How I Fail S02E11: Pradeep Reddy Raamana (PhD’14, Medical Imaging and Machine Learning)

Dr. Pradeep Reddy Raamana is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He is interested in developing multimodal biomarkers for brain disorders, and the necessary data science tools to realize personalized medicine. He founded the special interest group on neuroimaging quality control (niQC) at the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility. He is a passionate advocate for quality, reproducible and open science. He leads the Open MINDS lab @ Pitt (now hiring!), where they develop multidisciplinary techniques for computer-aided diagnosis (CAD) and precision medicine, with a motivation to improve data quality, reproducibility, performance of predictive models and their potential for clinical translation.

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

Thanks for inviting me, Veronika! I would like to think I am a simple straightforward guy trying to improve the world around me in various ways I can. I think a good way to be happy is to make others happy! They sound cliché but that is in fact where I derive my motivation to find value in my actions, work and life in general.

That is also a key motivation for me to choose the academic career, which I believe would give me the opportunity to 1) develop necessary techniques and tools to improve healthcare, and 2) [at some point soon] provide a sufficiently stable and independent platform to speak my mind and pursue solving whichever problems (broadly speaking) I believe would make the most impact. I hope to pursue it by rejecting the traditional careerist approach, and help reform it by eliminating various sources of toxicity in academic life for all stakeholders involved including trainees and faculty.

A recent step I am taking in that direction is to “boycott” all interactions (reviewing, editing and submitting any academic outputs including papers and books) with for-profit publishing businesses like Elsevier. The motivation is to eliminate the subjective (and arguably disproven) concepts of “prestigious” and “high-impact” journals (by relying on high rejection rates and impact factors etc) from our peer-review discourse as well as in hiring and promotion policies.

I believe sticking to publishing only in society-run journals that are accountable to the members of their scientific society would give us the power to choose the peer review criteria (focus on validity, not on accumulating citations to charge higher subscription fees), and optimize them towards what is ethical and best for science. This would also reduce the costs for publication and be more inclusive.

Given great adoption of open science we are seeing which includes transparency in peer review, we can adapt the policies of a society-run journal based on the best available evidence. Within a society-run journal, members would have option to reject many unethical and toxic practices we notice in many for-profit journal businesses such as

  1. picking for “shiny” topics and encouraging authors make inflated claims,
  2. extracting within-same-journal citations from authors (to manipulate their IF),
  3. unnecessarily large number of revisions to leech off many-fold submission fees as well as to
  4. create a false appearance of faster processing time from submission to publication.

I urge everyone to join me, esp. those with sufficient job security. 

What’s a memorable failure for you?

Great question! Besides the typical failures we all face, I think the most memorable for me would go back all the way to the first year of my PhD where I felt the euphoria of building a “perfect biomarker” to diagnose AD “accurately”. Like 100% accuracy in my evaluation (using an SVM classifier I think – they were all the rage then!). I thought I won the jackpot and was super happy. That lasted only 10 minutes or so until I discovered I was totally double dipping!

On Twitter you shared about null results during your postdoc – can you explain more about this?

I was referring to a key project in my postdoc to build neuroimaging “biomarkers” (loosely speaking) for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). When I was just getting started on it, there were few review papers implying the possibility and potential of neuroimaging to predict response to treatment.  I did have sufficient expertise with both machine learning and imaging-derived features: the focus of my PhD thesis was exactly that but focused on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and related neurological disorders.

I picked it up with enthusiasm but after a long series of attempts to evaluate the predictive utility of know biomarker candidates as well as some new ideas we had, I realized neuroimaging-based features (various versions of morphometric and functional connectivity) were no better or only slightly than chance. As you know it’s harder or impossible to publish null results, except in specialized/non-popular venues. Hence, I kept digging deeper and wider to try find a “somewhat positive” result, and I must say I failed thoroughly. However, I must say I succeeded in thoroughly understanding various challenges related to predicting response to treatment in MDD well.

If you ask me how I viewed it differently then and now: then, I saw it as an exciting, important, high-risk high-reward challenge, that will demonstrate my expertise and diversify research “portfolio” so to say. I was skeptical of the published results (based on my previous understanding of the AD literature that most biomarker studies reported inflated and/or overfitted results).

But looking back I feel I didn’t think sufficiently through various possible outcomes and whether they align with my career plan i.e. I should have asked the hard questions first: 1) will the results be publishable, and 2) do they add to and merge as a coherent part of my research program in my job talk etc? However, I don’t regret that effort at all! I learnt a lot from this exercise that I wouldn’t have learnt otherwise esp. challenges in in the world of psychiatric disorders. But I am thoroughly disappointed in the system, structure and community around us that would rate that effort (without big papers to show) towards nothing.

Is there a story behind your name “Future Distinguished Emeritus Prof” and bio “without an agenda”? 🙂

LOL, that title is a joke on the high prevalence of Named Professors / Chairs in the academy, which I believe are related to donations into the university. Given the already-hierarchical nature of the academy and concentration of power into few rich clubs, this never-ending quest for more titles incentivizes “generation of money” from new sources proposing all sorts of research. This quest to climb the ladder higher and higher leads to piles of papers in flimsy fields that don’t really move the needle in the context of larger challenges to society, that they are supposed to help with.

This is also related to some traditional biography pages I read which are just a really long list of such “titles”, and I remember saying to myself “OK.. that’s a stack of “trophies”, but tell me what you actually do?”. I personally believe titles shouldn’t get in the way of a good conversation or a debate, and we must evaluate comments on their substance and merit. So, the prefix is just to indicate I will also have few titles in the future. Some on Twitter told me it made them chuckle! J

The “without an agenda” in my Twitter profile is to clarify how I try to conduct myself there: to keep it real, unfiltered and without a specific agenda towards promoting a certain set of topics or people. Few years after I started using Twitter routinely, I’ve noticed how some powerful people promote only those (people or papers) that suit their agenda, and not all the good work that exists. That is really upsetting when it is done by those claiming to be a champion of open science. This saddened me deeply, and I decided to try keep it real and be myself.

The “without an agenda” is also a disclaimer and “warning” of sort for people thinking of following me (many find me based on my research) on what sort of content/feed they can expect when they follow me. I am not trying to virtue signal here, and I probably have blindspots and biases myself. I hope to learn them and correct them to the extent possible.

It seems that you are pretty open about topics others might be avoiding. How do people usually respond to this?

Great question! I’d love to hear from the community what they think of my timeline 🙂

As a true believer in open science, I think it is essential to be as open and as honest as possible. As is true in broader life (relationships, politics etc), only honest discourse from everyone leads to real and sustainable progress for all stakeholders involved.  So, I try not to filter any comments or questions I have and try providing an open outlet/forum to discuss all topics, regardless of whether I think that particular tweet or topic would be well-received or not. This process of sharing (past some basic filtering) also helps me a keep a journal of sort over time, and over multiple debates on similar topics.

As for how people respond to this, I think there is definitely those who listen to what I have to say, offer thoughtful responses, advice and support in their own ways. I’d like to sincerely thank them, and consider them my friends! They certainly keep me going, as I don’t think I’d have decided to pursue the academic career if I didn’t find that open and supportive community in time.

That said, they are more on the smaller minority, and I feel there is a clear and strong tendency to avoid any “negative” and non-work topics. Engaging in these debates is considered “unproductive” by some. I might be wrong but one of the reasons for this is many researchers treat academic Twitter as another social media channel to promote their work or themselves (“brand management” comes to mind). That is their choice, and that is not wrong, but it doesn’t help with facilitating important open conversations to be had.

There is also a clear and noticeable tendency to popularize who are already popular e. g. an identical idea or comment from a “well-known senior researcher” would get disproportionately more attention than otherwise. I don’t claim to understand how or why that happens, but I think the tweet should matter much more than the tweeter.

Are there any other topics we (collectively) are avoiding, that we need to discuss more often?

Yes – there are a few (which I have been trying to shout out loud and often):

  1. More debate and realization towards how we the academics are squarely the source of many of the fundamental issues in science
  2. More honest communication with prospective PhD students on what academic life is really like, and the bleak prospects for many towards a traditional Professorial career, and why we should strongly discourage many to pursue a PhD in the first place
  3. Why we should eliminate the concepts of “prestige” and ranks in our discourse, starting with journals (Impact Factor etc), and then universities

Is the situation changing? Do you see differences, for example across different fields?

Yes! Based on my experience and bubbles (which is arguably limited and likely not representative of the full academia at large), the “computer sciences” seem to be more open compared to the more “clinical” and life-sciences fields. This may be due to differences in training, and perhaps because the tools and platforms to share (relating to computers and software) are much more natural and integrated to them. I have definitely noticed “hierarchy” and “authority” play a bigger role in the more clinical / “hardware” fields relative to the “software” fields. Again, I could be less than accurate as this was based on my own observations and anecdata.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

Yes! I suck at time-management and sticking to my plans and priorities esp. in the medium term.

Do you have a success that is not a traditional one, like jobs or papers, that you are proud of today?

As I participated in the American Elections debates online over the years, I noticed they were only worsening the political divide and weren’t helping with bridging the gap! Hence, I’ve been itching to meet the real American voters in the real world and something “real” instead of another Twitter debate. While the pandemic didn’t really help this cause, I was able to visit many poll centers in the Greater Pittsburgh area to distribute water and food on the historic 2020 American Election Day.

The original idea was to help the voters stay in line and make sure they vote as Pennsylvania was a critical swing state. However, as large numbers voted by mail, the lines weren’t as long as expected. So, I was able to help the poll workers themselves! They were visibly and clearly delighted to see somebody offer them water and chocolates. And that was an experience I wouldn’t forget for sometime.

How I Fail S02E10: Charles T. Gray (PhD’21, Interdisciplinary Computational Metascience)

Charles T. Gray is a reformed musicologist, one-time fire twirler, former inter-library loans officer, and intermittent typist. She spent the nineties immersed in Melbourne’s vibrant street-punk scene, and it was every bit as fun, confronting, and political as it sounds. She is currently a postdoctoral scholar with Newcastle University’s Evidence Synthesis Lab, where she specialises in Bayesian network meta-analysis for Cochrane intervention reviews. She has three bachelor degrees: music, arts, and mathematics. None of these prepared her formally for her current occupation. Nevertheless, she believes that working in the performing arts is the perfect precursor to academia.

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

It shouldn’t be shameful or taboo that I had a shitty childhood, nor that this continues to shape my adult life today. I manage with a variety of practices: medication, yoga, VR fitness, therapy, literature, bullet journalling, and peer support groups. 

We need to change the dichotomised understanding of people as broken or crazy and others as normal. We’re all capable of being irrational, overwhelmed by past feelings. 

No one is irreparably broken, and having experienced hardship, even rape and physical abuse, does not mean we cannot contribute meaningfully to society. Indeed, if we listened to survivors more, I believe we’d all learn a great deal. 

Everyone experiences trauma; people with my past simply have a masterclass in it.  

What’s a memorable failure for you?

Getting through high school was a huge effort, finding myself homeless and on the streets at fifteen after life with my parents became untenable. Despite dropping out for half of school, I got myself into a top university.

I supported myself through my degrees by working as a piano accompanist and teacher, enduring gruelling hours, and when I finally finished with a double degree and a thesis, I thought my fortunes would change. Instead, I graduated into the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and discovered that society didn’t much value my music degree, nor my arts degree. 

I cast wider and wider nets trying to find work; a low point was not even getting an interview for a two-hour a week cleaning job. I applied for everything and couldn’t seem to get interviews. I found myself careening towards the age of thirty feeling as if I’d completely failed in adulting.

At this point, to make things worse, I finally accepted that I didn’t enjoy practicing music anymore. Indeed, my passion was theory, not performance, but there was no work in music theory. My only source of income was something that I was not only bad at, but lacked the drive to become good at it. At this point, I’d been practicing music for twenty years, and I was fatally bored. 

I wasn’t sure I’d ever find the strength to get myself out of that situation, after struggling so hard to get myself into those courses in the first place. It is, however, astonishing what inner resources one can muster when the alternatives are so much worse. I took action, beginning studies in mathematics at thirty, when I began to suffer insomnia so badly that I was struggling with the basics of life.  

You’ve had a major career change, that people have told you would not be possible – how does that affect you going forward? What would be the advice you would give others in a similar situation?

There are widely-held beliefs about fixed and innate skills, but most skills are learnt through hard work and perseverance. There will always be outliers with amazing abilities: five-year olds who can play Mozart piano concertos or solve complex equations. However, this does not mean that one shouldn’t try. 

To combat the gnawing, ever-present anxiety surrounding being good enough in my ten years of mathematics study, spanning my thirties, I reminded myself constantly that my goals are modest. All I want is to work in mathematical science, ideally research. There’s a reason research isn’t performed by five-year old prodigies; it wasn’t a requirement that I be gifted, merely competent

Working long hours meant I was forced to accept my marks would be lower, that I wouldn’t be top of the class. Rather than comparing myself to others, I ask myself over and over, is what I’m achieving good enough for the next step toward my goal of working in mathematical science?

Code like a girl poster with Charles Gray

You will soon give a talk on failing at reproducibility at the R-Ladies Toolbox Series, can you say something more about that?

Reproducibility is a hot topic right now. If the twittersphere is anything to go by, psychology seems to be consumed by flame wars surrounding replication of results and preregistration. 

Computational reproducibility is analogous in statistical science. We are witnessing a dizzying proliferation of software tools and methodological standards of best practice. 

I tried and consummately failed at creating a reproducible doctoral project. I want to save others from the internal agony of feeling they’re failing at keeping up with the Joneses of reproducible science

Why is reproducibility important in science? We wish to provide both means of validating our scientific results and extending on the work we’ve done. My thesis is a hot mess of TeX, .Rmd, .R, and data files. I doubt, even in the unimaginable event someone was inclined to reproduce that work, they could. However, by trying and failing, I learnt many skills and workflows that make my life so much easier now in my current research. 

I believe even so-called good enough scientific practice is unattainable. There’ll always be a tool or workflow one hasn’t mastered, let alone heard of. But by trying and failing, we inch all scientific practice toward better standards, and we learn beneficial skills. 

You have a bullet journal featured on your Twitter profile- what types of things do you track there, and how does it relate to success/failure for you?

My bullet journal is an integral part of my daily workflow to help me centre in the moment. I manage complex post-traumatic stress disorder, experiencing visceral flashbacks; my time on the streets as an adolescent, and the circumstances that brought me there, will always shape my adult life in large and small ways. Bullet journalling helps me to focus on setting daily, small-scale goals; and to somewhat mitigate the past distorting my feelings of success and failure. 

Paper bullet journal with a pen and a ruler

Keep putting one paw in front of the other, it’s all any of us can do. 

Practice diaries are common in music. We don’t need them for the flow-state days where we play Scriabin’s Etude in C# minor for 6 hours straight because we simply cannot get enough of the feel of keys under our fingers conjuring such transcendent music. 

Anything we have to do every day begins to feel like a chore, and it’s hard to stay motivated day to day, even if we do appreciate it when we achieve flow state. Practice diaries and schedules are for the uninspired, overwhelmed, and tired days.  

What’s a recent success, and one thing you are “successfully failing” at 🙂 

Last year I decided to take things easy. My scholarship had run out, but I had data engineering work on a large open science project. I ignored the hyperventilating from others about my timeline and decided I’d work part time and complete my doctorate in a relaxed manner. 

In part, the pandemic helped make this decision easy; if I had rushed, I would have graduated into a time where research was being slashed and few positions advertised. I decided it would take as long as it would take, provided I kept writing my dissertation fairly consistently, albeit part-time. 

My advisors noted how polished it was, and provided very few comments. Indeed, only one examiner had two small amendments. I was waiting until I submitted for examination before looking for work, but managed to obtain a postdoctoral position before this, that is, before I’d begun the job hunt. 

In some ways, this feels like the greatest achievement of all: a stress-free submission and avoiding the ontological angst of reimagining oneself for position after position, only to have those hopes dashed.  

The inspiration for this talk on failing at reproducibility is my newfound calm in the face of a torrent of scientific tools, workflows, and theory, that I’ll never possibly master sufficiently to all standards. As I try in earnest to be a good scientist, I know I’ll fail, but I also know the next attempt will be a bit easier. 

As I used to tell my piano students, you have to hit the wrong notes to learn to hit the right ones; what holds us back is fear of trying. 

How I Fail S02E09: Bernhard Egger (PhD’17, Computer Science)

Bernhard Egger is a postdoc at the Computational Cognitive Science Lab at MIT. His research is focused around inverse graphics in Computer Vision and Computational Cognitive Science. You can find out more about him on his website https://eggerbernhard.ch/ or on Twitter https://twitter.com/VisionBernie.

Hi Bernhard, 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, 

I want to figure out how vision works: how human vision works, and how we can build computer vision systems that generalize. I choose to perform computer vision research based on an inverse rendering approach. I am convinced that Analysis-by-Synthesis is the way human vision works and the way we should build machines that perform vision in such a way. This idea puts me in an interesting niche in the community. During my PhD it sometimes felt like fighting a lonely battle against a huge flood of supervised deep learning research in the community – however over the last few years inverse rendering, 3D Morphable Models (3DMMs) and in general more model based approaches to vision are coming back. Even conferences like CVPR (the most important one in my field) are going more and more in that direction. I might have chosen a path that is not particularly fruitful when it comes to citations, but it definitely enabled a lot of steps in my career. Whilst a career in academia was less a master plan, than a “just in time” evaluation at each step, I would say it mainly worked out because of the niche I’m working in, that I found for myself. This niche for me is fun and therefore I can make an excellent, motivated story for a presentation – which I think is crucial for i.e. (faculty) interviews. 

I wanted to join this series mainly with the intention to show that not everything is as smooth as it might look in my CV, a lot of things that are important cornerstones in my CV had a significant component of luck involved – and there is also a lot of failures or drawbacks that are just not mentioned.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

My biggest failure was probably my first attempt to get a personal career funding grant –  I was following my partner to Boston, so I cold-called professors at MIT to get a postdoc position (a cold-call is how more than 40% of the postdocs get into MIT). I intended to get my own funding, by applying for a grant for 18 months, with an acceptance rate of about 50%

After visiting a lab at MIT and having support from a professor for the grant I was super pumped and confident that it would work out. I wrote the grant during a ski vacation (spending the days on the slopes). I then got feedback from the professor and also from my peers that it needs some work. I had one week to go – but I was super confident that with MIT as an institution and this high acceptance rate it should work out. So I did a little bit of work, but did not invest as much time as my peers would have recommended. 

In the interview (which is short <10 minutes) they basically took me apart and isolated the weaknesses of my proposal. They caught my vague formulations and found that for some essential parts of the proposal, I was just not certain enough how to do it. 

I was first disappointed and angry at the reviewers – but then quickly realized that this was my own fault – I took it too lightly and felt like a small kid testing his boundaries of what is acceptable and what not.

When preparing the revision for the grant, I realized how sloppy it was – I spent a whole month writing a proper proposal and got it funded in the second attempt. This however also led to a delay of my start at MIT and I moved to the US with a delay of 3 months after my partner.

Another big failure was an attempt to organize a workshop on 3DMMs at a major conference. We had a group of organizers together and wrote a decent proposal. It was rejected from both CVPR and ECCV (two major conferences in the field) in years where there were tons of workshops on “deep learning for x”. This was very frustrating, especially because a workshop should add content in an area that is not covered enough by the main conference. So in my eyes a deep learning for x workshop might not add much value to a conference that is anyway 80% deep learning for x.

After those two rejections, I basically gave up – but a senior person among the organizers told me “Let’s try to do a Dagstuhl seminar instead” and that worked out and was my best scientific experience so far!

Guess which conference added 3DMMs as an area two years later? CVPR… But it is not good enough as a CVPR workshop 🙂

What kind of topics are associated with failure, and are not talked about enough? What problems does this create for early career researchers?

I think academia just has this huge illusion of a perfect world: perfect CVs, perfect projects. When listening to a presentation, especially from a senior person the story will be so smooth it just sounds like everything was always planned that way. Some people include some failures in their presentation, but then more in a funny way than formulated as a real failure.

I really appreciate that you added a CV of failure to your website – I think it takes a lot of courage. It is refreshingly transparent and it would probably be valuable if more people would do so. However it might come at a cost: Will I be judged by others based on sharing my failures? And especially if there are only a few people sharing their failures it is easy to judge them. I don’t know what the right solution here is – everything public and transparent might be a bit much, but sharing failures within the lab, especially from the most senior person might be  valuable and create a culture of sharing failure. 

One other key topic that is prominent in academia is the imposter syndrome. I stumbled on an online test recently on twitter (http://impostortest.nickol.as/). And if you check #ImpostorSyndrome you will see tons of results from researchers with high scores in this test. We are in an environment where smart people come together, and almost always you will find somebody appearing smarter and more successful. It is sometimes really hard to not feel stupid in this environment. One important message here is that ~ 70% of people in academia feel that way – we can’t all be that bad 🙂 

Is the situation changing? And are there differences between different fields, countries etc?

I have hope that things are changing slowly. The first important step is probably awareness. Some institutions put big efforts into the mental health of their students and employers but some of the issues might be in the structure of how academia is set up at the moment. So fixing the final problem might not be as good as trying to change the cause. 

The main responsibility in my eyes lies with the advisors/mentors. I think the moment we mentor someone (starting from an undergrad level, over PhD students and including young faculty), we actively propagate the way we think academia should work to our students. A lot of my behavior and the way I see academia I learned from mentors I valued. If a mentor is particularly bad when it comes to real life challenges like mental health issues that is likely to dramatically affect the career of the mentee and pushes especially minorities out of the field. I also believe some of this can start with small things. I try to make authentic and honest statements that signal that there is room for discussions or self-care and hope this helps to do a small step in the right direction.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

Yes – focusing. Over my PhD and postdoc I however started to accept it and just ignore all this self-optimization stuff 🙂 I still see it as kind of failing, mainly because it is easy to spot that I just lost some hours doing X (or nothing) and it feels like there is a constant drain of potential.

Are there specific people who have been influential to how you approach setbacks?

For me it is not really a specific person, but probably each one of my peers. The longer I stay in academia the more I realize that nobody is perfect, everybody gets grants or papers rejected. This definitely helps in the moments where a setback happens to normalize it and look forward. One of the most important strategies that I think I learned from others is to always look ahead – and usually some of the feedback of a review process is useful to improve the work to submit it again. And no, reviewer 2, I don’t think that I should just do deep learning instead!

Are failures something you discuss with the people you supervise/mentor?

I realized that failures like rejected grants or paper annoy me a lot, especially at the moment of the rejection. However after a few days I’m over it and either resubmit it or forget about it. I’m however terrible at giving good advice in discussing failure or rejections. When submitting a paper I already know that there is a big chance of getting a rejection, especially when aiming at the top venues – so once the rejection is in the inbox I’m not really surprised, usually annoyed about at least one reviewer, but I’m just bad in finding the right words to express my thoughts to the first author(s). I try of course to motivate them, and tell them that this just belongs to the experience in academia but what do you say the second or third time – especially if you are convinced that the paper is actually solid?

What types of things do you track regularly?

I’m crazy about my google scholar profile – I check it way too often and am always super curious who is citing which work. This was especially frustrating earlier in my career where it took super long till something changed and some citations even wrote something wrong when citing the work in their related works section. But recently it changed from being frustrating to be motivating – mainly caused by a nice survey paper that gets lots of citations!

That sounds familiar! 🙂

What about successes, should we be sharing more non-traditional ones, not like jobs or papers, but what you are proud of today?

I think such things can be very valuable, especially in a lab setting. Share success or setbacks with the lab in regular meetings. Here I really like the idea of a common coffee break which is common in Europe and not so common in the US. Such a coffee break is usually the point where smaller or different successes and smaller setbacks are shared and discussed and this interaction is definitely highly valuable since it is much more granular and also more personal than a paper acceptance or rejection. If somebody tried a new recipe at home and thinks everybody in the lab should know it – the coffee break is exactly the right platform. Or if you were waiting in line to submit a certain bureaucratic form for 30 minutes just to learn that you also need another one – that is another thing I think can find space in the coffee break. And there will still be enough space for scientific discussions or programming questions even with these little bits of personal success or drawbacks.

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

I ran a marathon during my PhD and I was not shy about sharing it with everybody 🙂 The best part of it however was the training. It was together with a postdoc friend in the same lab and we did all the long runs on the weekends together. I really enjoyed all the conversations, especially since the brain seems to work really well when my body is busy with some other work 🙂 The final moment of then running a marathon and being able to actually finish it was a moment where I was proud of myself and just enjoyed that I actually did something that felt impossible half a year before (I could not run through a half marathon before training and it is not that I didn’t try).

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

I really enjoyed learning about the posters centered around mental health from Dr. Zoë Ayres:

This is an excellent and valuable resource that I plan to share with all my incoming future students since they bring a lot of things on the point that people rarely talk about.

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

I tried plenty of those self-optimization and productivity tools. I would tell myself to just not care about all of that and not stress out about (productive) procrastination.

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, PhDBalance.com – can you say more how you got started, the format, and some future plans?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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