How I Fail S01E02: 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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