How I Fail S01E07: Michael Ekstrand (PhD’14, Computer Science)

How I Fail: Michael Ekstrand (PhD'14, Computer Science)
How I Fail: Michael Ekstrand (PhD'14, Computer Science)
For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Michael Ekstrand, a computer scientist studying human computer interaction and recommender systems. You can find more about him on his website or follow him on Twitter.

1. Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself

I’m Michael, an assistant professor of computer science at Boise State University in Idaho (northwest USA). My training is in human-computer interaction, and I do most of my work on recommender systems with broad interest in algorithmic assistance or mediation for information access (information retrieval, a lot of machine learning and data mining, etc.). One way I think of my work is that I smash people and intelligent information systems into each other and see what happens. I get to do this work with a lot of great people, particularly my colleague Sole Pera and our students in the People and Information Research Team, and my collaborators at Minnesota, Eindhoven, and elsewhere. I also maintain the LensKit recommender systems toolkit.

I joined Boise State in 2016; I received my Ph.D at the University of Minnesota (with the GroupLens research group) in 2014, and then spent as an assistant professor at Texas State University. I also spent a summer as an intern at Autodesk Research in Toronto while working on my Ph.D.

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

Not formally, although it is starting to emerge as a part of the record-keeping process to make annual review materials and eventually my tenure application easier to prepare. This isn’t the result of a conscious decision one way or the other – I have a mental list of failures that led to most of my CV lines, but I haven’t yet had the time to think about whether and how, strategically, I want to contribute my failure record to a healthier academic culture. This post is a start.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online?

It is an interesting idea that has a lot of potential merit. I have thought about doing it; the main reason I have not is – as indicated above – I haven’t decided to.

There are a couple of downsides that I see. One is Hal Daumé III’s point that they can come off as a humblebrag. I completely agree with that concern. Another thing I think about is the insidiousness of comparison. A reader will inevitably compare their own record with the one they are reading (or worse, their faulty memory of their record that may have an inflated reject count because they’re at a mental/emotional low point).

We need to do something as a profession to normalize failure and rejection, to bring out in the open that everything isn’t always as cheery and bright as it looks. I see promising trends in that direction, and that is very heartening. To the extent that publishing failure CVs helps that end, I am all for it.

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

I don’t have much of a ritual. I usually read the reviews, get grumpy for a bit, and then come back to them after a few days. I generally copy reviews – accept or reject – into a Google doc where my co-authors and I can mark them up, identify their discrete points, and discuss how to respond.

I often already have a secondary venue in mind when we submit a paper, so rejection becomes ‘execute on the backup plan’. Sometimes the feasibility of a fallback plan (coupled with my estimate of the odds of success) becomes a factor in deciding where to send something. This helps with rejection, I think – it’s just another possible outcome of the publication process that I’ve already been planning for.

Depending on the nature of the work and the target venue, I may tweet about the reject.

5. What about when you receive good news?

I usually share good news with my spouse, co-authors, close colleagues, and Twitter, in whatever order I talk to them next. I usually tweet acceptances, and occasionally rejects. Rewards often involve pizza and/or a good drink. Or something else nice, like good fish & chips.

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

It’s hard for me to reason about the overall failure rate, but I can try to estimate it per category.

I think my rejects-per-published-paper rate is probably a little lower than average. There are a number of potential contributing factors, none of which involve me being a superior academic. Lab prestige is likely one factor, particularly before RecSys went double-blind. I’ve also targeted RecSys with the bulk of my work; I know the community well, and that probably enables me to more effectively target the audience with my writing. I feel like my overall submission rate has also been low, so there haven’t been as many chances for rejection as some of my colleagues. I’m working on fixing that.

My grant reject rate is probably at or a little above average. So far it’s 0 for 6 (or 7?) with the NSF (current success probability estimates are at around 10%), and 0 for 3 with private-sector grants. I’ve had one successful internal grant proposal. Boise State has fantastic grant writing support, though, and my ideas are getting clearer and better, so I am hoping to get a hit sometime soon. I find that writing support helps a lot: skilled writers with a good eye for making the proposal responsive to the solicitation make it so much better. The last proposal I submitted is the best I’ve ever written, and I hope to continue improving that skill.

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

The parade of rejects when I was applying to graduate schools hurt at the time. I am extremely glad that I went to Minnesota, and would not want it any other way: working with GroupLens was one of the best experiences of my life, and it’s hard for me to imagine better advisers and colleagues. But at the time, I didn’t know that would be in my future. I wanted to do programming languages at Rice or Penn State, and they were saying no. I didn’t know what was next.

Seeing my software not take off stings a bit sometimes, particularly when I see other projects give ‘LensKit was too hard/impossible to use’ as a motivation for their work. I’ve put a lot of work into the tool, and want it to be a useful resource. I hope that it can still be one, and we’re doing work on trying to address a number of the particular pain points, but seeing it rejected can be frustrating.

And then there’s the 3rd conference reject for one of my software papers. It was pretty clear that one of the reviewers had also participated in the first round of reviews, and is invested in a competing technology; that’s all fine. What was frustrating was that their review sounded like they were reviewing the first version of the paper again, so it felt like all the work we had been doing to improve the material wasn’t making a difference. We went on to publish the work in a journal, with a Major Revision round bringing the paper back around to an overall state that was remarkably similar to the original paper (though with many important improvements).

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

It shows up on my CV, but does moving to a new position count as success or failure? Success, because I did two job searches that each concluded with accepting an offer? Or failure, because the best option my end-of-Ph.D job search produced didn’t wind up being a very good fit?

It feels like a success, because I started at Boise State with a much clearer picture of what I wanted to do, two years of experience, a full tenure clock, and a fantastic batch of new faculty.

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

Talk about it openly. There are a number of forces that resist this; these include general societal, and academic, tendencies to put on a happy face and push failure under the rug; and rejection of work that we don’t feel we can yet publicly discuss. I find the increasing interest in this conversation quite encouraging. We need to normalize failure and rejection, and destigmatize reaching out for help.

One of the most helpful things I read as a first-year assistant professor was Matt Might’s article on how to get tenure, particularly this quote:

“My first year as a tenure-track professor cannot be described as anything other than an abject failure. I was so desperate to publish and raise funds that I began thin-slicing my research and submitting lots of poor quality papers and grant proposals.”

Having this high-impact professor, who I greatly respect, write that he had a terrible first year helped me realize that maybe there was hope for me too. We need more writing like that. We need to get the message out that there will be down times, both during and after grad school, and that your first year as a faculty member will probably be pretty bad.

Increased efforts on promoting diversity in the academy – and with it, the compassion and empathy that are needed to ensure that people with a wide range of experiences and needs can succeed – help drive some of this, I think. Having people who ‘make it’ tear down the curtain may help reduce impostor syndrome and related effects in their peers. Promoting a culture where it’s OK to fail, get rejected, and generally not be OK makes it easier for people to reach out and get the help that they need.

The movie Wreck-It Ralph has a great scene where a group of video game villains are attending a Bads Anonymous meeting and say the group affirmation “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.” We might need something like that for academics. “Things are bad, and that’s ok. They won’t always be good, and that’s not bad.”

I think we also need to find ways to talk about these things with those who aren’t yet in research academia, such as undergraduate students who may (or may not) be thinking about graduate school.

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

Don’t rush things. If a problem is interesting and important, keep thinking about it from time to time, and eventually you may crack it. There’s a thorny issue in recommender system evaluation that I’ve been thinking about, and talking about, for at least 5 years now; in the last year or so, a path forward finally clicked and turned into a grant proposal, a forthcoming paper, and at least one more paper in progress.

But with that, make sure there are things that you can move forward on even while big ideas are in the slow cooker. I’ve been working the last couple of years to keep my research pipeline flowing, and would have benefited from thinking strategically about it earlier in my career. Some things aren’t primarily a pipeline problem, but maintaining a steady stream of research output is.

***

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How I Fail S01E06: Ellie Mackin (PhD’15, Classics)

How I Fail: Ellie Mackin (PhD'15, Classics)
How I Fail: Ellie Mackin (PhD'15, Classics)
Ellie Mackin For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Ellie Mackin, an ancient historian studying archaic and classical Greek religion, and blogging and vlogging about research, planning and PhD issues. You can find also find her on Twitter.

1. Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself. Do you have any “notable failures” you would like to share?

I am Ellie, a Teaching Fellow in Ancient History at the University of Leicester. Sometimes I feel like my whole career has been a notable failure – but actually, I think my failures are mainly notable by the fact I have overcome them (in a variety of different ways). I’m currently waiting for my book to be rejected (or, I hope, not!) and starting to think about trying to find myself a permanent academic job.

2. Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)?

Yes and no. I keep a list of job applications and outcomes, so that is kind of a defacto failure list. I don’t specifically keep track of publication failures, because I don’t necessarily view a rejection as a failure on that front – there is always another chance

3. What do you think about sharing failures online?

I personally don’t like it. I think it reeks of privilege and doesn’t really talk to the person I want to hear about – a person who genuinely wanted to achieve something, didn’t, and moved on to something else and is happy and successful. And how they managed that. I have recently blogged about this issue, too.

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

Cry, in a weird and uncontrollable way, into my pillow, and sing myself sad songs. And then, I try and remember that it’s not personal (usually doesn’t help), and that there are loads of talented, wonderful, brilliant people around who are in the same boat as me (also doesn’t help, sometimes makes me feel worse). And then I beat myself up for a while about how silly I am being, and then one day I just wake up and it’s okay. It still hurts – but not in a really bad way.

Obviously that’s the extreme – because there are some rejections that are really positive. I have an article that is imminently due out that was rejected by two other journals first. In both cases, the feedback was really positive and both those experiences made the article much stronger. I wish I knew who the reviewers were in both cases so I could have thanked them properly in the article.

I think I am starting to get to the point where the process is changing. I don’t really care about not getting shortlisted for long-shot jobs anymore. I do the best that I can with the applications, but I also know that in most cases it’s actually not personal. I might not be what they are looking for, but there is something else that is looking for someone like me.

I think the biggest change has actually been my general attitude. I am not interested in being anyone other than who I am now, so if people don’t like that – if that’s not what they want – then oh well.

5. What about when you receive good news?

In some ways I struggle even more with good news than bad. It’s really difficult with jobs especially, when you know a handful of people who have gone for the same job. I tend to keep things to myself until they naturally come out – though obviously I tell close family.

I like to celebrate things, though – usually just quietly with my partner. When I got my job he bought a bottle of Bollinger (my favorite champagne) and we drank it on the couch in our PJs. That was perfect. After my PhD graduation my partner and my parents went out to a super fancy restaurant. That’s the kind of stuff I like to do, spend good time with the people that I love.

Actually, that’s what I like to do after a rejection too!

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

Rational Ellie: I probably have around the same number of and kind of failures as other people in my field, at my career stage. I’ve had some successes and some failures – though, by virtue of the fact I have an academic position, I think I’ve been pretty lucky. I certainly don’t take my successes for granted, but I also don’t over-personalise my failure.

Emotional Ellie, Often Directly After Failure: I am the worst and everyone is much smarter than me.

I have been extremely fortunate in my position. I had some time up my sleeve after finishing my PhD and that gave me the breathing space to sort myself out, get my book proposals in, get some other experience. It also gave me a lot more time to spend on my job applications. This fact alone has been a massive influence.

However, I have my fair share of hard stuff too. I finished my PhD as a single parent. I have type 1 bipolar. I’ve been fortunate in some ways but very disadvantaged in others.

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

There are two. The first was not getting a 2 year research postdoc that I really, really wanted and I felt my interview went really well. I think the reason that was so difficult is because I had spent a lot of time evaluating myself and my work in preparation for that job, and I grew as a researcher quite a lot though the process of even applying and preparing for it.

The second was getting to the final shortlist of a major national postdoc and not getting it. So many people congratulated me on getting so far, and that felt like a slap in the face. I knew that getting that far really was a great achievement, but it didn’t seem to help me right then.

8. Are there any opportunities you didn’t take that you wish you had?

Honestly, no. I have tried to do everything, apply for everything I felt would be good. I didn’t waste time applying for things I knew I had no chance for (like Oxbridge JRFs, I applied for a few early on, but realized that it was a lost cause!). I’ve worked really hard, I’ve done everything I can. If I haven’t taken opportunities it’s because I couldn’t – physically, mentally, emotionally. I don’t beat myself up for making those judgement calls.

9. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

Having my daughter, in the middle of my PhD. Certainly it’s not something I would ever recommend, but I am so proud of what I achieved both in raising her and in finishing my PhD.

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

Talk about it. That’s it. Realise that failing doesn’t make YOU a failure. We all fail, we’re not all failures.

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

Keep going. You’re doing great. (Also for present and future self).

***

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How I Fail S01E05: Noeska Smit (PhD’16, Computer Science)

How I Fail: Noeska Smit (PhD'16, Computer Science)
How I Fail: Noeska Smit (PhD'16, Computer Science)
For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Noeska Smit, an associate professor at the University of Bergen. She blogs (and her blog has motivated me to start my own!) and you can also find her on Twitter.

1. Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself.

After working as a radiographer for three years, I studied Computer Science (Media and Knowledge Engineering track) at the TU Delft. From April 2012 I worked as a PhD candidate in the field of medical visualization at the TU Delft in collaboration with the Anatomy and Embryology department at the LUMC in Leiden. I am currently employed as an associate professor at the University of Bergen, Norway. I am a contributor at medvis.org, the blog on all things medical visualization and also have my own blog.

2. Do you keep track of your failures?

I do not, at least not explicitly. I do keep track of all things happening throughout the day through a virtual lab journal in Evernote. I start every day by writing down three tasks I want to accomplish for the day. Then throughout the day I take short notes of what I am doing. I try not to focus on failures explicitly, as I think this would be demotivating for me personally. I prefer to keep track of both successes and failures in the same way, through my lab journal.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online?

I have to say this concept of a CV of Failures is not for me. It reminds me of dwelling on the negative. When something gets rejected, I prefer to just give myself a day or two to be cranky about it, learn what I can from it, and then move on.

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

See above. This process has not changed throughout my career, though I do get far less emotional about it now. I took my first paper rejection too personally, but by now I just process them in a more neutral way. Rejections are not targeted at me personally, or even at my work, but just evaluate and try to offer suggestions to improve one particular piece of output, which is not a big thing in the grand scheme of things.

5. What about when you receive good news?

Yea, I definitely believe it is important to celebrate success to maintain motivation. I share it typically with family, co-workers, and also friends that are in same field.

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

I don’t know, I really don’t think about my work in terms of failures at all. Not because I’m perfect, but even if things get rejected, this is not a failure to me, rather an opportunity to learn and improve for the next attempt. The only failure to me would be not trying, which is harder to quantify.

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

I have a paper which was rejected three times, and ended up as a short paper. Later I got comments on how novel, and interesting the work was, and then I’m like, why were you not reviewing this? After a certain amount of rejections on the same piece of work, frustration simply sets in. Especially when the reviewers offer conflicting suggestions in every rejection round.

8. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

I try to frame work-related activities so that they do fit on a CV. For instance, I think that academic blogging can be an appropriate CV item. I can’t really think of any successes that would not fit, maybe having achieved perfect work-life balance :)?

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

As supervisors, talk to (especially new) PhDs and explain that rejection is something that can be expected and not the end of the world, nor a personal attack. Also, talk about rejections to peers and friends to vent and normalize them. As reviewers, try to find the good in every paper, and criticize points of improvement in a constructive and helpful way.

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

Spend less time worrying, and more time kicking ass.

***

That’s a great piece of advice – something I should definitely keep in mind myself! Thanks again Noeska for joining the series! 

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How I Fail S01E04: Hal Daumé III (PhD’06, Computer Science)

How I Fail: Hal Daumé III (PhD'06, Computer Science)
How I Fail: Hal Daumé III (PhD'06, Computer Science)
For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Hal Daumé IIIwho is an Associate Professor in the Computer Science department and Language Science Center at the University of Maryland. He has an awesome website and is on Twitter @haldaume3.

1. Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself. Do you already have any “failure statistics” you would like to share?

I am currently an Associate Professor in the Computer Science department and Language Science Center at the University of Maryland. I started here as an Assistant Prof back in 2010, after having been an Assistant Prof in the School of Computing at the University of Utah for four years. Before that I was a grad student (at the University of Southern California, working at the Information Sciences Institute from 2001 to 2006), with a stint as a a summer intern at Microsoft Research in Seattle in 2003. Before that, I was an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon in math (1998-2001), and spend the last half of my undergrad time working at the Language Technologies Institute. Before that I was in high school!

All of that sounds pretty good, though basically every transition had a number of “failures” that were notable at least to me :). Going chronologically….

  • When I applied to undergraduate programs, I really wanted to go to Stanford. Many of my friends would be going there, it would keep in in California (I grew up in LA), and I just really liked the place. I didn’t get in. My second choice was UCSD; I also didn’t get in there. This was very clearly my failure: I just wasn’t a very good student in high school. The fact that I got into CMU was, to me, a minor miracle, and it was by far the best college I was admitted to (I still sometimes wonder how that happened).
  • As an undergrad, during the summer before my last year, I really wanted to participate in the Johns Hopkins summer workshop, to which I applied and was not accepted.
  • When I applied to graduate school, I applied to precisely three places: CMU computer science, USC computer science and Stanford linguistics. I had had a really difficult time deciding whether to apply to Stanford linguistics or Stanford CS, and in the end I made the decision to apply to linguistics for a stupid reason: Stanford CS quals terrified me. I did not get in to Stanford (probably largely because I had very little linguistics at the time, and my statement was likely garbage). I was really upset about this at the time, but in retrospect I’m actually pretty glad they rejected me. If I had gotten in, I would have gone, and I’m pretty sure I’m happier having gone to a CS program than a linguistics program.
  • I’m not sure if this counts as “notable” but it was a big deal for me. I submitted my first real paper in grad school to ACL 2001 on “document compression.” I wrote the first draft on my own before giving it to my advisor (Daniel Marcu). I considered myself a pretty good writer: it was something I had always enjoyed and I took some creative writing courses in college (I originally wanted to double major in creative writing). A day or two later, Daniel gave me back a marked up copy of my draft; one would have had a hard time finding a square centimeter on the page that did not contain red ink. I was so upset, I left the office, plopped down on my bed and cried a bit.
  • I’ve had plenty of papers (and now grant proposals) rejected; for papers, I don’t really remember which ones, with a few exceptions. In 2003, I started getting really interested in machine learning, and I started trying to learn as much as I could. (All of my previous work was in natural language processing.) This was relatively soon after the original latent Dirichlet allocation paper, but before “topic models” were really a “thing.” I had developed a very of LDA that generalized to n-grams rather than unigrams, and I wrote it up and submitted it to NIPS. Neither I nor any of my close colleagues had every submitted to NIPS, so I didn’t have much guidance here. The paper didn’t only get rejected, but got solidly walloped by the reviewers.
  • The other notable paper rejection for me was the paper that made up the majority of my dissertation: the paper on the “Searn” algorithm, which eventually was published in the Machine Learning Journal. This was probably the most frustrating publication experience I have ever had. I can’t even remember in what order we submitted it, but we submitted it to (at least) two NIPS, one ICML and one AIStats starting in 2006, and it was roundly rejected from all of them. Eventually we gave up and submitted to MLJ, where it got in after (I think) one round of revisions in 2009.
  • I applied for both faculty positions and industry research positions when I was finishing my Ph.D. in 2006. The biggest disappointment for me at the time was getting an interview at CMU but not getting an offer. The second biggest was not getting an interview at Microsoft Research in Seattle.

2. Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

Only in my head :). Until recently, I’d never really thought of keeping an explicit list of failures. I still elect not to do it. All of the things I listed in the previous section were really hard for me to deal with at the time; I take rejection to heart, deeply. This has always been something that I’ve struggled with as an academic: positive reward is pretty rare (and often very delayed), and negative reward is pretty frequent. Yet, I am really happy with where I’ve gotten: I’m at a really great university with a great group of colleagues (yay CLIP!), I live in DC which I love, and I have a ton of flexibility in what I work on, how I work and when I work (and when I don’t!). I don’t plan on starting to keep track of failures, explicitly: I guess I prefer to focus on the positives.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

I have mixed feelings about it. I think if everyone did it, that would be one thing and could be useful. But in most cases, when I see a CV of failures, it can read a bit like a humble brag. Probably the list I provided reads this way in parts. If someone has produced a CV of failures that I actually look at, that person has probably “made it” in some sense, and so a CV of failures can often look kind of like “despite all this adversity, I still managed to be successful!”

I think it’s worthwhile that students and junior researchers know that everyone gets rejected and everyone struggles and everyone wants to quit at some point. Because if we all can acknowledge that openly, and get rid of as much posturing as possible, I think that opens the door to providing better support for our colleagues and friends, and making the research community a more welcoming space in which I, at least, would be happier to belong. I don’t currently plan on keeping a CV of failures, though honestly I’ll be really interested to read more arguments in favor in other entries in this series: maybe I’ll change my mind.

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

My general strategy is: avoidance :). When I get a paper or grant rejected, I just don’t read the reviews for at least a few days, maybe a few weeks in the case of grants (and course evaluations). Of course eventually I do, and in the beginning I’d just get really sad and defensive. Over time I’ve developed the following strategy: I try to think honestly and seriously about on which points I agree with the reviewers and on which points I disagree. On the points where I disagree, I try to put into words why I disagree. And then I go for a hike or a walk or go to yoga or something mind-clearing.

5. What about when you receive good news?

Mostly I share the news with my partner, unless it’s something significant enough to be considered “news worthy” (like a funded project or award or something) in which case I share with the CLIP lab and the UMD PR team. The nice thing about sharing with the lab is that you then typically get back about 25 congratulations emails :). Sometimes celebration might include wine, though naturally after going home.

6. If you would have a CV of failures, do you think it would show more or less failures than others in your field? What factors do you think influence this?

I imagine the specifics would differ, but the scope would be similar. The biggest differences I can imagine would be based more on what people choose to go after rather than what they’re rejected for. For instance, I’ve never had a paper rejected from Nature, but that’s because it wouldn’t really occur to me to submit a paper there. In terms of factors that correlate with failures, I’d expect them to be basically the same as factors that correlate with successes, and that you’d see a “rich get richer” effect in general, and would probably see similar correlations with demographics as in other areas of academia.

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

I already kind of answered this above, but probably not getting an offer at CMU was the most difficult thing for me. At the time, I personally cared a lot about recognition and prestige, and if I had gotten an offer I would have accepted almost immediately (despite the fact that when I was an undergrad at CMU I was rather unhappy). Add to that the fact that I knew, from working at LTI as an undergrad, all of the people involved, the rejection felt far more personal than rejections from other places. (I know now that I shouldn’t have felt that way, but that didn’t help me 10 years ago.) More generally that job search season was difficult for me: I ended up with three offers that I was really happy with, but I went into the hiring seasons a bit arrogant and when I didn’t get as many interviews, or offers, as I was hoping for.

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

Not really, though there’s probably choice-supportive bias going on there. The closest was when I applied for the position at UMD that I have now. UMD was hiring “off cycle” and so when I applied here, it was the only place I applied. In retrospect, I probably should have applied more broadly. There’s a good chance I would have chosen to come here anyway (in terms of a balance between being a great place to do NLP, and a city that I love living in, there are very few places that I would rank higher).

9. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

I don’t put “declined” things (i.e., I was offered something but I turned it down) on my CV, and there are a few of those, which I suppose would count. I’m also not going to list them here—sorry! More broadly, the things that come to mind here are personal anecdotes that come ever so often in the form of emails or stories from former students (grad or undergrad) that say nice things, or when I recently found out that someone in our community learned about NLP from my blog while in high school. That’s the sort of positive, long-term reward that’s great, but doesn’t really make up a CV item.

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

I think we can try our best to de-personalize things. I talked about this on my blog a while ago, but I try to avoid using the word “you” in reviews. I try to talk about the work or the paper or the presentation or the research, not about the authors thereof. I think we as a community should also acknowledge that academia—like basically everything else in life—is not a meritocracy, and to recognize than when we as individuals fail, it’s not necessarily a reflection on our value as researchers. And I think that we need to have institutionalized mechanisms for “on boarding” new members of the community, so as to minimize as much as possible an in-group and out-group mentality.

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

There’s more to life than your publication and citation count.

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How I Fail S01E03: Eric Anthony Grollman (PhD’13, Sociology)

How I Fail: Eric Anthony Grollman (PhD'13, Sociology)
How I Fail: Eric Anthony Grollman (PhD'13, Sociology)
For this post of How I Fail I’m profiling Eric Anthony Grollman, who is a Black queer feminist intellectual activist and sociology professor at University of Richmond. They are the editor of ConditionallyAccepted.com – a weekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Find Eric on Twitter at @grollman.

1. Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself and if you already have any “failure statistics” you would like to share.

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I am a scholar, broadly defined, placing importance on research, teaching, and service, as well as the connections among these domains of the academy.

I am currently on a yearlong research leave following a successful mid-course review. While remaining productive, submitting 4 papers to journals, I felt set back by the rejection of every manuscript by 1 if not 2 journals. Rejection after rejection set the stage for me to feel as though I was failing all around, and that I would have nothing to show for a year’s leave.

Though so much rejection at once is new for me, I am no stranger to journal rejections. One article was rejected five times before receiving a favorable revise and resubmit decisions from the journal in which it is now published. One of my forthcoming articles was previously rejected after an R&R at one journal, and desk-rejected from two other journals. I’d say I have an equal number of articles that were published in the first journals to which I sent them and that were rejected from multiple journals before they were finally accepted. Overall, it still feels like a crapshoot, not knowing whether a manuscript fits in an article, will be liked by reviewers, will pique the interest of the editor, will overlap too much with a recently accepted piece or fill a gap in the journal, and so forth.

2. Do you keep track of your failures?

I’m no different than the average academic here, at least until recently. That is, I try to avoid dwelling on my failures – because they feel exactly like that, rather than minor setbacks or growing pains or lessons in living. It’s much easier to see how failure fits into the larger narrative in hindsight. I do believe I differ from others, however, in intentionally celebrating my successes. Specifically, at each year’s end, I make a list of all that I have accomplished in both the personal and professional domains. For, just as I tend to numb myself to by losses, I also tend to overlook or downplay my wins. So, this end-of-year reflection helps to remind myself that I accomplish quite a bit – and probably can stand to recognize that more so I stop pursuing project after project and service opportunity after service opportunity to prove to myself that I am worthy.

This past year’s end, I experimented with reflecting on failures alongside my successes. I even shared it publicly, though I acknowledge I was more generous with my wins that my losses. (I’m only human, and an imperfect one at that.) I doubt this will occur outside of new year’s resolution and old year’s reflection activities, as reflecting on how I’ve failed isn’t something I’d like to do often. But, there is an overall sense of growth, overcoming, and hope that comes from directly engaging with lessons I’ve had to learn by screwing up.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online?

I appreciate the failure-CV idea – it’s a rather brave and noble act. It helps to normalize failure in academia. The reality is rejection is the norm. If a journal touts a 8% acceptance rate, that means the overwhelming majority of papers will be rejected immediately, after the first review, or even after subsequent reviews. Grants, jobs, positions, and other milestones in academia likely carry similar odds of success. Being the best, beating out your competitors, is a bizarre feature of our profession. So, sharing those wounds publicly is pretty courageous.

But… I think it’s cute when privileged folks do something to prove a point, but ignore that the stakes are much higher and the rewards are much lower for those who are disadvantaged. I actually never read the failure-CV that went viral because I (correctly) assumed its author was a white man, probably senior level faculty at an ivy league school. (Well, apparently he’s an assistant professor, but even a tenure-track position is a pretty cushy gig considering the majority of PhDs are in exploited contingent faculty positions.) After it was first published, I began seeing critiques of his efforts as nothing more than an exercise of privilege, or that he’d only be able to get away with airing his failures because he was incredibly successful. So, that confirmed that I didn’t need to bother reading it. And, I didn’t until recently.

I have a reputation for being outspoken and sharing potentially professionally damaging information online. But, I would probably never make a concise list of all of the ways in which I have failed in my career. In a year, I will be applying for tenure; as an assistant professor, I do not want to make it easier for my colleagues to pinpoint my failures. Academics are hypercritical people; while airing my failures would be a noble act, it opens me up to be further judged and criticized. “Oh, they only published that in that journal because it was rejected from four other journals.” “Wow, they applied for that three times before they got it? I got it on the first try.” I suffer from playing the same comparison game. So, as someone who currently lacks job security, and is additionally vulnerable by virtue of being Black, queer, and outspoken, I’d rather not play with fire (or failure) anymore than I need to. Sharing my failures won’t help me professionally (and actually could hurt me) and it does nothing to liberate fellow marginalized people.

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

When I receive rejections from journals, I read the reviews immediately. I curse the reviewers for being idiots, for not realizing I couldn’t do the things they wanted to see in the paper. I curse the editor(s) for not giving the paper a second chance with a perhaps harsh R&R. I make an impulsive plan to submit the paper elsewhere without changing a thing, because those reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. Then, I put the reviews away for at least a week, or perhaps more if I was in the middle of working on another manuscript. Rejection stings, but over time I have come to see them as just part of the long process of peer-review and publishing.

While it is never my plan to get rejected, reviewers typically offer advice that will increase the likelihood of success at the next journal. It still frustrates me that over half of the comments are useless (anger may be exaggerating my estimate here…), but I recognize that the reviewers have identified one or more fatal flaws – at least for publishing in that journal. And even that sentiment – it’s just a rejection from this journal – reflects an evolving, more balanced reaction to failure; often they have nothing to do with the content or quality of my paper and, instead, may be any number of other factors that I cannot control.

5. What about when you receive good news?

Good news is immediately shared online, with my partner, and with anyone who supported me in achieving that win. Successful outcomes require a lot of work and patience, so they indeed warrant celebration when they happen. And, then I update my CV – personal copy, on my website, and on Academia.edu. And, I stare at the new line on my vita for a minute or two to let it sink in. Then, the critical voice in my head gets louder and I go on to do something else.

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

As I reflect, no specific rejection comes to mind as particularly hurtful. Some have temporarily made me mad because they felt unfair, and rejection closes the line of communication so I am unable to defend or explain myself. But, I just improve what I can and submit elsewhere. One journal’s rejection is another journal’s acceptance.

But, thinking of failure on a broader sense, not simply as concrete outcomes, failing myself by not being authentic has hurt the most. In getting swept up in the elitist, competitive, impact-factor-obsessed game of academia, I am embarrassed to admit that I have made many decisions to excel that went against my sense of self, my identities, my politics, my values, and my goals as a scholar-activist. I have failed myself (and my communities) by conforming or “souling out” because the normative or mainstream path in academia demands it. This has left me doubting every decision that I have made (like working at a liberal arts college) and feeling disconnected from my work. I am making strides toward getting back on the path of authenticity in my career, but only after years of struggling and distress. Conforming was the worst thing I’ve done in my career.

7. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

Breaking ties with my grad school mentors was a hard, yet inevitable step in pursuing a self-defined career as a scholar-activist. I was literally traumatized by my graduate training. The constant microaggressions, efforts to “beat the activist out” of me, and the questioning of my career choices left me weepy and filled with doubt in my first year on the tenure-track. I had to suck the poison out of my life in order to define this new chapter of my life for myself. This was a huge success for me; but, of course, I’d never list “broke up with my grad school advisors” on my CV!

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

Given that failure is as common, if not more so, in academia, it should be normalized. A positive first step would be to openly share the ways in which we fail, and not only when we are successful enough to “compensate” for those failures or when we are privileged enough to weather the risks of such vulnerability. Rather than regularly celebrating our long lists of achievements, we could talk about our careers as journeys with wins and losses. We only fuel perfectionism-induced anxiety in others when we introduce invited speakers by reading an obnoxiously long bio that is just their CV disguised as prose. (Though, I’m sure that is the point.) Sharing failures tells others how you overcame them and finally became successful; failures are a part of the story of success. It is much more inspiring, in my opinion, to hear how you got knocked down over and over but kept getting back up. I can learn something from the person who had to cope with and overcome failure, not much from those who (supposedly) succeeded on the first try.

But, we can’t ask academics to become vulnerable if the risks of doing so remain high. We can’t ask others to share how they screwed up if we’re only going to judge them and, worse, allow those judgments to influence formal evaluations of them. I suppose one way to change the hypercritical, competitive, judgmental climate would be to celebrate scholars’ journeys rather than just their wins. Maybe we could celebrate that it took 5 years to publish an article because it kept getting desk-rejected and not just the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. Or, celebrate the personal backstory of an article, like persevering despite a neglectful, abusive former co-author, and not just that it was published and will be widely cited. What I’m suggesting here is a fundamental shift from celebrating our journeys, perhaps in a qualitative sense, and not just quantifying success, contribution, and impact. Indeed, these quantitative assessments fail to acknowledge stark disparities in academia.

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

To my past self, I think that one piece of advice would have spared me a lot of stress and heartache: live your truth, tell your truth. Success by someone else’s terms is not nearly as satisfying as failure on my own terms.

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If you have any suggestions regarding this series, please leave a comment below. You can also join the weekly newsletter if you want to make sure you won’t miss any posts!

How I Fail S01E02: Steven Shaw (PhD’91, Psychology)

How I Fail: Steven Shaw (PhD'91, Psychology)
How I Fail: Steven Shaw (PhD'91, Psychology)
For this post of How I Fail I’m profiling Steven Shaw, an associate professor who blogs at ResearchToPractice and tweets at @Shawpsych.

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you doing now, what did you before to get here?

I’m an associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, director of the Connections Lab and Graduate Program Director of the School/Applied Child Psychology program.I got my Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of Florida in 1991. Before entering academia, I had 17 years of experience as a school psychologist in school, university, hospital, medical school, and independent practice. My research interests include pediatric school psychology, improving education of children with rare genetic disorders and autism, advancing concepts in evidence-based practice, and development of resilience skills in children at risk for academic failure.

The picture is pretty much what I look like most days. In my basement, at a standing desk, looking grouchy, and editing.

2. Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

I started to do it, but have recently stopped. I’m now to the point where I don’t really think of these things as failures. Rejections and unfunded grant proposals are simply part of the progress that moves toward success.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

I think it can be instructive for many people. It can be an effective tool. Like most of these sorts of activities, if it is useful for you and your students, then it is worthwhile. If not, then I do not think this is a requirement. We certainly need to get rid of the idea that rejections and unfunded proposals are embarrassing or a sign of failure. I have no difficulty with any of my rejections being made public.

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

I don’t really think of most rejections as failures. It is just a method of improving the quality of my work. Given that the majority of submissions are rejected or unfunded, a rejection should not come as a surprise. The hardest part is to help students understand this. I usually read reviews and decision letters immediately. And then I let it sit for at least two days. I estimate how much time it will take to address the concerns of reviewers and either put that in my schedule or delegate those tasks to co-authors. The only part of the process that has changed is that I don’t really get upset and there is not an emotional component to the process. Sometimes rejection used to make me upset.

5. What about when you receive good news?

Nothing really changes. I just move on to the next project. However, if the paper is in large part due to student work, then I make sure that the lab celebrates their collective success. I am much more excited about the development of new ideas and data support for new findings. That is when we celebrate. Whether a paper is accepted or a grant funded is not something that we have full control of.

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

I have no idea. I really don’t think about what other people in my field do. I really just focus on my work and making it better. If the activities that I engage in are valued, then I will have a job. If not, then I will find something else to do with my time and energy.

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

There is some frustration when I have tried my hardest and done the best work of which I’m capable and that is still not good enough. That is usually the time that I know I need to develop a new skill set, seek out mentoring, or make changes in my process. The failures that hurt me the most are when students do not have success. When students fail or receive an unsatisfactory evaluation from me, then that is a failure on my part and a failure that hurts very much.

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

I am sure that there are, but I can’t think of anything specific. Things generally work out as they should. My success as a scholar and value I provide to my field are only minimally related to my CV.

9. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

Probably media interviews. I’m frequently asked to be on television and radio for interviews and been interviewed by newspapers related to parenting and education. Those activities probably reach more people and have made more of a positive difference than anything I’ve published in a refereed publication.

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

I like to use neutral language when writing editorial decision letters. For example, I never
write the word “reject.” I will say that “the paper is not currently ready for publication.” Take the emotion out of failure experiences and use productive feedback to continuously improve.

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

There are a few things. First, smile and laugh a lot more. Second, I have learned that the work is not about me, the process is about the work and how it can affect others.

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If you have any feedback regarding this series, please leave a comment below. You can also join the weekly newsletter if you want to make sure you won’t miss any posts!

How I Fail S01E01: Eva Lantsoght (PhD’13, Civil Engineering)

How I Fail: Eva Lantsoght (PhD'13, Civil Engineering)
How I Fail: Eva Lantsoght (PhD'13, Civil Engineering)
For the first post of How I Fail I’m profiling Eva Lantsoght, who inspired me to do this series with the “How I Work” series on her blog.

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you doing now, what did you before to get here? What do you like to do in your free time?

I’m a Full Professor and Researcher in Civil Engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, and a part-time postdoctoral researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. I’m originally from Belgium, and did my M.Sc. in Civil Engineering at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium. Then I went to the United States for a M.S. in Structural Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. I returned to Europe for my PhD in the Concrete Structures research group of Delft University of Technology. In my free time I run a blog for PhD students and academics, PhD Talk, I play music (cello and vocals), and I do crossfit and yoga.

2. Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

I keep track of my rejected journal papers. I have a Google spreadsheet that I use to have a quick overview of the status of my different papers (in progress, in review, …) and ideas for future papers, and in that spreadsheet I use a color code. One of the colors is for “rejected paper but submitted elsewhere”, and another color is for “rejected paper, need to take action.” Since I’m never deleting any paper from this list, I simply keep the “failures” in there. I don’t do the same for rejected abstracts for conferences, perhaps because an abstract feels much smaller than a complete paper.

For grants and job applications, I don’t keep track of failures, but I must admit that I haven’t had rejections in those yet (but I’ve only applied to very small research grants at my university).

3. What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

The first time I tweeted that I received a paper rejection, I had a discussion with my husband. He thought it made me look bad. I think it is just part of life in academia, and that if I only write and tweet about the things that go well, I am not authentic. I can see both sides of the discussion though, so I think that, given the incredibly high expectations and standards in academia, it is uncommon to talk about failure or share these online. It shouldn’t be – we should be more open about how hard some steps in an academic career can be, but at this moment, we aren’t; and the odd ducks that speak up may be eyed with suspicion by some.

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

Not really. If it’s a rejection of a journal paper, I look at the comments of the reviewers, make changes to the paper, and submit it elsewhere.

5. Did you know about the amount of rejection in academia before you started your PhD or your current job? Did this knowledge influence your career decisions?

I learned about it when I applied for universities in the United States for my second Master’s and for scholarships. That was the first time I became aware of the small chance of me getting funding, and getting into a university. It didn’t influence my subsequent career decision though – I guess the research virus had already taken a good grip of my body by then.

6. Do you think there is such a thing as a “fair” amount of rejection? Do you think you have been rejected more or less than others in your field? What factors do you think influence this?

In my field, the rejection rate for journal articles is about 66%, and for graduate school applications, the number sits between 66% – 85%. I’m not sure if 66% is a fair number, but that’s what I have as a reference. I’ve been rejected less than the average for my journal papers – just calculated it as 23%. Part of it must have been a stroke of luck with the reviewers, and part of it is that I’ve worked very hard on my writing over the past few years.

One important element for this relative success, I think, is that we have been doing unique experimental research in Delft over the past few years, and that it is “attractive” work to publish. I’ve noticed that it is harder to publish about my new research topic (field testing), as the majority of the reviewers need to be convinced that what we are doing is not “standard industry practice”. Similarly, it has been more difficult for me to publish from smaller research projects that I carry out at USFQ; the results simply are not that spectacular and we lack resources to bring experimental support to desk research or theoretical studies.

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

The first two times a journal paper got rejected! For the first rejection, one of the reviewers was really sour, and I guessed between the lines he/she had some conflict with my supervisor. The second rejection came from an additional reviewer after I had resubmitted a fully revised a manuscript. I thought I had made the reviewers happy, but then the additional reviewer came in and completely broke down my work – by misinterpreting my results. I really wanted to shout at my screen: “Noooo, my paper is not about Failure Mode X but about Failure Mode Y!!”

8. Can you share some failures which, in retrospect, were useful learning experiences?

I guess you learn from each failure? Ever paper rejection is an opportunity to submit an improved version elsewhere.

9. Are there any opportunities that you regret not taking because you were afraid of failure?

No, I’ve never been held back by failure. I’ve always tried, and had a plan B in case plan A does not work. But to my surprise. Plan A has worked in a good number of occasions.

10. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

When one of the BSc students who graduated under my supervision gets admitted to graduate school, I feel so proud. I feel proud of the student, of course, but also a bit of myself, as I’m actively helping our students to continue their studies abroad. Similarly, I sometimes receive mails from readers of my blog that a certain post I wrote really helped them get through a difficult time in their PhD – something like that makes my day/week/month.

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

Ease up a bit and be more supportive of each other. Be more open about failure rates. Stop thinking everybody else is out there to come and compete against you, and that you need to stop them in their tracks before they get “better” than you.

12. If you could time travel, what is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

My past self that just started in academia? To worry less (and imposter-syndrome less, if that’s a verb). To my much younger self: spend more time with your family and friends – you’ll miss them sorely when you start living all over the world.

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I’m very happy that Eva agreed to be interviewed for How I Fail, as well as a few others I have contacted so far. If you don’t want to miss any posts, please sign up for my weekly newsletter in the menu on the left!

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