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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Fail: Melanie Stefan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I Fail S01E16: Jennifer Polk (PhD’12, History)

How I Fail: Jennifer Polk (PhD'12, History)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Jennifer Polk, a career coach for PhDs. You can find her online at Beyond the Professoriate, a membership site and community for PhDs seeking non-faculty careers, with resources for PhD career changes, Twitter and Facebook.

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

I am the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate and also operate my own coaching business under the name From PhD to Life. A side business of mine is Self-Employed PhD. Beyond Prof is my main focus these days. It’s a membership site full of resources for graduate students and PhDs seeking non-faculty jobs. All created for PhDs by PhDs.

2. What does the word “failure” mean to you? Could you say something how your definition of it changed over the years, especially through the experiences of starting your freelancing career and then coaching clients?

When I think about failure what comes to mind most is “trying stuff.” There’s a ton of experimentation that goes into creating and building businesses. Yes, you should be smart about things and learn from others, but ultimately every market is different, ever product or service is unique, every brand will have its own personality. I do a lot of trying these days, which means I also experience a lot of failure!

It can be tricky to find a balance between giving things a shot and deciding to try a different approach. There are so many factors that go into a successful whatever, and nothing I do happens in a controlled environment. Judgment plays a role, as does a bit of patience and a willingness to move on if something isn’t working. You can’t be stubborn and you have to respect your market. It’s challenging, but in a good way, too.

3. Could you say something about the perception that leaving academia can be seen as a failure, by yourself or by others? What is your advice to a person who thinks that?

“Hello, I’m Jen, and I’m a loser with a PhD.” Ugh, but that is how I used to think of myself.

There’s still a very real, pervasive, powerful culture in grad school and academia – and the world writ large! – that a PhD is supposed to lead to working as a professor. Folks who believe this, often unconsciously, aren’t necessarily jerks! They just don’t get that a doctoral degree isn’t job prep, and who can blame them when there’s so much talk of “training” in grad school?! Postdocs are “trainees”! (For what? Clearly, for jobs in bench science/academia. Gross.)

What helped me was realizing that I associated who I was with what I did. My identity was wrapped up with being a grad student/intellectual/scholar/whatever. What I realized over time was that I could still be a smart, interesting, critically engaged person no matter what sort of job I happened to have. That seems so simple and yet it was a huge thing for me.

Practically speaking, what helped was working with a career/life coach; reading and listening to wise women such as Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, Brene Brown; doing informational interview – yes, really; and making new friends on Twitter in the #altac community. Working with my coach, Hillary Hutchinson, changed my life. It was an incredible experience.

4. What are your thoughts about people being more open about sharing failures online?

Yeah, I can see why folks can get frustrated hearing about “failure” from people who are big professional successes. I get it. I also think it’s valuable to show that we’re all human, we don’t always get what we want. Ideally, these posts would include some comments that show the authors acknowledge privileges. And I’m aware that a “CV of Failure” could imply that success will come if you just stick it out. That is not always true. Sometimes failure rightly leads to moving on instead of trying again.

A list of “failures” doesn’t tell us anything about what a person did after the rejection. Did they change up their strategy? Get more experience? Call in outside help to write the next funding application? What do they think was the reason behind something not working, beyond “too many applied, too little funding available”?

5. In general, do you keep track of your rejections? Why / why not?

A bit. I do have a spreadsheet where I track potential coaching clients, from when they signed up for my waiting list to when/if they hired me. My rate isn’t very good! But that’s not really a rejection per se, since there are lots of totally legit reasons why someone wouldn’t hire me. I can usually tell during an initial consultation whether someone will end up working with me, so while it’s useful to see it graphed, it’s not something I worry about too much.
I don’t work as a scholar or academic, so I no longer apply for grants, scholarships, or programs.

6. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with it?

Nope. But that’s mostly because I don’t “receive rejections” in the way a faculty member might. It’s been a while since I applied for anything! There’s rarely an email I open only to have my hopes dashed. My work just isn’t like that.

7. Can you think of anything you didn’t dare to try, but wish you would have, even if it would end up on your “CV of Failure”?

There are lots of risks it took me a long time to take. My own “imposter syndrome” has definitely gotten in the way of me acting on an idea, whether it’s raising my fees or saying “no” to an opportunity. It’s important for me to work out what’s a savvy move and what’s procrastination or failure to commit to what I know is the right thing to do. So much of what I do is about taking small risks, so it’s not such a big deal if it doesn’t work out.

I think the biggest failure here might be my declaration – via a dedicated blog post for University Affairs – that I was writing a book. I was… until I wasn’t. That felt very silly or foolish of me for a while, but as time passes I’m less bothered by it. Still, it’s a fairly public fail and that’s never awesome.

8. How about something that looks like a success on your regular CV, but perhaps didn’t feel like it?

I do try to acknowledge – at least to myself – my own successes, however small. But! I have done things that I publicize but don’t feel awesome about. No one needs to know, though.

9. And, on the other side of that, something that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

I don’t have a CV these days. There is an enormous amount of information that doesn’t appear on a CV, or wouldn’t take centre stage on one. When I was a grad student, for example, I did a lot of “service” and admin work within and beyond my department. That stuff was really energizing and interesting a lot of time, but isn’t nearly as important in the academic world as publications and teaching experience. The weirdness of academic CVs compared with resumes is something that trips a lot of PhDs up when they need to craft the latter. These are completely different documents.

10. When something is successful, do you have a celebratory ritual? Who do you share the news with? Do you have some ways in which you reward yourself?

After a big win of some sort, I have done things like taken myself out to dinner or for ice cream! That makes me sounds very lame, I know, but there you have it. I think there is something to interrupting the norm, and for me that means treating myself in ways I normally wouldn’t. The difference marks the occasion.

11. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

I’m not sure. I know that in the work I do now is rewarding on a regular basis. Every day there’s something I can point to and say, “yup, that was good.” That could be a coaching session with a client, an event I host that goes well, an email I write that earns a high click rate, having a new member join Beyond the Professoriate, and so many other things. For me having these small wins all the time helps lessen the blow of big things that don’t go as planned or how I hoped they would.

For big things, it helps that I tend more toward optimism than pessimism. Beyond the Professoriate produces an annual online conference and every year my business partner (Maren Wood, also a history PhD) and I worry sales will stagnate. But it hasn’t happened yet. When our instinct might be to freak out, we remind ourselves to look at the historical data: sales always peak in the few days before the event starts! Attendance has gone up each year, and while we can’t predict it will continue to do so, there’s no good reason to think it won’t.

My income also comes from a few different sources, so if I have a business failure in one area, it’s less problematic than it might be because I have other ways to earn money. There’s always a new idea, a new client, a new collaboration, a new marketing strategy possible. I take risks and try new things – and thus fail in many small ways – all the time.

I think my own success so far comes from doing things that faculty members can also do. My advice is to cultivate a community of colleagues who will support and champion your work (and vice versa), know your strengths and key skills and then focus your work on activities that draw on these, continue to learn and develop as a professional, and ask for and receive help on a regular basis from a variety of people and services. If something drastic happens – you don’t get tenure, for example – the network you cultivated and the knowledge you’ve gained about yourself will help you transition into a new job or career.
I know that this advice is all about individuals and doesn’t speak to structural challenges or outright discrimination that is unfortunately a reality for many who work in academia. I’ll let others tackle that.

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

The biggest piece of advice I’d give myself is, “Figure out what’s really important and then try to live your life according to your own values, priorities, strengths, and interests.

In academia there is so much implicit and explicit pressure to value certain things above others, to prioritize the job over a geographical location, etc. Those are fine in and of themselves, but they may not be fine for you. So the challenge for individuals in academia – and here I include graduate school – is to try to separate who you are from what you do. If it turns out you actually don’t care that much about higher education or historical scholarship, well, that’s perfectly alright. If basic research isn’t really your thing, it’s not a problem! You’re not a lesser person for wanting to spend your energy on other endeavours. There is SO MUCH important work to do in the world, and academic work and scholarship doesn’t take precedence. We each get to decide where we can best contribute.

I’d also like to tell my younger self that the work I do now has much greater impact, is more meaningful and rewarding, and is lots more fun than most of what I spent my time doing in graduate school. There is life outside the ivory tower, and for me it’s wayyyy better than I ever imagined it could be.

How I Fail S01E15: Olga Degtyareva (PhD’03, Physics)

How I Fail: Olga Degtyareva (PhD'03, Physics)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Olga Degtyareva, a physicist turned productivity mentor for scientists! You can find her website, blog and free productivity resources on, join her Productivity for Scientists Facebook group, or follow her on Twitter.

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

I have been a scientist in the area of high-pressure physics and crystallography for about 15 years, and during my research career I went through Masters degree, PhD, and two consecutive postdocs and also held a personal Fellowship from the Royal Society. It has been a productive and even a successful career, full of interesting findings, collaborations, papers, conferences and talks! I am an author and co-author of 38 research papers and a recipient of an international prize for my contributions into the area of my research. It was not without the challenges, and at some point I got into the self-help books and seminars to figure out a way through those challenges.

At the pinnacle of my career – in 2010 – I started my blog sharing the approaches I used to stay productive at work and also balanced and fulfilled in my personal life. The interest shown to the blog by other researchers led me to starting my own coaching practice and the Productivity for Scientists company. I’ve soon transitioned from doing research to being fully immersed in coaching. 7 years later and I’ve coached 100’s of scientists around the world, and 1000’s benefited from my free resources.

2. You have two viewpoints on rejection: one from your career as a physicist, and one from your career as a productivity coach. Can you share with us what rejection as a scientist was like for you, any particular ones you remember well?

Rejections of my submitted papers come to mind first of all. During my first postdoc I collaborated with a colleague who pushed for publications in the highest profile journals. Often I was the one who wrote the first draft, so I remember well writing numerous drafts specifically for Nature and Science for several of our projects. And although we did not get any of those into Nature or Science, I’ve learned not to get discouraged: we re-wrote those paper for the next best journal, and then if it would be rejected again we’d re-write it for the next best. As the result I got papers in Nature Materials, Nature Physics, and Physical Review Letters, all considered very high profile journals in my area of research. What I’ve learned from it is to aim high, not to get discouraged if rejected, improve and re-submit to the next best place.

3. Now as a coach, do you see rejection differently? If yes, who or what has helped you change your viewpoint?

Not differently, just deepened my understanding of it. I’ve studied and now know the dynamics of the rejection process and use it to my advantage. So here is what I teach my clients: when you receive the news with a rejection, it hurts, and it’s ok, it’s natural!… But don’t let it consume you for too long, maybe for a day or three, then you need to move on, and here is something that can help you to do this. Rejection is (often) not personal, and yet we take it so personally. So the best thing you can do is to remind yourself that is it NOT personal, and your work still has value, you just need to present it differently, improve your communication or try a different place.

After the initial period of grieving, it is now time to lift your head up and start looking around for new opportunities. Often rejection means that there are other (as good or even better) opportunities around, and if we continue to mourn and beat ourselves up, we would miss those opportunities too. So it is important to work on your mindset in that moment, and view the rejection as a pointer to something even better. We’d talk with my clients about using the rejection as a springboard to greater achievements. Instead of getting frustrated, complaining and feeling like a victim, use your energy to create better work and reach out to other places.

4. Is it difficult to advice people about dealing with rejection, while sometimes struggling with your own? How do you overcome that?

In my work as a coach, it is important to stay strong and confidence as so many other people lean on me and look up to me for support. So if I am in the middle of something upsetting, I would continue to show up strong for my clients and continue to give them advice from a confident place that I know has worked for me and for many others. I would sometimes simply mention that I can relate to their pain about rejection, as I also get it and I know that very successful people whom we admire also experience it.

On the other hand it is also important to show my vulnerable side and share my failures and rejections, and how I deal with them. So, I’d usually wait until I go through grieving and then frame it into a strategy video so the followers can see my own struggles and also benefit from the steps that I’ve applied myself to bounce of the rejection. Here is how this blog post was born.

5. How do you think this fear of failure, fear of rejection develops – is it something universal, or maybe more specific to some careers like science? Are there also cultural differences here?

My personal view on it is that a lot of the fear of failure and fear of rejection that we experience as grown ups comes from our child hood experiences. In particular, the school system is designed to give bad marks for wrong answers and to praise the right answers, basically punishing any “wrong” attempts and condemning mistakes and failure. In addition, the traditional parenting advice that prevails on our planet at the moment teaches parents to show rejection to their children to discipline them.

Many scientists I’ve talked to have shared with me those negative memories of their childhood. One client for example remembered being punished by parents for every bad mark from school so that now as an adult she freezes in inaction being afraid to get it wrong or make a mistake.

As my two older children have been high needs, I ended up studying a lot of books and going to a lot of seminars on parenting and on how children learn, and what I’ve learned confirms the above view. This was one of the reasons why my husband and I decided not to enlist our children into the school system, among other 100,000 families here in the UK, and all three of our children are happily unschooled at the moment.

So what can we do as adults when we have already a deeply ingrained fear of failure and fear of rejection in us? It IS possible to rewire our brain by purposefully working on our mindset and confidence, and to change our relationship with failure and rejection. It is important to start to understand that both of them are part of the journey to success, and start practicing reaching out and getting No answers on a small scale on a regular basis without taking it personally.

Regarding to whether the fear of failure is more specific to science… I’d say it is fairly universal. However while in business and entrepreneurship there are open talks about how it is important to make mistakes and fail, there is less of this going on in academia. As the result there is a stigma that exists in academia that the rejection and a failed project are somehow “bad”, and this is up to us to start breaking this stigma.

Regarding the cultural differences… again I think the fear of failure and fear of rejection are fairly universal, as I’ve now had 100’s of scientists from various countries and continents sharing with me these fears. Some of them shared stronger negative memories from childhood than the others, but at this point I’d be cautious to generalise.

6. One of your favorite quotes is “If you want to be more successful, double the amount of your failures”. Can you tell us a little bit more about the history behind this quote? What kind of opportunities has it helped you to take, which you would not have otherwise?

I came across this quote when I was starting my coaching business and reading a lot of books on productivity, mindset, business and success, and attending lots of seminars and courses on those topics. I have been a scientist my whole life and had zero experience with business or starting a business, I needed to learn it from scratch and was excited to do this! When I came across this quote, which is attributed to the CEO of IBM Thomas J. Watson, it downed on me that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and to start doing things differently.

Instead of holding back and waiting until everything feels perfect, I started to put myself out there with weekly blog posts, online lectures, newsletter, online courses and soon after coaching programs. Some things did not work, some were slow to grow, some needed to be abandoned… The epic failures or rejections included not getting a prize I applied for after being shortlisted, failed collaborations with other websites that focus on helping academics and scientists, failed branding project (as the result I still don’t have a logo!), failed presentation at a women in science conference etc etc…

However some things I did worked and the end result was that I was helping more and more scientists around the world through my business. One of the successes that is dear to my heart was the invitation to speak on productivity and mindset at a scientific conference, with my talk being the only non-scientific talk at the conference. It was certainly scary and exciting at the same time! Since then I’ve been invited to two more conferences and it seems this is something I’ll do often from now on.

7. Are there also caveats in this advice?

I’d imagine a negative side could be that a person can possibly get stuck in failures, not allowing themselves to succeed… I’ve observed this in some of my clients, and we have addressed the fear of success with them. Yes, there is such a fear, the fear of success! We can be fearful of this because once we succeed we can’t be a victim anymore, we can’t go around complaining and saying “poor me, see, nothing ever works for me”. Once you’ve succeeded you will need to change the story you tell and to change how you show up in your work and life and this can be difficult to change. Sometimes it is much easier to stay in the “failures” mode.

You say “doubling the amount of failures could mean producing lower quality work, but doubling the quantity”… It is a possibility I guess, but I have not observed this in any of my clients. Rather it helped them to publish their first ever paper, publish in a higher profile journal for the first time, give the first contributed talk instead of always presenting a poster, secure an invited talk, be a chair of a symposium at a conference, create new collaboration with a renowned scientist, publish an invited review article in a prestigious journal, get a new better job, apply for a promotion and also do new exciting things in their personal life too.

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

Negative response to the paper submission, grant submission, job application, book proposal, submission for a promotion and similar things can be referred to as rejection or failure. Negative outcomes such as bad performance when you nerves did not co-operate or the technology failed, or you were too late or did not meet the deadlines, or other circumstances did not align is more like a “failure”, as technically there was no rejection by anyone.

At this point I wanted to add my other favourite quote about failures: “There is no failure, there is only feedback”. So as long as we learn from our mistakes, change how we do things, keep reaching out and moving forward we are all set up for success!

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

Take time to really get clear on what do you want to create in your work and life in 2, 3, 5 years and even 10 years. Create that vision, even better create a vision board (this is something I teach now in my coaching), revisit it often, pay positive attention to you goals and vision, create time for taking small consistent steps, try different things, do it imperfectly, and you’ll get there or create something even better than your vision.

How I Fail S01E14: Nick Hopwood (PhD’06, Education)

How I Fail: Nick Hopwood (PhD'06, Education)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Nick Hopwood, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney. I came across his wall of rejection and after reading a interview with him about it just had to invite him for the series – and very happy he accepted! You can find out more about Nick on his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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

I am an academic, though the idea of having landed a full time academic job still seems unreal to me. I started off doing geography for my undergrad, then moved into education. Since starting my masters in 2002 I’ve been interested in questions about how people learn. Outside of work, spending time in mountains, freediving, involvement in a community orchestra, and playing board games are important to me.

2. Your “wall of rejection” got a lot of attention on Twitter. Could you perhaps share some of the more memorable rejections from this wall?

One journal article rejection particularly stung. It was sent out for review (so it was a good fit for the journal). The reviews took a few months, and came back with some praise but some major things that needed doing. I made the changes, and it was reviewed again. Months later, I was asked for more changes, and there were some criticisms that were a direct result of things I’d done in response to the first reviewers. More changes, more months, and it came back with yet more criticisms, some of which were complaining about the absence of things I’d taken out because previous reviewers had said they weren’t relevant. The editor then rejected my paper. This to me seemed like weak editorship: I would expect the editor to step in and mediate the reviews, rather than setting authors off on an impossible quest to please different reviewers every cycle.

I remember not getting a postdoc I applied for right after my PhD. I’d studied a small number of young people’s learning in geography classrooms, and the reviewers basically thought the topic wasn’t significant and the sample was too small for me to publish from it.

I still remember a big research proposal that was rejected. One reviewer described the aims as ‘vague and unfocused’ and that the design ‘lacked specificity’. Obviously in my head they were crystal clear, but not so on the page!

3. What do you do when you receive a rejection? What about when something is successful?

No ritual really. Thinking about the examples above, each time I spoke to people about it. For the postdoc, that was with my partner and family, who reassured me I would find a job eventually. For the articles and more recent research grants, I usually talk to colleagues I trust – it’s a good way to vent frustrations and through proverbial mud at the nasty reviewers.

When it comes to success I admit I do make sure it’s visible to the people who count (so I might email my head of school, or put details in a faculty newsletter). But I don’t put new articles up on my door any more.

4. You mentioned that the responses to the wall were either students, or more experienced academics who also shared their failures. If you think back being a student, were there any mentors who set an example with sharing failures?

Absolutely. Geoffrey Walford is a (now retired) Professor who taught me qualitative research methods, and who was an examiner of my PhD. I remember reading in one of his books a really nasty review that he received, and his account of how he responded. That made me realise rejections happen to everyone, and there’s no shame in sharing our rejections publically.

5. Talking about failure is necessary. Would you advise everybody to do share failures, like a shadow CV? Or are there any caveats, for example, for people in temporary positions?

No I wouldn’t advise everyone to do it. I would encourage people to consider any action that might help them respond to rejection in the best way. For some this might mean containing it, or perhaps sharing with a very select number of confidants. One of my friends put rejections on his wall at home – a way of ‘working on himself’ without needing to share the details with the world. For some people, public shadow CVs could be very risky, particularly those in insecure positions. I would hope people on selection panels for academic jobs would respect and admire the shadow CV, but this isn’t guaranteed, and chances are other applicants are presenting only the best, successful version of themselves.

6. Imagine you are in a hiring or assessment committee, and you Google the person you are evaluating, and come across their shadow CV. Do you think it would affect how you would evaluate this person, and how?

Personally, this would bump them up my list. Firstly, it shows an understanding of the turbulence in academia and perhaps might indicate that the applicant is aware and resilient. It might also be a better indicator of how ‘productive’ the person is: seeing how many articles and grants have been rejected tells me more about what they have actually been doing than just a list of the ones that got through.

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

Good question. I think I’ve been a bit sloppy in mixing these terms. I agree, rejection is a specific instance. I think I was meaning failure in a similar way: failure to get the paper in the journal you wanted, failure to get the money you needed for research. I’m not talking about failure in the sense that being rejected means you are failing at your academic work. In fact, if you’re not being rejected, it probably means you’re not writing papers or grants, so are almost guaranteed not to be ‘successful’ (if success is related to publishing and research income).

8. Similarly, do you think there are differences between “CV of failures” and “Shadow CV”?

Not sure, I’d have to think more of that. I think I prefer the ‘shadow CV’ name because it points to the fact that it is wider practices that hide these aspects of our work, rather than emphasizing the person.

9. Can you think of something you regret not trying, even if it would probably have to add it to your shadow CV? Or something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

Good question. One of my many weaknesses as an academic is a difficulty I have saying ‘no’ when opportunities come up. That’s probably why my shadow CV is rather lengthy. Some wise mentors have shared with me a need to be more focused and have clearer criteria for saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’. So my regrets are probably more about having been a bit too gung-ho when being more discerning might have made the work I was doing better.

Are there hidden successes? Ignoring the day-to-day minor victories, not really. The main successes that we are encouraged to focus on (publications, grants, student evaluations of teaching) are automatically visible to the institution and get picked up in all sorts of ways. However, one thing that I spend a lot of time trying (but not necessarily succeeding) to be good at is being a particular type of colleague. One’s achievements in these more relational aspects of academic work reflect great effort and are often hard won, but don’t appear on CVs because they are not amenable to lists of concrete outputs or events.

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

Recognise that saying ‘no’ can be a real strength: it is not just about valuing your time, but protecting the quality of what you are already committed to. I think I used to say ‘yes’ so much because I doubted my next paper or if I’d even get a big research grant. The $ might have come sooner if I’d declined a few more offers. So it’s about trusting the integrity and quality of your work will eventually pay off, and not displacing these by jumping at every possible opportunity.

How I Fail S01E13: Michele Veldsman (PhD’14, Cognitive Neuroscience)

How I Fail: Michele Veldsman (PhD'14, Cognitive Neuroscience)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Michele Veldsman, a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Cognitive Neurology in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. You can follow her on Twitter.

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

It’s an honour to be part of the series, thanks for inviting me. I am a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Cognitive Neurology in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. I investigate how different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and post-stroke dementia change the structural and functional networks of the human brain.

I have a BSc in Experimental Psychology from the University of Bristol. Getting the results of that degree are a failure that sticks out in my mind. I very narrowly missed out on a First-Class degree (the highest grade given to undergraduate degrees in the UK). I was devastated and thought it would be the end of any hopes for an academic career! This pretty much sums up my earlier approaches to failure, I set very high standards for myself and so considered even small deviations from these standards as failures. Thankfully I have grown out of this. Needless to say, it wasn’t the end of my academic career and I went on to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge. My first postdoctoral position was in a stroke lab at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia.

2. In January you tweeted about your New Year’s resolution of getting 100 rejections a year. Can you elaborate on this initiative a bit, and update us on your progress so far?

I was inspired by a blog piece that was shared on Twitter. It was aimed at writers, who, like academics, face constant rejection. The idea was to reframe the negativity of rejections by instead ‘collecting’ them. There are some great concepts in the article that struck a chord and convinced me it would be a great thing to try. First, just to make it to 100 rejections, you need to be applying for things a lot! This leaves less time for all the insecurity of whether you are right/qualified for things or whether the work is perfect before submission. The more things you apply for, the higher your chances for the odd acceptance! Secondly, you get a lot of practice in applying, whether for awards, fellowships, manuscripts – all the practice helps refine your skills and hone your ideas. Finally, you learn to reframe rejections – as the blogs says, learning “uncoupling the word “rejection” from “failure”.

Obviously 100 rejections in a year is a lot, and probably unachievable given that most applications are quite specific and academics don’t send the same thing out to several places as writers often do. I stuck to the 100 aim though, and thought I would see how many I could accumulate over the year. So far I have racked up 18 rejections, so it’s safe to say I won’t make 100 this year, but I have still applied for many more things than I ever would have. As a result, I have gotten a lot more opportunities and acceptances than I would have otherwise.

3. How do you keep track of the rejections for this resolution – do you have a list? Does the list contain only “traditional” rejections (jobs/grants/papers) or also other non-successes?

I keep a list of everything I have applied for and then split them into a rejections list and, a much shorter, acceptances lists as the outcomes come in. The list contains mostly traditional rejections such as fellowship applications, small grants, travel awards, papers, applications for committee roles and conference submissions. I only include anything I apply for or submit as the first author or lead applicant. I do include resubmissions as rejections (since they are not acceptances) – which bumps up the rejections numbers a little!

4. Can you share any of your own memorable rejections?

I have been rejected by the same University four times! Two PhD applications were rejected and two job applications. I’m sort of curious if they will reject me at every stage of my career!

5. What kind of opportunities has this resolution moved you to take? Are there things you previously maybe would not apply for due to fear of failure?

The rejection counting really helped me to persist with applying for Junior Research Fellowships in the Oxford College system. These are highly competitive fellowships that are often across all disciplines. I applied for fellowships at ten different colleges – each requiring a different application. I was rejected from nine of the colleges, without interview. My tenth application got me to interview, and was ultimately successful! I would never have stuck it out that long had I not been collecting rejections. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have applied at all, because I knew the acceptance rates were so low.

6. What did you use to do when you receive a rejection and how has this changed through the years? What about when something is successful, do you have a way to celebrate?

I used to be quite defensive in the face of rejection- probably as a way to protect myself! I now work harder to try to learn from rejections. This can be difficult if feedback is not available, or when rejections really do seem unfair. Even if you can’t learn from the rejection, you can always improve on your submission or view the opportunity as practice. I don’t have anything specific I do to celebrate successes. My husband usually does something special for me, as he knows how rare the successes can be and how hard I work to get them!

7. Are there also caveats in this advice?

100 rejections are not really feasible in academia – so be realistic about this! I think it takes some planning and should be done with your CV and long-term goals in mind. If you need publications, then focus on submitting papers (but don’t try to rack up rejections by submitting lots of poor quality work- that’s no good for anybody!). I find it is most useful for applying for things you might otherwise overlook. Like jobs or positions you would otherwise think you are underqualified or not perfectly suited for. This approach helps you realise you have nothing to lose. Saying that, if you are trying to submit to too much, and sacrificing quality at the same time it might be worth re-thinking.

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

There is a big difference between rejection and failure and this approach to collecting rejections helps you to see that difference. Rejections in academia are mostly out of your control and the product of too many people and not enough funding/resources or inexperience. By the time you have your PhD, there are very few times when failure is to blame for being unsuccessful at something.

9. Do you think sharing failures/rejections makes it easier for some people to also be more open about their successes?

I think it is incredibly important to share rejections and failures. I have often been guilty of comparing myself to my peers (and more often than not people well ahead of me in their careers). All you ever see are people’s successes, which can make you feel inadequate. But we are all racking up rejections all the time, it’s just the successes that are advertised to the world. Often the people who outwardly look most successful are the ones who have got the most rejections under their belt! It is really useful to see how much resilience and persistence is behind successes in academia and relate to other’s experience of failure and rejection.

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

Try to keep things in perspective. There will always be up and downs. Rejections, or failures, that disappoint you now, will be a mere blip in your career when you look back on it.


That is definitely a great one to keep in mind! Thanks again for joining the series, Michele!

How I Fail S01E12: Jennifer Diascro (PhD’95, Political Science)

How I Fail: Jennifer Diascro (PhD'95, Political Science)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Jennifer Diascro who is Associate Academic Director at the University of California Washington Program and has a PhD in political science. She blogs about tenure denial and failure in academia. You can also follow her on Twitter.

1.  Hi Jennifer, thanks for joining the series! Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself, and perhaps any noteworthy failures you already could share?

I am currently Associate Academic Director at the University of California Washington Program (UCDC). My position is a combination of administrative (I support the excecutive director on curriculum issues, such as course offerings and faculty recruitment) and faculty (I teach the equivalent of 5 courses each year). Before I came to UCDC, I was a member of the senior staff at the American Political Science Association (APSA) for several years. My first career, though, was academia; I’ve had faculty appointments at the University of Kentucky (UK) and American University (AU).

I got my PhD in political science, with a focus on American judicial process, in 1995 from the Ohio State University. My goal was to be an academic, and that’s the path I took out of grad school. My first academic position was at UK, where I was promoted with tenure in 2002. My fiancé, who was less professionally mobile than I, lived in Washington DC so I applied for several jobs and had interviews at three universities in the area. All were positions for an assistant professor. One I failed to get outright, and one went well but the line was pulled. The third was at AU, and I was offered the job. They wouldn’t negotiate the level of the position–I didn’t think to ask for associate without tenure–and I considered not taking the position to pursue nonacademic work instead. But I really wanted to stay in the academy, so accepted the tenure track position.

The single most noteworthy failure I’ve experienced is being denied tenure at AU. I’ve had many of the other par-for-the-course failures as an academic but this one was (obviously) the most significant because tenure is the brass ring but also because we can’t advance without it. Not achieving this essential milestone was an complete game changer for me.  I’ve been writing about it at my blog.

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

Not really, although maybe more since I was denied tenure. The question makes me laugh a bit because I think there are probably too many to track! I don’t think as much about failing, per se, as I do about challenges that don’t work out. I’m not afraid to take risks—well, not the jumping-out-of-airplanes kind, but the road-less-traveled kind–so falling short is inevitable and not particularly notable. After tenure denial, though, I’m a bit more sensitive to the concept of failure, probably because it was such a doozy. And as a mother, I think much more about how to understand shortcomings so that I can raise kids who know how to manage and learn from their own.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online, like a “CV of Failures”?

Sharing failure is important for many reasons and I appreciate the people who are willing to make themselves vulnerable by sharing their experiences.  I’m doing it myself in a different forum. The CVs seemed to be a thing at one point, but then fizzled for whatever reason. I suspect it’s quite useful–especially for grad students and junior faculty–to see the setbacks that senior people have experienced. We tend to put those who have advanced through the ranks (the successful people) on pedestals and assume that everything comes easily to them; it can be very humanizing, and encouraging, to know that even the most accomplished among us have struggled, and that one can make it to the other side of the rejections and setbacks.

The flipside, though, is that the failure CVs highlight only the professional challenges that faculty face–and mostly the research part –narrowing the scope of actual work that we do, on and off the job. Additionally, they don’t reflect the luck and privilege that is inherent in academic advancement. As far as I know, we haven’t seen the CVs of those who haven’t ultimately advanced as they intended. So, I think these CVs may send the message that if one keeps working and working at these professional tasks, one will eventually achieve their goals. We normalize the struggle for success, but also the success itself, which means that when someone puts their nose to the grindstone, overcomes challenges, and still doesn’t achieve the brass ring, the failure may feel particularly profound.

Perhaps because I ultimately didn’t succeed, I’m a bit more concerned–even cynical–about these examples. I’m working on a timeline graphic of my accomplishments, which includes the failed and successful research and other professional responsibilities, but also the concurrent personal circumstances and obligations I’ve had. I don’t live in a professional vacuum. It’s helping me highlight all the invisible work that I’ve done (that doesn’t make it onto a CV) and appreciate the larger context in which I’ve made professional decisions. When/If I share it, perhaps it will provide some perspective for others evaluating their progress.

4. What do you do when you receive a rejection? What about when you receive good news?

I’m considering this question and the next one together, and shaking my head! Even at 50 years old, with lots of success and failure under my belt, my immediate reaction to rejection is to wonder which of my personal failings led to the rejection, and my immediate reaction to good news is to think of who else helped me achieve it. SAD! When I was younger, I lived in these spaces for long periods of time, to my detriment. As I’ve aged, I move out of them pretty quickly. I’m happy to take responsibility for my failures, when they’re mine; not when they’re not. And I’m more than happy to share responsibility for my successes–with my husband, usually, who’s my biggest fan and better half–but I’m much more able now than I was twenty years ago to take credit for accomplishing my goals.

5. If you would have a CV of failures, how would it compare to others in your field?

Because I’m no longer an academic (at least in the traditional sense), my answer is largely a reflection. My immediate response is to say more failures, but I think that’s because I was denied tenure and that colors how I view my career. Looking back through that lens, it’s hard not to see every decision in the context of that failure. But I don’t really know how to compare myself to others; doing so requires some standard measurement of success and failure. Counting stuff (publications, citations) is reasonable, but certainly not the whole story. There are examples of faculty with longer CVs than mine who were denied tenure; there are also examples of faculty with comparable (and shorter) CVs to mine who were promoted with tenure. In the end, there are a lot of individual but also institutional factors related to academic advancement.

6. Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

I’ve had lots of challenges and struggles in my career, but tenure denial was the greatest and most painful. Importantly, it wasn’t just that it happened, but how it happened. For better or worse (probably the latter), I never assume succes. I thought it likely there’d be obstacles to tenure at the top levels of the administration; we had a new provost who was trying to make changes at the university, and our department had already seen the effects of his efforts in previous tenure denials. What I didn’t expect at all — although I might have, in retrospect — and that threw me for a loop was the rejection by my own department. And it wasn’t just a rejection; it was a wholesale diminution of my record, one that it had supported without exception throughout my years at the university. I can take rejection; but I much prefer it be served with uncomfortable honesty and constructive criticism than with the two-faced, passive aggressive approach my colleagues took in denying tenure.

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

Hindsight being what it is, there are many things I see with greater clarity. I’m not sure that there are opportunities, per se, that I’d take if I could, but there are some things that I might do differently. I hesitate, though, because the decisions aren’t independent events. My path would likely have been different had I made different decisions along the way. Because the professional is intricately tied to the personal–at least in my life–I have very few, if any, regrets.

Still, if I were to go back, I might approach my research a bit differently by collaborating more (and smarter; see below) and asking some different questions for which I didn’t have to collect my own data. Both would have saved me enormous amounts of time and might have increased the number of publications on my CV. Would I have been tenured had I written more often and conducted substantively and methodologically different research? Maybe, although not likely. But a longer CV might’ve made it harder to deny.

Also, to turn your question around, I can say with certainty that there were “opportunities” I did take that I would definitely not take if I could do them again. Saying “no thank you” to senior colleagues can be difficult, but it’s important to do if they ask you to work on projects that are not in your interest. Of course, it can be difficult to know what’s in your best interest, and dissing senior colleagues may not be. In any event, for me, going with my gut and declining invitations to write would have been a more appropriate decision in a couple of instances on the second TT. Not that it would have changed the outcome–it would not have, given what I know about senior support for my tenure case–but, it might have made it a bit more difficult to deny.

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

Academics have many successes that don’t make it onto their CV. Most of the focus is on research, and appropriately so. But we do so many other things and have so many other accomplishments that are barely recognized, if at all, on our CVs. For me, it’s mentoring. I couldn’t record, even if I had a place to do it, the hundreds and hundreds of hours I’ve spent with students–in and out of class–providing professional and personal development. This continues to be among the greatest joys—and strengths—of my career, yet it is invisible to anyone who knows me only by my CV.

9. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

For me, this is the $64,000 question and I don’t know where to start! I’m trying to work through some of this as I think about my own experiences and write my blog, but it’s a real challenge to sort through the complexity of the academy. Academia has numerous strengths, but not least among its challenges is how little time (if any) there is to recover from missteps and other obstacles to advancement. From this perspective, academia is extremely unforgiving. This has devastating consequences for individuals, of course, but also for institutions. Policy changes here and there may help in some instances, but ultimately I think real change will require breaking the self-fulfilling cycle of the gatekeeping process. And that will likely require a shift in academic culture.

Part of achieving that shift is a greater willingness to talk openly and honestly about the missteps and obstacles that we all experience. And we’re seeing more and more of this, which I think is phenomenal. But it’s really hard for people to expose their vulnerabilities; not only is it a challenge to understand and articulate them, but they are often rejected by others as individual weaknesses and deficiencies. Human beings excel at projection, and academics aren’t immune to this tendency.

Still, if we keep working at it, perhaps we can chip away (however slowly) at rigid academic structures and make some of the changes necessary to improve our institutions.

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

Chill! I was way too serious as a younger person. More to the point, though, would be to find balance. I have never been great at finding a middle ground between work and life; work always came first, and because work is never ending in academia, there was often little time for life. There’s a reason I didn’t have a family during grad school and my first TT position. It wasn’t until I had children that I was forced to figure out how to allocate my limited time between two full time responsibilities. The professional stakes were at their highest when I was fumbling through—and often floundering at—my first attempts at balancing. It’s all still a work in progress. But I’m more chill now (although my children might disagree!) so I’m ok with the more-than-occasional screw up.

How I Fail S01E11: Lisa Munro (PhD’15, Latin American History)

How I Fail: Lisa Munro (PhD'15, Latin American History)
Lisa Munro For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Lisa Munro who has a PhD in Latin American history from the University of Arizona, and is now an independent writing consultant and freelance editor. Check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

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

Hi Veronika! Thanks so much for this opportunity. I love the idea of a series on failure, because people hardly ever talk about it. I graduated with my PhD in history in 2015 and quickly realized that the job market for historians no longer existed. Fortunately, I have a long list of other experiences to draw on, including being a Peace Corps volunteer, working in a bilingual medical office, working as a study abroad assistant, and most recently, as a crime victim advocate. I wear lots of hats. 🙂 I’m working on starting my own business, running writing workshops and hosting writing retreats in Mexico.

2. When did you first hear about the concepts “CV of Failure” or “Shadow CV”? Do you think there is a difference between the two?

I think I became aware of the Shadow CV a few years ago. I’m not sure if there’s any differences between it and the CV of Failure. I think it’s a very important concept. We tend to think of academic careers as a string of successes, when in fact, they are often longer strings of invisible failures punctuated with moments of visible success. I think if we were all to compare our CVs to our shadow CVs, the shadow version would always be the longer one.

3. What are your thoughts about people being more open about sharing failures online?

I support the idea of sharing about failure. However, as you’ve noted, the courage to do so often comes from those with job security. Contingent faculty cannot share so easily because of concerns about job security. I think if we were more open about talking about failures, we’d feel less shame. We so often feel that our failure to obtain tenured academic employment is a personal failure, not a systemic one. As a non-academic, I have the freedom to talk about failure and other difficult topics on my blog without repercussion.

4. You recently wrote about breaking up with academia, a post that has resonated with a lot of people. Could you say something about the perception that leaving academia can be seen as a failure?

The post I wrote about breaking up with academia has now been read more than anything I’ve ever written. Ironically, I was shocked by its success. As PhD people, we’re used to being successful; anything less than unqualified success can be hard to accept. Here’s what I’ve learned: failure is as much a part of life as success. Success, in turn, needs to be less about what other people define as success and more about what we feel is success. I didn’t get an academic job. Maybe some people think I’ve failed. However, I’ve also been able to re-create a meaningful and exciting life outside of academia. I consider that a total success.

I wrote about grief because I think sometimes we feel so much shame that not only we haven’t gotten the tenure track job of our dreams, but then we feel shame that we’re still angry about it. Breaking up with academia doesn’t mean that the feelings end. It’s very normal to grieve the loss of serious life dreams. I also think we start moving on when we can incorporate feelings of failure and loss into our stories as part of our experiences.

5. In general, do you keep track of your rejections? Why / why not?

I’ve just started dabbling in freelance writing and haven’t been successful yet. I am keeping track of my pitches on a spreadsheet and I’m trying to get to 100. Some clever person on Twitter started the #100rejections hashtag. I figure if I work on getting to 100, I’m eventually going to have two or three pitches accepted. I think keeping track of them is also proof of determination and perseverance.

When I was on the academic job market, I kept track of my applications on a spreadsheet and indicated failures with red text. Now that I’m no longer pursuing academic jobs, it looks like a CV of failure. But also a good reminder that even though I didn’t get the kind of job I expected, I’m still growing as a person and thriving in life.

6. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with it?

Rejection feels hideous, no matter what. Even the most constructive criticism can feel really awful. When I get comments about a piece of writing, I let myself feel all of the emotions associated with it. I let myself get angry and feel shame. I know that it’s okay to have those feelings, so I just let them be there. For anger, I might go on a walk. Shame requires empathy and connection, so I call a friend to talk about it. I let the comments just sit for a few days after that and I don’t do anything with them. When I do return to them, I re-read them and then re-word them into my own words so they don’t sting quite so much.

I also try to find a useful idea in criticism. I think it’s also helpful to remember that criticism isn’t about me as a person. I’ve written about receiving truly deconstructive criticism and how much it hurt at the time. I’ve come to the conclusion that when people dish out mean and unhelpful criticism in the guise of being “helpful”, it says a lot about them as people. I’ve also decided that the opinions of people who choose to use deconstructive criticism don’t really mean very much to me anymore.

7. Can you think of anything you didn’t dare to try, but wish you would have, even if it would end up on your “CV of Failure”?

On my CV of failure are grants written for several research projects that I would have liked to explore. In retrospect, I would have liked to have written articles that I’m fairly certain wouldn’t have ever made it through peer review at any respectable journal. I still have in mind that I might do a personal auto-ethnography project about the politics of child adoption. I cannot imagine that any journal would publish it, but it seems like an important topic that could help us shape humane and just child welfare policies. If I do it, it might end up on the CV of failure, but I think it would be a success in that those ideas are out in the world, hopefully making a difference.

8. How about something that looks like a success on your regular CV, but perhaps didn’t feel like it?

I have a few journal articles published, but they were part of a special issue that I was asked to contribute to. They were peer reviewed, but I don’t recall having to go through the excruciating process of receiving horrible comments from mythical Reviewer #2. The entire process was painless, so it didn’t feel like a great personal success. When I started submitting unsolicited journal articles for peer review, the criticism hit much harder because of my positive publication experiences.

9. And, on the other side of that, something that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

My biggest success right now feels like remaking a new life and career outside of academia. I’m working on starting a business, which I’ve never done before. I’m making sure to celebrate each successful step of the way. My blog also feels like a real success. I’ve been blogging for over two years now, which is a record for me. I can see myself growing and healing from academic failure in the past few years through my writing. The first year of the blog was about writing, the second about finding my way after the PhD, and the third year now looks to be about new beginnings, joy, and creativity. I’m also experimenting with new types of writing, like creative non-fiction.

10. When something is successful, do you have a celebratory ritual?

I think doing something well feels like a success by itself, but rewards are fantastic. I don’t ever think using self-care as a reward is a great idea. Eating, sleep, and exercise are just basic self care, so not rewards. I do think rewards for goals feels good. I especially like rewarding myself for reaching writing goals. I love buying yarn for new knitting projects as a reward.

11. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

Yes! We can talk about it. The less we talk about failure and its emotional counterpart shame, the worse we feel about ourselves as people. I admire the people willing to share their failure stories with the entire internet, but even just talking to a friend about failure can feel really liberating. Above all, we just need people to hear and understand us.

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

So many. About failure: it’s a part of life. It’s almost never the end of anything, but rather the beginning of something new and different. It’s the flip side to success and all successful people have a lot of failure. Failure also isn’t necessarily failure, but depends on how we define both it and success. Only you can decide what success looks like, so define it in ways that are empowering to you.

How I Fail S01E10: Jean Yang (PhD’15, Computer Science)

How I Fail: Jean Yang (PhD'15, Computer Science)
How I Fail: Jean Yang (PhD'15, Computer Science)
For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Jean Yang, an assistant professor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. You can find more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter.

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

I was born in China, grew up in Pittsburgh, spent over a decade in Boston for school, and am back in Pittsburgh as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science.

  1. In a blog post about your PhD you wrote about getting papers rejected, asking your supervisors for help, then getting advice to fail more. Can you say something about how that’s changed your views on failure?

When I was younger, failure was the worst thing that could happen to a person, and was to be avoided at all costs. Having this orientation towards failure made me risk-averse when it came to most things in my life.

  1. Could you share some other failures with the readers, and why those failures were memorable to you?

One of the most trivial–and memorable–failures I had was when I did more poorly than I wanted to on an exam in college, and brought my term grade down from an A to an A-. I had been doing very well in the class and felt I knew what was going on, so I had prioritized my other finals. My performance on this final–and in the class–was a complete shock to me. After I found out, I was so upset that I couldn’t enjoy a nice dinner with my then-boyfriend. There are a couple of reasons why this failure was memorable to me. First, the actual “failure” seems so trivial now it gives me perspective on my post-failure feelings. Second, I learned an important lesson: not to be so over-confident about something that I prepare insufficiently.

  1. Do you in general keep track of your failures? Why / why not?

I don’t really keep track of my failures. When I fail, I process what happened and what I could improve upon for next time, but after that it’s important to keep moving forward.

  1. You have been quite open on your blog about failure, which might be considered unusual for an early career researcher. What have the responses been like?

It was important to me to share both the good and bad parts of my experiences, since I felt that was what would be most helpful to younger researchers. I had always appreciated it immensely when older researchers did that for me. People have seemed generally appreciative of this.

  1. Do you think that some groups of people are less likely to share their failures than others, and what the reasons for this could be? What are the consequences?

It seems very cultural. In American culture, for instance, sharing stories of failure seems to be more acceptable than in East Asian cultures. Gender-culture also plays into this. There are two competing social forces around women sharing their failures. At an early age I learned that as a woman, I’m more likeable if people view me as nonthreatening–which translates into someone who fails sometimes. But, according to Rachel Simmons in The Curse of the Good Girl, women are also socialized to seem perfect, and sharing failures is at odds with this. One hypothesis is that this translates into women being willing to privately share failure, while publicly remaining quiet about it. It doesn’t seem like it’s only women who feel pressure to seem perfect. I’ve also spoken with men who say that they are rewarded for seeming perfect.

  1. Do you think that sharing your failures makes it easier to talk about successes too?

Yes. I don’t love that we live in a culture where we need to keep reminding other people of our successes in order to do the work we want. Talking about failure is my way of doing this without seeming too obnoxious.

  1. Can you think of something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

One of the most important parts of my life is the deep friendships I’ve formed over the years. Seeing my close friends actually makes me happy, as opposed to viewing arbitrary CV items.

  1. Something that is considered a success, but didn’t feel as such?

Many people have asked me whether getting a Best Paper Award was one of the exciting days of my life. I mean, it was a good day, but I think even one hour later I forgot what it felt like. External recognition is really not as viscerally exciting to me as it seems to be for some other people.

  1. And something you regret not trying, that is neither on your normal or your hypothetical “failure” CV?

I would have liked to take more art and creative writing courses in college. I also wish I hadn’t worked so hard in college. From the stories my friends tell, it seems I missed out on a fair bit of fun. I tried not to make the same mistake in graduate school.

  1. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure?

Like most people, I don’t like it when I don’t get what I want, so I give myself some space to process my feelings about that. This usually involves lying on the floor and wailing “why?” for a little while. I don’t like to dwell, though, so I try to figure out the lessons I’m supposed to learn and move on.

  1. What about when something is successful? Who do you share the news with? Do you have some ways in which you reward yourself?

Having spent a lot of time in highly competitive environments, I’ve learned how sensitive people are to the successes of others. As a result, I try not to brag unnecessarily. I guess I update my CV and website and tell my parents or something. One time my parents said they don’t like hearing from me only when I am updating them on my successes, so I don’t even do that as much. Now that I have a research group, though, it’s less about personal success and more about successes for the research group, so it’s nice to be able to share that. As for rewards, I prefer to reward myself for effort rather than achievement. For instance, after paper deadlines I’ll buy myself things or do other nice things for myself.

  1. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

Talking more openly about failure is a good start. Giving people more time is another good thing to do. Something I really like, for instance, is how the tenure clock at my university is nine years. I feel like this gives me the freedom to fail in my first couple of years, and I am grateful for this.

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

Flexibility and resilience go a lot further than perfection.

How I Fail S01E09: Ian Street (PhD’07, Biology)

How I Fail: Ian Street (PhD'07, Biology)
How I Fail: Ian Street (PhD'07, Biology)
For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Ian Street, a plant scientist and science writer who tweets at @IHStreet and blogs at PostdocStreet.

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

I am a plant scientist, science writer, and editor. I am currently freelancing as an editor and writer (Get in touch if you have a potential assignment, @IHStreet on Twitter). You can find out more about me and see my writing at my science writing site The Quiet Branches. I am also involved in some things addressing the social/cultural side of careers in science as a co-moderator of The Diversity Journal Club (#DiversityJC) and as a co-host of The Recovering Academic Podcast dedicated to inclusion in STEM and transitioning to careers beyond the ivory tower, respectively.

2. Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

The failures that hurt most for me are the ones where it feels like I haven’t done enough or regret not even trying in the first place because I know ahead of time I’ll likely fail.  It’s a failure to have a growth mindset when I need it. I’ve been working to get away from it, however, it’s hard, especially as I’m not exactly a young person anymore.

The big failure that overarches all the others is a failure of never feeling like I’m enough to be worthy of anything. This hard to shake belief has led to periods of clinical depression, putting others (who are of course always more worthy/talented) ahead of myself has limited my own growth, especially as a scientist. Failures for years were catastrophic setbacks, almost no matter how small, but certainly bigger failures of not realizing what I’d done wrong or pursuing fruitless paths, felt like dead ends, and not platforms for new insights as many scientists are able to transform seeming failure into success.

I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s all failure. I’ve been pretty resilient in many ways and even had some good insights, but they are hard to appreciate. Part of depression is magnifying the negative and dismissing successes as flukes or luck. And that feels like a failure of imagination on my part to not be able to take well positive things.

3. In general, do you keep track of your failures? Why / why not?

In the sense that I can ruminate about a failure an unhealthy amount, yes. I do journal semi-regularly. I’d like to make it more of a habit. But I don’t keep a running list. After a setback, I reflect on and try to figure out what I might do better and work to improve the next time around, even if it is just by a little bit. I might be reminded of a past failure or something that bothered me, especially in my writing when I go back and think about what I’d do differently, so in that sense I track my failures.

4. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure?

First, I generally expect rejection to happen. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m immune from things hurting, but it does set expectations low, and I find that that helps.

A healthier version of this is to work to not be so attached to outcomes even though that’s hard to achieve. I haven’t worked out a good post-failure mechanism other than to look to figure out what I might be doing wrong and improve upon it the next time I do something similar.

5. You recently posted on Twitter about holding “rejection olympiad”. Could you say a bit more about your motivation for this?

Part of it is feeding into the idea of ‘The rejection game’, which is a series of cards someone invented to overcome social anxiety. Each card has a request to make to someone and the goal is to get rejected that day. The surprising thing can be that it’s not easy to get rejected, and even if you are, it’s not the end of the world. The game is designed to make you ask, take chances, etc. The idea is, by building a habit of rejection, it makes you more likely to keep applying, keep going.

6. What are your thoughts about people being more open about sharing failures online? Is it a good trend or are there also some caveats?

I do think it’s good that people share that they are human. Imperfect, vulnerable, and most of the time doing the best we can to get by in what can be a harsh and cruel world. In many ways, science is the history of failure. What’s left is the stuff that stood up to scrutiny after repeated failures to take down the idea. Gravity, Evolution, cell theory, etc. Our understanding and interpretations might shift, ideally toward giving us a richer picture of the natural world that includes all it’s diversity.

The art of doing science may be in being productively stupid, or productively failing. So I generally think it’s good, but perhaps not natural to share our failures more openly. None of us succeeds on our own and most of the time we have a long string of things not working that well before hitting upon something that works. If you’ve put in the time to learn and attempt to master something, failures are inevitable. It’s not incompetency, it’s learning.

The caveat might be, and I do worry about this, is falling into the failure narrative too much, believing we’re failures, internalizing that. And then others might pick up on that as well. I worry that talking about not having a perfect CV or talking about depression and mental health so much hurts my chances on the job market.

7. You also mentioned “pre-rejection”, which as I understand it, is not taking an opportunity because you expect rejection. Could you elaborate on this?

It is generally about fear. And even a sense of resignation. I’ve tried for years to get jobs like X without success, why will the next time be any different? Those two things may be related.

There are a lot of jobs I just don’t apply to because I simply think there is no way. I’m not _____ enough. There are a lot of things I don’t go for for that reason. Sometimes these fears are rational and justified. Other times, I’m just not going for it because I want it, but I’m afraid to go for it, or more that I’ll flub the attempt and then that makes me look bad forever or something like that.

8. In a recent Recovering Academic episode you talked about fear of failure. Would you say that giving in to the fear, is a sort of failure in itself? Do you have any ideas of how to combat this?

It may well be, though fear is trying to tell you something. It’s not an un–useful response. After all, you want your brain to alert you when things are actually threatening– socially or physically. It tends to be set to highly favor false positives over false negatives. Again, for survival, that makes sense. Calibrating the sensor well for our modern world is hard. In science and other creative fields, the map isn’t always clear. We have to choose to put our brains into fear and uncertainty time after time and be willing to stand up again. So being stubborn/persistent can help. Trying to frame things as exciting rather than fearful might help too; they are two sides of the same coin.

Then there’s preparation. Chris Hadfield, in his TED Talk talked about this idea in going to space which is extraordinarily dangerous and fear inducing. But you train. And train. And train. Work every problem as it comes up, know as well as possible what you’ll face. Be prepared and fall back on your training (perhaps after taking a deep breath). I think there’s a scene in ‘The Martian’ that strikes a similar chord. This kind of thinking is also likely common in the military, I’m guessing. But again, being in a creative field of work, unfamiliar situations will come up and matching training to circumstances may not always work. The goal is to survive, learn, and be ready to go into the situation next time better prepared.

9. Can you think of something that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

The thing that comes to mind is much more successful management of depression the past few years. I’ve gotten back to a place where I can actually function well, put my work out into the world, and learned a quiet persistence. It’s still a work in progress, but the progress I’ve made from where I was is impressive. Being able to tell the story is a success to me, at least.

There’s also the fact that I listen to a lot of friends who are anxious or depressed. It’s not something I can or will do for everyone, but if you’re a friend of mine, or a colleague I’ve gotten to know, I will listen, and it will all stay between us. I do think that that can be valuable, but not something I put on my CV.

10. When something is successful, do you have a similar ritual as for dealing with failures?

Sadly, I don’t really. I may go out every so often to celebrate something, but mostly, I’m just onto the next thing. Sometimes, I’ll link something specific to a success, but I haven’t worked out a particular reward scheme that really works for me. Part of this is building up my muscle of enjoying things again after years of being too depressed to really enjoy anything (see above answer). So for me to take real pleasure in something is a high bar. A lot of times, it’s just me going out to the coffee shop on a weekend with a book and not feeling guilty about it.

11. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

I think just to realize that it’s the medium we all exist in. We’re working to map the unknown and failure is a part of that. Some people with equally prepared minds get lucky, others don’t (even if they all have the four traits so-called ‘lucky’ people have).

Being willing to listen and be compassionate would help too. It’s not quite a set feature of academia. Being there to pick someone up when they’re down could go a long way, I think.

And of course, training can help. Give us all a course in growth and fixed mindsets, in resilience, and of course, in the discipline itself. Being trained in management of people as well as the work of academia would have helped me immensely.

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

Adopt the growth mindset and don’t be so perfectionist about things.

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