How I Fail S01E20: Przemysław Pawełczak (PhD’09, Wireless Communications)

Przemysław Pawełczak is a tenured assistant professor in the Embedded Software group at TU Delft. He obtained his PhD in wireless communications (topic: Cognitive Radio) at the same university in 2009. Before joining the Tenure Track of TU Delft, Dr. Pawełczak was a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA (2009-2011) and a research scientist at Fraunhofer HHI Institute in Berlin (2012). He is the recipient of 2013 NWO Veni grant. You can find him on LinkedIn, GoogleScholar and Twitter.

1. Thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Great to be invited to this series! I’m an assistant professor in the Embedded Software group at TU Delft since 2013. I enjoy my work a lot. The ability to work and interact with diverse, extremely bright and open-minded people at my university makes me wake up every day and go to work. I’m Polish (and very proud of it) but spent almost all of my professional part of my life abroad (Netherlands, USA, Germany), and only at research institutions. This allows me to have a broad (not Dutch-centric) perspective on how things are handled in the academia.

2. Are there any “notable failures” you would like to share? “Most rejections”, or perhaps a failure that hurt the most?

There is no specific rejection that hurt me the most. After you got one rejection and another (and another) you start to get use to it and accept is a natural part of your trade. Of course, every rejection makes you feel bad. It is very hard to dis-associate criticism about your paper/grant application from attack ad hominem, so reading emails starting with the sentence “we regret to inform you” do feels bitter. What I realized, though, is that as you get older (or as you are longer in the business) that bitter feeling is becoming lesser and lesser. When I was a first year PhD student I could not sleep for days after my first-ever paper rejection, but now I embrace it and use it as an opportunity to improve my work and make it better (if I still can).

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

Yes, I do keep track of my failures. For instance, my “H2020 Rejected Proposals” folder has (as of now) eight sub-folders inside. Why do I keep track of my failures? Because it is good to see how much effort you put into papers and proposal preparations. Also tracking this lets you improve your time allocation and strategic decision-making (for instance: which proposals are worth the effort to re-submit and which are not).

4. Do you think this issue is more prevalent in academia than in other fields? What about differences between academic fields or different countries?

My core observation is that academia (anywhere in the world) is no different from other fields. Everyone competes for scarce resources (in academic terms: limited spots in conference proceedings and journal issues) and there are simply to many of us academics for available top spots. So naturally you will be rejected. Embrace it and be persistent. To say it jovially: law of large numbers (resubmit, resubmit, resubmit) will eventually help you.

5. Is failure/rejection in academia something you discuss with students that you supervise?

All the time! I am actually preparing them for rejection from the first day of their work. Statistically speaking there is a much higher chance that any work will be rejected, so it is critical to psychologically prepare students for this (quite common) event. And since I am the person that sees glass half empty (rather then half-full), projection of my defeatism makes it even easier.

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

I am a person that over-excites about many things (either failure or rejection), so to keep my head clean I run. I find running more of a meditative ritual, rather than a physique-improving task, I started running during my second year of my PhD and I run ever since. My PR is 48:27 for 10k, which proves I do not run for the records.

7. What about when you receive good news? Any traditions/rituals there?

See my earlier answer. Whenever I can, I go with my wife to a restaurant to celebrate. Also, I thank my students for their efforts (success is never a lonesome adventure) by inviting them to spend some time together outside the university.

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)?

I was too late with my NWO Vidi grant proposal writing preparations, so I had just one chance to apply, which ended up in rejection. All the EU proposals I mentioned earlier that were rejected I consider to be a pure lottery. There were naturally some other (less critical) failures but overall I am happy with the choices I made.

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

Success is built on perseverance and daily progress, so the list of mini-successes would be long… but certainly not worth putting in your CV. Would successfully submitting a paper at 5 AM in the morning after a 24 writing streak would be something worth putting in your CV? I’m doubtful.

10. If you could add a compulsory section to all CVs you receive and send, what would this section be called?

If we could measure “grit” (how persevere one is in reaching ambitious goals despite all setbacks) effectively and objectively I would be happy to see it in all CVs.

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

Accept that nobody (including yourself and all academics) is perfect, so embrace that things around you will not as fast and professional as you would anticipate.

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