publication and talk into a website to be tabulated and analyzed by my institution, so I guess I do sort of use that to keep track.

Should we be sharing more of such (small, non-traditional) successes and failures too? 

I think this is incredibly important. We tend to define success and failure pretty narrowly in academia – the experiment worked or it didn’t, the paper got accepted or rejected, the grant got funded or not funded, etc. In our education research, we define failure as “not achieving a desired outcome” and that can look like many things – it can be not having a conference talk go as smoothly as you wanted or feeling like you didn’t handle a crucial conversation well. Along the same lines, the successes that we should celebrate are also much broader and we’re missing out by not recognizing those.

What is such a recent, small success for you?

I cracked a joke in an email this morning that made someone laugh. We all need laughter right now.

Are there any resources on failure you would recommend to early career researchers?

The book I most highly recommend is Mindset by Carol Dweck. It’s not directly about failure, but rather about how we view our abilities. However, her research suggests that this deeply impacts how we view failure, and ultimately, how likely we are to achieve success. Even more importantly, I’ve found that her research can hugely impact my happiness and sense of satisfaction in my work, and that is even more important to me than the classical metrics of success.

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

Ten years younger me would think “No way! It is absolutely impossible that you are doing this.” I spent way too much time thinking that I could never have the career that I do, and I’m constantly amazed that I’ve made it here and have the opportunity to help others identify and work toward their career goals.

The advice I would give to ten years younger me is twofold: (1) it’s easier to live with failure than regret; (2) go out and find yourself some leadership skills – you’re going to need them. The second one I say somewhat jokingly, but also being completely serious. We tend to view academic jobs as “research jobs” while at the same time they require skills in people management, budget and finances, conflict resolution, strategic planning, etc and there is little in the typical trajectory that prepares you for that. But, that’s also why I’m writing a book! It will be all of the leadership advice I wish I had when I started my faculty career.

How I Fail S02E07 – Florian Dubost (PhD’20, Medical Image Analysis)

Florian Dubost is a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Quantitative Imaging and Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, School of Medicine. His research interests include deep learning, neurology, medical image analysis, weakly supervised learning, and interpretability of neural networks. You can find out more about him on Google Scholar, LinkedIn, and on Twitter (@fpgdubost).

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

Hi Veronika, 

Thank you for inviting me! We know each other since a few years already, so you probably know already some of those details, but I will give a fresh reminder, at least for the rest of the audience! I am a 27 years old French man, who grew up in the suburbs of Paris, I have studied in a few places in Europe (France, Germany, Netherlands) and the US, and I am now located in the bay area. I am very interested in science and art, and I love to take up new challenges. I learnt to dance argentinian tango and recently to paint with acrylic. I really enjoy being able to focus both on science during my working time and art during some of my free time, which provides a very enjoyable balance. Many people would say that I am quite talkative. I like to tell and hear little stories, make up fun theories, debate with people, and when appropriate joke a lot! On a more serious note, it is very important to me to feel that my actions have a positive impact on the world, and trying to increase the magnitude of this impact is one of my most recurring motivations.

What are some memorable failures that stand out for you?

One of my most memorable failure was at the beginning of university, more precisely, while studying in those competitive French preparatory classes. I had just arrived home after completing a math–the most heavily weighted subject–exam. It was pretty easy, I prepared it well, and managed my time well during the exam. Though, after coming home, for a second, I had a doubt about a minus sign in the equation. I quickly checked the equation again, and realized I was wrong. Because only correct numerical results count, it turned out I had zero points, just because of a tiny mistake. I had never had a zero grade before. Before preparatory classes, I never even got lower than 10/20 (20 is the maximum in the French system). In preparatory classes, and I am going to explain that in a bit later, I was used to have 3, 4 or 5 out of 20. But 0, that was another realm I had until now not entered. You have to be pretty bad to get zero, even the worst students managed to grab one or two point here and here. I was striving hard, the hardest I had ever tried in my life, and I would get a zero grade. I think I did cry.

I have another example of a memorable failure, this time not involving intellectual abilities, at least directly. When I was teenager, I liked to do acrobatic stuff with my bike. Once, at a friend’s place, there was this sort of elevated area of the garden, which was separated from the car’s pathway by a little wall. I thought it would be fun to bike on the elevated platform until the wall, gain speed, fly a few second on my bike, and majestically fall back in the car’s pathway, concluding the whole act with a little back wheel drift. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?! The car’s pathway was made of gravel, and I had never done something quite like this before. I hesitated a bit, but the idea was so marvelous, I had to try. I biked on the elevated platform until the wall, slowed down because I was afraid to fall, the bike did not fly, I fell with my head forward into the gravel, and the bike fell on me. Luckily I had a helmet. My friend removed the bike, sprayed alcohol in my back, where the gravels had left their marks, and I remember this being even more painful than the fall itself.

Conclusion: if you are going to try something risky, accept the negative outcome before it happens, and go full in while attempting if you want to have a chance to fly.

I could add to this my experiences with articles rejected after major revisions for factors that I could not control, and other kind of academic failures, but you probably already know the story yourself.

What is your definition of failure, and what kind of experiences do you think shaped this?

My definition of failure is when the results of my actions do not reach my expected outcome. It is personal by essence. You only fail in regards to your own objectives, so ultimately you are the one deciding for yourself what event is a failure. If you try something that has a low probability of success, and it ends up not working, I would not consider it as failure because I expected it not to work. If on the contrary, if I was sure it was going to work, invested my resource in proportion and had it not working, I would consider it a failure. But even then, a failure can be turned into a success. You can learn from it, try again and have it work. A real failure is a failure that stays a failure. Though one must also be wise, and step back on when things becomes doomed to fail. Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum.

I think my experience in preparatory classes shaped this personal definition of failure. The teachers keep trying to get more from you, you cannot satisfy the requirement completely as they are limitless. So there is only one way to be satisfied with what you accomplish: set your own threshold and objectives, and meet them. The system is here only to help you after all, not to judge you. You’re the only one allowed to judge yourself.

Can you explain more about these classes?

It is more subtle than this. Only top ambitious high school students join preparatory classes. You used to be the best of school, and you’re thrown into a class slightly bigger than that of your high school, everything is similar on the outside, but the other students are all as good as you are. They came from all French speaking countries in the world to compete against you. During two years, these classes prepare their students for national competitive exams, where only the best will be accepted in the most renown schools, which often have not much more than 200 places per year.

It does not matter how good you are, you have to be better, better than the others. Your grade on its own says nothing. There is no pass, there is only ranking of your grade in comparison to that of the others. You do not have time to lose, you must learn and be better than the others. And everyone does that. Forget staying at your parents’ place for emotional support: having more than one hour travel to the school will make you fail. Others tried before, after a few months they either moved closer or quitted. You are warned that it is difficult before you join the school. There was even a suicide once. Most high school student do not even dare to apply. The exams last sometimes 5 hours. They are not made for you to finish. Very few students manage to even read all questions. The difficulty is scaled for you to fail at some point. Your grade will measure how far you went before failing. 

Also, there are oral exams. Three hours per week, three different subject. With two other students, you go in a little room with three small blackboards. The teacher sits in the middle, make you pick a random exercise and let you solve it on the board. The exercise is designed for you to fail at some point. If you don’t, the teacher will come up with new, tougher, questions. The teacher will pick up any mistake you write on the board and lower your grade. The teacher will make you admit everything you don’t know or remember. During all this time, the teacher will judge your abilities and your commitment, which he eventually quantifies with a grade. 

For the written exam, the teacher gives back the exercises by order of ascending grades. The first one to be called is the worst. The teacher makes a comment about how the bad student was. Often this student cries. Remember, this student is a top student from a school somewhere in France. Then comes the second-to-worst and the story repeats itself.

No matter how good you are, things are programmed for you to fail, and measure how far you went. They are designed to check whether you can resist to constant pressure during two years, and still perform well.

At the beginning, I was afraid and insecure. I felt bad not being able to reach higher than 3 points out of 20 in my math exams despite working all the time and hardly sleeping.

After a while I took a different approach. I ignored the judgement of teachers and others, set my own objectives, was satisfied if I met them, and took the time to relax, spend time with friends and explore the city, Paris. I even followed theater classes. I used failures a boost. My grades went up, and I often got good ranks. After two years, I failed miserably at the exam of the school I was targeting. Luckily, I was very good at another equally good school, which I had not even considered. I joined that school and did cool stuff there. There are so many paths to success that failure may be nothing more than a mere distraction.

You mentioned moving around in academia, which many early career researchers are expected to do. Do you think this can create some inequalities further down the line?

I have moved quite a lot during my education. I left my parents’ place at 17 to join the prepary classes mentioned above. I had no friends around to support me through hardships. I made a few friends there, and had to leave them after two years, when I moved to my engineering school in the south. And the process repeated itself about every two years, joining even further places, foreign countries, which language I did not fully master. I had to build new friend groups as I moved, and tried to keep contact with my best friends via Skype.

My experience in preparatory classes had already made me very independent and resistant to stress and failure. I would even say that in comparison, normal life seems pretty easy even when dropped alone to the other side of the world. With the experience of moving, I became increasingly better at identifying potential new friends and create strong bonds rapidly. Moving may have even improved my social skills. Besides, I also like to move to new places. It feels like an new adventure awaits. I like the challenge of building things from scratch somewhere new and try to have an impact there. Though most people are not like this, and I sometimes find it hard to relate to locals.

Academia often expects young researchers to prove that they can perform well more than in one setting or institution, as it gives additional evidence that the researcher himself/herself substantially contributes to the success of the academic projects. On the other hand, I have in mind many examples of very successful researchers who stayed in the same university or only moved once to a university less that one hour away from their former institution. I guess that moving can give you a plus, but with current communication technologies, collaborations between institutions are easier to implement and one does not necessarily need to move to prove their skills. I move mostly because I like it.

Follow up question: do you think everybody is able / should do this, or maybe there are some other factors to consider? For example people with family

I do not think everyone is able move around like this. Some people are more bound to their friends and relatives, have a hard time making new connections or are simply afraid of change. I actually even think most people are. The other question is: should they move around? If it is going to negatively influence their health and productivity, I do not think they should. It is in their own best interest, that of their employer and, most importantly, that of the society they work for to be in an environment that is most comfortable. I understand that some people may not want or even be able to move around, and I do not think they should be forced to.

Often early career researchers are hesitant to join this series / share their failures, do you think there could be downsides to this?

I would assumed that some people could think about their failures as weaknesses. I do not think they are. Everybody experiences failures. There are inherent to one’s improvement process. If you show that you can handle failures well, and learn from them to become better, it actually displays strength. I assume that some people may also just not want to display their emotions online in general, I understand that.

Of course, they will always be people who disagree and think that failures are weaknesses. I would not worry too much about what those people think about me. If you want to accomplish great things, you face challenges and sometimes fail. If you never fail, it probably means that you could be trying harder.

What do you think about sharing data and code online, does it relate to experiencing or learning from failure in a way? 

I share what I am allowed to by my organization. I am for sharing code and data in general. But I also understand institutions that do not, and may need to keep monopoly on their data and code depending on their business model or research objectives. I think it is nice that both systems can coexist. As an independent researcher, I think the question is not whether you should share or not your data and code, but rather what part of it and when? I think most people do not share code, not necessarily because they are afraid of others stealing their idea, but rather because it takes time to clean your code and make it useable by peers and this investment is sometimes perceived as having a too low return by the authors.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

Well, I am going as fast as I want in my research and I don’t have as good results as I want. But can you really consider that failure? That is simply research and that is what motivates me. Also, there is this company I did this summer. It does not work very well, or maybe even not at all. I am not worrying too much about it. I knew it was challenging and temporary. I gave it a shot, learnt a lot, and I will aim better next time. No big deal.

Do you keep track of failures and why/why not? Other than your CV, do you keep track of any positive things? 

I don’t keep track of failures. In general, I just don’t look at the past very much. I spend most of my time thinking about the future and how I can make as efficient and interesting as possible.

I like to create little portfolios of what I create or write, but I rarely keep it up to date. For example, I made an academic website to list my academic achievements, and I made an instagram account to gather my best paintings. I usually reflect back on it either when I am creating something similar, as a starting ground, or when sharing it with friends and family. But I do not spend very much time organizing that and rather spend the effort into making something new.

What is such a non-traditional, recent success for you?

I painted this, and it came out better than I had anticipated!

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

It is just reassuring to see that even the bests seem to fail at many things, and reinforces the idea that failure is a part of the path to success.

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

He would definitely be proud, maybe a bit intimidated and mostly probably curious about my path. He would probably be very impatient to ask questions. I am most of time pretty satisfied and excited with anything I do, though, I have to admit, others often do not become quite as excited as I do. So there is definitely some bias here.

My general advice would be: do what you like and what you think is interesting and fun, and do it well, put the effort in it, think strategically, use all resource you can leverage, and use failures to leverage success. And try a lot of different things, sometimes it fails, sometimes it works. Learn from the failures and move on, eventually only the successes will be written on your resume, so who cares about the failures? Just keep doing things, that’s how the boat floats.

How I Fail S02E06 – Danielle Navarro (PhD’03, Psychology)

Danielle Navarro is a computational cognitive scientist and Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her research focuses on human concept learning and reasoning, and on statistical methods in the behavioural sciences. Other topics she has researched include data visualisation, decision making, language and cultural evolution, cognitive development, and forensic psychology. Danielle is a cofounder of R-Ladies Sydney and a member of the Board of Reviewing Editors at Science. On occasions she has been known to masquerade as a statistician and a generative artist.

Hi Danielle, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself, and what made you join this series? 

Hi Veronika, 

Well, first, thank you for inviting me! As for why I decided to join, that’s easy – it’s a fabulous series and one that I think makes a real difference to people. I’m not sure what to say about me. I’m 43, I live in Sydney, I have two children who I love dearly and am endlessly perplexed by. I spend too much time on twitter for my own good, I’m openly transgender and bisexual, and I have a bad tendency to be honest about the difficulties I’ve had in coping with severe depression and anxiety. 

What’s a memorable failure for you?

Some of my failures are the same as anyone else’s in academia. Some papers get rejected, some grants don’t get funded, some experiments don’t work, some theories don’t work, some derivations are too hard for me to solve. Others are the same as anyone else’s in life. Those have been little things like when a job prospect didn’t work out, big things like when relationships failed, or terrible things like watching helplessly as someone I love died and I could not help. Life is necessarily filled with failure for all of us. I have no special insight into those failures and I don’t think I have anything much to say about them.

I do have one failure that stands out in my mind: I have failed dismally to convince my academic colleagues in psychology to take transgender rights seriously. It’s an odd failure because it’s one that doesn’t seem like it should be so hard, but it has proven to be entirely beyond me. I persevere with it because it matters to me, but I do not believe anything I say or do will lead to success.

I hope you don’t see this as a personal failure, but one of academia (or perhaps, this specific community? 

I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, sure, I can hardly be personally blamed for the fact that my colleagues are quite obviously doing nothing useful in regards to the problems facing transgender people. They are responsible for their behaviour, not me. On the other hand, it is a task I have set myself, and for good reason. The empirical data around transgender lives is extremely grim, and psychology as a discipline is partly to blame for that. We are the exact group of academics who create the diagnostic categories that govern transgender lives, and it matters to me that we as psychologists take responsibility for that. To that end I have written various blog posts, been open on twitter about some of my most painful experiences, done workshops, given talks, and… none of it makes any difference whatsoever. Regardless of where fault lies, I have failed at something I care deeply about and that hurts.

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

I think it is changing, if you look at it on a long enough time scale and from a great distance, you can see that it is genuinely improving. But I’m reminded of John Maynard Keynes quote about economics: 

> “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again

The situation regarding transgender rights is rather like this. Here and now, trans folks find ourselves in a storm. We can see signs that some countries are taking our concerns seriously. Some academic fields are showing signs of change, others have turned our lives into an ideological battleground. Even in the time I’ve been out, I’ve seen some positive steps: journals are becoming more open to the idea of allowing transgender people to edit names on older papers so that we no longer face the risk of being outed every time our work is cited. That’s a positive step, and one I am grateful to see. In the long run, I like to hope that trend will continue. But that is the long run, and in the here and now, I have to live in a very unpleasant world. 

What do you think about the CV of failures?

I have mixed feelings. I think it is a great idea to be open about failures and the CV of failures idea is a cute way to do that. At the same time, I sometimes feel like people look at one and think the takeaway message is “See, it’s a stochastic process! Just persevere and eventually you’ll get there!” I’m more pessimistic than that. Sometimes success and failure is not random. Sometimes you fail because the dice are loaded. And the thing is, per Leonard Cohen, everybody knows. Yes it really is a noisy process, but it’s also an unfair one. Biases are baked into academic (and other) systems, and that means that “luck” is unevenly distributed.

Are there any other popular opinions about failure that you disagree with? 

The biggest one I disagree with is that there is always something to learn from failures, some way you could do better next time. Often that is true. Sometimes it is not, and you can drive yourself a little bit mad looking for something positive. When that happens, I think it is okay just to say to yourself, “yep, that failed and I have absolutely no idea how I could do it better.” 

Can you think of any examples where somebody failed and said that, that we should be learning from?

Ha! My Ph.D. advisor once said to me that it was okay to make mistakes, just try never to make the same mistake twice. Or words to that effect. In that case it was prompted by something where I’d accidentally breached confidentiality (thankfully it was a minor breach and I was able to repair the error) and it was genuinely great advice. What I took from it was it’s okay to fail but always learn from it so you can do better next time. In most cases, I absolutely think this “learn from error” approach is the right perspective, but you can take it too far. Sometimes life just doesn’t give you any useful training signal, sadly.  

Do you think the uneven distribution of luck also influences whether people share their successes?

I think it does. It’s easier to talk about failure when you feel secure, I think, and it’s hard to feel secure when you are living in a low-reward environment. I find it easy to talk about rejected papers and grants because I’ve had quite a bit of success there. Oddly, I find it harder to talk about the successes I’ve had in that area because I’m acutely aware that not everyone has had my good fortune, and not everyone has been afforded the opportunities I’ve been given

Omg yes! It took me until the end of my tenure track to just properly introduce myself as an assistant professor 


But why is that, are we not biasing things in a different way somehow by “hiding” successes? Because you know the demographic vocal about theirs

Well, yes, in a sense this is true. Members of some demographics seem to be … less shy than others, shall we say? … about broadcasting their success to the world. That has the effect of biasing the observable data of who is seen to be succeeding. Perhaps those people could be quieter? 

But I think there is also a serious point to be made about the reasons why we choose not to disclose. I’ll use myself as an example, and I’ll use “cisgender white men” as an example of a demographic that is, on average, not so shy about talking up their successes. Suppose I were to “act like a man”, be bold and assertive and unabashedly proud of my success the way that (some, not all) men tend to. What are the political and social consequences for me – a transgender woman – for acting like a man? I hope I don’t need to spell it out in a lot of detail, but the fact of the matter is that this is simply not a viable life strategy for me given the world that we live in.

What can we [everybody, individually] do more structurally to change things?   

Little things come to mind. An easy one is to learn the art of not treating other people’s lives as interesting intellectual exercises. Do you as an academic really need to have a public discussion about the metaphysics of gender – does it actually matter whether I am “really” a woman, for example? Does it serve a useful scientific purpose to speculate about the “causes of transsexuality” as so many psychologists have done? What possible reason do you have to care about this, and why does your personal interest in the subject override the preferences of the people whose lives you are interfering with? Asking yourself these questions before deciding what studies to run, thinking about them when reviewing papers on sensitive subjects, and thinking about the real world consequences for other people when making editorial decisions seems like a good idea. Yes, good science requires open discussion, this is true. It also requires prudent discussion because science takes place in the real world. 

Hm, I’m not sure that’s exactly answering the question! I guess what I’m trying to say is that when other people’s lives and wellbeing are at stake – as is the case when talking about transgender subjects – maybe show a little care and kindness when deciding which particular hill you want to die on?

Have you shared things about failures online before? You mentioned sharing painful experiences, without any effect? 

I’ve written about painful experiences. Writing helps me get through hard times, and it can be valuable to look back at what I have written. My favourite example is 52 pickup. It’s not uncommon for me to feel badly about myself as an academic, because I am not as productive as I’d like to be, and I struggle to stay on an emotionally even keel. My first instinct is always to blame myself for this, but every time I re-read that piece, it reminds me that there genuinely is something bizarre about trying to survive in academia as a trans woman, and that the strangeness of it all isn’t entirely in my head – a lot of it comes from the structure of the environment. Keeping that in mind helps me be a little kinder to myself when I inevitably fail to meet my own expectations.  

Do you keep track of failures in other ways, as you would for a CV? Do you keep track of other things (habits for example), and what is the difference?

To be honest, I don’t even keep a CV of successes. I probably ought not say this but I cannot stand academic CVs, whether they be a list of successes or failures. All my friends in industry find it hilarious that we keep these massive documents exhaustively listing ALL THE THINGS. It’s kind of absurd. My CV is, quite deliberately, only two pages long. I am trying to make myself take the same approach to failures: there are some big ones I want to remember, but honestly if I kept an exhaustive list I’d probably just keep reading it over and over and ruminating on them. 

As for other things, I obsessively track the number of days I have been sober (currently 523), I track my running, I track my artwork, and a whole lot of other things besides. I seem to get a lot more value out of that kind of tracking than I do with tracking work related things. I’m not sure why that is.  

Tell me one recent success, and one thing you are “successfully failing” at 😀 

My favourite recent success is art-related. Over the last year I’ve gotten really interested in making generative art in R, and I’ve posted a lot of my art online. An example that always makes me smile is the “heartbleed” series, consisting of images like this

Besides the intrinsic reward I get from making art, I’ve become a much better programmer because of it. I’ve taught myself the basics of C++ so that I can call compiled code from R, I’ve spent time thinking about API design for packages, I have ended up writing my own blog themes that integrate nicely with R packages like blogdown and hugodown, and so on. It’s a personal success that has given me some professional benefits. As for “successfully failing”, I am doing a spectacular job at failing to get over my fear of sending my R packages to CRAN. It’s becoming quite silly.

Are there any art things, books, resources etc. you would recommend to the readers?

You’d think I would be able to think of some, but weirdly nothing is coming to mind. I don’t read art books, and I’ve never really gotten much value from motivational books etc. But I am a big fan of reading tidyverse documentation, any of Hadley Wickham’s books about R, and I spend a lot of time looking at other people’s art and try to figure out how they created it. I find anything by Kate Manne super helpful in making sense of some of the inequalities I see in the world. But more often than not I prefer to just re-read Terry Pratchett novels. 🙂

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

Greg Wilson’s quote: “Be kind, everything else is detail.” 

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

HA! He might be a little shocked. I think I might have to spend a bit of time calming the poor boy down and explaining some of the facts of life to him. Mostly I’d suggest that it’s okay to be honest about your fears, your hopes, and that you’ll find a way through what is about to be a very strange decade for you. 

How I Fail S0205: Sheba Agarwal-Jans (PhD’06, Genetics)

Dr. Sheba Agarwal-Jans is a Scientific Editor at iScience, published by Elsevier’s Cell Press. Previously, she was a Publisher at Elsevier, managing the Microbiology and Mycology portfolio of journals in the Life Sciences department. Sheba is also the founder of the science communications blog We Talk Science, which brings evidence-based science to the general public. Follow her on twitter @ShebaAJ

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

Hi Veronika, I did my PhD in Rotterdam at the Erasmus Medical Center, and then a postdoc at the VU Amsterdam. My area of expertise is molecular biology, cellular biology, biochemistry – everything you can’t see with your bare eyes!. I love science in any shape and form. Science is a way to verify what is real and not, which is so important in this age of information. But science is not always understood esp people not in science, so I am passionate about our responsibility as scientists to bring this information to everybody. This is why I founded WeTalkScience – I feel it is our responsibility as scientists, publishers, and as an editor that I am now – a responsibility to get this information out there in a way that people can understand and trust. 

Currently I am an editor at iScience which is a multidisciplinary journal. I am the life science editor which means I get to read papers from lots of different fields. I’ve been in this role for 1.5 years now, and it’s only now that I’m seeing the first papers on the same topic, which shows how diverse it is. There’s really everything from dinosaurs to coral reefs to body swapping

Next to this I also workout a lot, I have just earned the first dan black belt in TaeKwon-Do (ITF), I go to the gym, I run. I love music and going to concerts, which is hard now with the lockdown. I also love reading and I’m learning how to play the drums 🙂 I have two cats: Sapphire and Emerald

Sapphire and Emerald

Can you say a bit more about your switch from a research career to editing? 

I think it was in the third year of my postdoc that I just started feeling the fatigue of it all, the pressure there is on everyone in academia. I felt like  a mouse in a wheel where I just kept running and not getting anywhere. I pretty much powered through until the end of the contract and had a burnout at the end of it – there was also moving and other life decisions involved, so it was not an easy time. Then I took 6 weeks off between the end of my contract and starting at Elsevier – that was the first time I had done something like this for myself. But it was also scary – being unemployed is scary to me.  

It was not obvious to me that the kind of job I was looking for. I was thinking about how my skills could transfer to real life. So around year three of the postdoc, after my daughter was born, I started networking more and going to career events for PhDs. First I was not too open to receiving this information because I was too focused on my life science skills, and applying to pharma or biotech companies. The way I fell into publishing was an accident, I gave my CV to somebody already in publishing and they soon called me back! I wasn’t sure what kind of level I should be applying for, and they told me I would be a good publisher. So yeah, I learned a lot on the job! 

Actually now that’s another passion of mine – helping people understand what kind of skills they have. In academia, leaving is often made to seem like a failure, because you invested so much time into it and now you are leaving. But it’s not a failure! It’s where life takes you – as long as you are happy, that’s the most important thing.   

What’s a memorable failure for you? 

I had so many it’s difficult to choose! Life is a series of failures and wins. Leaving academia felt like a failure at first because I didn’t get to where planned. But it was not a failure because I was out, I got some peace of mind, and this is when I started being more physically active, because I had more energy left for other things. 

I think the failure that I feel most acutely is when I was 18 and applying to university. I was told I was to go to med school, but I did not make the grades to be able to do so in our final school exams. It was quite clear at the time that I would not be able to make it as there was only one med school in Singapore, and very select few got in. I had to formulate a Plan B rather quickly. That was devastating to me at that age, but in retrospect, I think I dodged a massive bullet. The pressure to do well is high in Singapore, and being in med school I think would have been unbearable for me. 

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

Some rejections definitely feel like failures. When I was discussing with my PI what next, and I heard there was no way to give me a permanent job, of course I was disappointed and that felt like rejection – it was a nice lab and I would have wanted to stay. But in retrospect maybe I also felt relief to leave the politics and the culture behind. Publishing was a way for me to still be involved in research. 

I do sometimes wonder that maybe I should have worked harder, but I had given it so much of my energy already, that I just didn’t have anything left to give. Being a new mom at the time also wasn’t very easy. 

When I joined Elsevier I was first a publisher for 8 years, which is like a strategic manager. But I found myself missing the science. I remember sitting in a cafe with my best friend who I’ve had throughout the whole research journey, and she said – how do we get you back into science? I thought about academia again, but I thought I would also be a fool to leave a stable, permanent job. So then I launched WeTalkScience as a way to get more involved with science myself. And then I was offered the editor position, and I’m more involved in science than ever before – especially in this COVID crisis! 

As an editor you now both have experience with rejecting others, as with receiving rejections for your PhD papers – what have you learned from this? 

What I teach people to do (I also give paper writing workshops) is to look at reviewer comments as a way to discuss your paper with the community. And now that I’ve seen both sides, I see both sides working really hard to make sure that something comes out of this process that’s good. There are definitely frustrations out there, we are all human beings so that’s normal! As an editor I have to mediate that. I understand that it is difficult on both sides, but it is my job to ensure that it is as easy as possible. 

I have not censored harsh reviews – there is one instance in which I probably should have though, because the reviewer was not commenting on the science. Moving on I think I would definitely discuss this with the team, because there is no point with aggravating either side. Same goes for the authors as well! I’ve seen rude rebuttals. Then you have to make a call, whether to send it back to the reviewer or not. 

My advice to PhD students would be not to take things personally. It’s easy for me to say as an editor and I’ve seen many reviewer reports. But if a reviewer upsets you – some reviews I’ve seen would have certainly made me cry. As a student I didn’t receive too bad comments, I think  the PI protected me from it or I blocked the memory.

Also take your time – when you receive negative comments, go do something else first, have a drink – then come back later and reply. If you think there is something incorrect or unprofessional, just write to the editor! Put it in the rebuttal and back it up with scientific facts. It could very well be that the editor agrees. Editors are just people – I reply to authors who write to me, for example this week I’m having a call with a PI to see how their team could revise their rejected paper. 

Are there any other lessons about failure you want to share?

During my life transitions, I realized I was asking the wrong questions. My thinking was too old fashioned – you go into one thing, and then you try to climb the ladder. Also in my publisher role I was trying to do that. Not so much of a failure, but a thing I realized, but why I was disappointed, is that I was aimining for the wrong thing, asking the wrong questions.  My advice would be to know what you want, instead of what you think you should want. You don’t have to be just doing 1 thing, and just being good at 1 thing – not in these days especially. Try to see how that works for you. 

I did this Coursera course recently on the science of happiness, by Lori Sanchez. She says it’s important to know what you are passionate about, and try to bring those qualities to the job that you are doing. So introspection is really important. The way I learned this is via Chiat Cheong, a friend used to work for a postdoc development initiative and now has her own consultancy company. She runs these career retreats… they are very different from career events, which tend to be more practical. Chiat does it differently – you have this job and you have you, and you try to fit yourself into the job. But a lot of times the job is square-shaped and you are round, so you are trying to fit in. The other approach is to look at everything that you have, and look for a job that fits that. 

Maybe to summarize, it’s a kind of collective failure that we are still trying to follow career rules that no longer fit the world we live in. Things are changing a lot, and you cannot just do the same job for 30 years, those days are over. But even with switching jobs, you build experience and you can gain certifications, so you can still reinvent yourself and not be penalized for it. Every job you have will give you some skills which will help you later on. 

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

Maybe that I’m doing many things, but not well. I grew up in a family where I was told, to get recognition, I had to do one thing and not get distracted, and do it well. So I tried that, but it didn’t work for me. It took me time to realize that it’s important to me to LIKE doing things – I will not paint like Rembrandt for example, but I enjoy it! 

Perhaps the biggest failure is that I’m constantly underestimating what I can do, because I’m afraid of overestimating and then being disappointed. That’s something I’m trying to turn around a little bit now.  But I don’t have regrets, I feel like things are happening the way they should. 

Can you share a success we don’t often see on a CV?  

I think my biggest is my daughter! She is 12 years old now and has school friends the same age. I am blown away by how open minded and informed they are about gender norms, LGBTQ+ issues and inclusion. I only learned about these things a few years ago myself, and she is 12! And she gets it. So that’s the biggest success I can boast of. 

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, – 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.

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 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!

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 🙂

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

How I Fail - Casper Albers |

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.

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