How I Fail S01E25: Caroline Rowland (PhD’00, Psychology)

Caroline Rowland runs the Language Development Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, and is one of five directors at the ESRC LuCiD Centre. She studies how children learn language, or, more concretely: what are the mechanisms in the human brain that give us the capacity to acquire language?  She’s on Twitter as @CaroRowland.

1. Hi Caro, thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a Brit who escaped Brexit by miraculously being offered a job in the Netherlands in 2016. Before that I worked in various universities in the UK, except for one year when I worked as a secretary in various offices around London. I didn’t get a good enough undergraduate degree to obtain funding for a PhD so I did it part-time (self-funded) while working as a Research Assistant. I then moved to the University of Liverpool for 16 years before taking a job at the MPI in Nijmegen.

2. Would you like to share some failures with us?

Oh yes, indeed. There are countless examples; failure at exams (failing S-level history at age 18 still smarts), failure at job interviews (I was rejected from teacher training college), failure with grants and journals. Reviewers have told me that my work is meaningless (“Rowland and her colleagues just count things”), that I work too closely with a small group of people (One of my major reservations is the fact that many of the investigators have already been working together very closely), and that I don’t know what I’m doing (even with significant improvements [this paper] would still not meet typical requirements for peer-reviewed quality papers).

But these kinds of comments are quite unusual. Many of the rejections I have received have been kind and constructive. Even annoying comments like “do X”, when you’ve patently done X on page 12, can be useful – they help you discover what points a hasty reader will miss.

3. What does “failure” mean to you? Are there some misconceptions about it?

Actually, I think ‘fear of failure’ is worse than actual failure. By this, I mean the constant niggling worry in the back of your mind that you’re not quite living up to expectations. For me, it’s not just a fear of failing at research. I live with a background low level worry that I’m not a good enough boss, mentor, colleague and, especially, that I’m not a good enough mother. I find this much harder to manage that actual failure. If anyone has a solution …

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

No. Absolutely not. I try to learn from it and move on. If it’s a rejected paper, I revise it to make it better and submit it somewhere else. If it’s something more serious (e.g. that I’ve dealt badly with an issue or colleague at work) I try to apologise, learn from it and move on. I also try not to live with regrets; it’s too exhausting.

5. What do you think about sharing failures online?

Well it’s certainly not objective evidence for a recipe for success, but then it’s not meant to be. It’s narrative, and narrative can be cathartic. Misery loves company. I find it much easier to deal with the immediate aftermath of rejection when I can open a bottle of wine and spend a couple of hours reading stories about how other people have failed too.

But it’s also useful. The recent Twitter discussion we had on grant rejections prompted me to start talking to our researchers and students about how we can better support them in grant writing.

6. Have you experienced differences in attitudes towards failure throughout your career?

Of course. For example, it is much easier for me to accept my own failures now I’m older. In my twenties, I found it really hard to acknowledge being wrong. This is partly due to experience – when you’ve spent 18 years being regularly rejected, you learn to deal with it or you spend your life angry. But in my case, I also had a perfectionist PhD supervisor, so I didn’t have a choice. This was difficult to deal with at the time, particularly when a manuscript came back for the 9th time with the comment “I still don’t like this”. But it was also the best training for dealing with rejection.

7. Do you think different groups of people experience failure differently?

It’s much easier to deal with when you’re older (see 6 above). It’s probably also easier if you’re privileged. This tweet on the #ShareYourRejections thread has got me thinking about that a lot ….

8. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?

Pretty much everything (see answer to 3 above). But my most spectacular current failure is my failure to learn Dutch. I *have* to learn Dutch – I’ll be living in the Netherlands for many years. And I’m a language acquisition expert, so I know that it’s going to be hard; it’s much more difficult to learn a language at my age than it would have been 20 years ago. But I am still constantly disappointed by my failure to be able to hold a conversation in Dutch. I know quite a lot of words already, but retrieving them at speed, in the right order, during a conversation, is almost beyond me.

9. If you could reach all academics with a single message, what would that message be?

Academia is hard, sometimes brutal. But most jobs are hard. So this isn’t a good reason to quit. If I ever start to feel that the problems of academia outweigh the benefits, I imagine myself in a different job; as a teacher, as a lawyer, or as a businesswoman. I imagine how I would feel every Monday morning, faced with a week of standing in front of a class, or week in an office, or a week in a courtroom. Would I feel more or less content? If the answer is ever “more content”, I will start looking round at my options.

10. If you were in a position to change how funding/hiring/etc decisions were made, what would you do?

This one’s easy. I’d allow the grant or hiring committee ample time to read the applicants’ papers, rather than relying on statistics like H indices and citation counts. This is how the Max Planck Society hires, and it’s been a wonderful experience to be given the freedom, and the time, to read what applicants have published.

11. What can this series do better to improve things for everyone?

I think it’s already doing a great job of raising awareness. It certainly helps me in my “misery loves company” moments. It’s also an opportunity to link to resources that might help people cope with the pressure of rejection (e.g. the Samaritans in the UK do a great job of helping people deal with catastrophic failure. But then I’m a psychologist – counselling is always my default option.

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

I’ve already tweeted it. But it’s not about being a scientist – it’s about being a working parent. I really wish I’d known this when I was younger.

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