How I Fail S01E11: 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.

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