How I Fail S01E14: Nick Hopwood (PhD’06, Education)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Nick Hopwood, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney. I came across his wall of rejection and after reading a interview with him about it just had to invite him for the series – and very happy he accepted! You can find out more about Nick on his blog or follow him on Twitter.

1. Hi Nick, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am an academic, though the idea of having landed a full time academic job still seems unreal to me. I started off doing geography for my undergrad, then moved into education. Since starting my masters in 2002 I’ve been interested in questions about how people learn. Outside of work, spending time in mountains, freediving, involvement in a community orchestra, and playing board games are important to me.

2. Your “wall of rejection” got a lot of attention on Twitter. Could you perhaps share some of the more memorable rejections from this wall?

One journal article rejection particularly stung. It was sent out for review (so it was a good fit for the journal). The reviews took a few months, and came back with some praise but some major things that needed doing. I made the changes, and it was reviewed again. Months later, I was asked for more changes, and there were some criticisms that were a direct result of things I’d done in response to the first reviewers. More changes, more months, and it came back with yet more criticisms, some of which were complaining about the absence of things I’d taken out because previous reviewers had said they weren’t relevant. The editor then rejected my paper. This to me seemed like weak editorship: I would expect the editor to step in and mediate the reviews, rather than setting authors off on an impossible quest to please different reviewers every cycle.

I remember not getting a postdoc I applied for right after my PhD. I’d studied a small number of young people’s learning in geography classrooms, and the reviewers basically thought the topic wasn’t significant and the sample was too small for me to publish from it.

I still remember a big research proposal that was rejected. One reviewer described the aims as ‘vague and unfocused’ and that the design ‘lacked specificity’. Obviously in my head they were crystal clear, but not so on the page!

3. What do you do when you receive a rejection? What about when something is successful?

No ritual really. Thinking about the examples above, each time I spoke to people about it. For the postdoc, that was with my partner and family, who reassured me I would find a job eventually. For the articles and more recent research grants, I usually talk to colleagues I trust – it’s a good way to vent frustrations and through proverbial mud at the nasty reviewers.

When it comes to success I admit I do make sure it’s visible to the people who count (so I might email my head of school, or put details in a faculty newsletter). But I don’t put new articles up on my door any more.

4. You mentioned that the responses to the wall were either students, or more experienced academics who also shared their failures. If you think back being a student, were there any mentors who set an example with sharing failures?

Absolutely. Geoffrey Walford is a (now retired) Professor who taught me qualitative research methods, and who was an examiner of my PhD. I remember reading in one of his books a really nasty review that he received, and his account of how he responded. That made me realise rejections happen to everyone, and there’s no shame in sharing our rejections publically.

5. Talking about failure is necessary. Would you advise everybody to do share failures, like a shadow CV? Or are there any caveats, for example, for people in temporary positions?

No I wouldn’t advise everyone to do it. I would encourage people to consider any action that might help them respond to rejection in the best way. For some this might mean containing it, or perhaps sharing with a very select number of confidants. One of my friends put rejections on his wall at home – a way of ‘working on himself’ without needing to share the details with the world. For some people, public shadow CVs could be very risky, particularly those in insecure positions. I would hope people on selection panels for academic jobs would respect and admire the shadow CV, but this isn’t guaranteed, and chances are other applicants are presenting only the best, successful version of themselves.

6. Imagine you are in a hiring or assessment committee, and you Google the person you are evaluating, and come across their shadow CV. Do you think it would affect how you would evaluate this person, and how?

Personally, this would bump them up my list. Firstly, it shows an understanding of the turbulence in academia and perhaps might indicate that the applicant is aware and resilient. It might also be a better indicator of how ‘productive’ the person is: seeing how many articles and grants have been rejected tells me more about what they have actually been doing than just a list of the ones that got through.

7. Is there a difference between what “rejection” and “failure” mean to you? Should we / should we not be using these interchangeably and why?

Good question. I think I’ve been a bit sloppy in mixing these terms. I agree, rejection is a specific instance. I think I was meaning failure in a similar way: failure to get the paper in the journal you wanted, failure to get the money you needed for research. I’m not talking about failure in the sense that being rejected means you are failing at your academic work. In fact, if you’re not being rejected, it probably means you’re not writing papers or grants, so are almost guaranteed not to be ‘successful’ (if success is related to publishing and research income).

8. Similarly, do you think there are differences between “CV of failures” and “Shadow CV”?

Not sure, I’d have to think more of that. I think I prefer the ‘shadow CV’ name because it points to the fact that it is wider practices that hide these aspects of our work, rather than emphasizing the person.

9. Can you think of something you regret not trying, even if it would probably have to add it to your shadow CV? Or something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

Good question. One of my many weaknesses as an academic is a difficulty I have saying ‘no’ when opportunities come up. That’s probably why my shadow CV is rather lengthy. Some wise mentors have shared with me a need to be more focused and have clearer criteria for saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’. So my regrets are probably more about having been a bit too gung-ho when being more discerning might have made the work I was doing better.

Are there hidden successes? Ignoring the day-to-day minor victories, not really. The main successes that we are encouraged to focus on (publications, grants, student evaluations of teaching) are automatically visible to the institution and get picked up in all sorts of ways. However, one thing that I spend a lot of time trying (but not necessarily succeeding) to be good at is being a particular type of colleague. One’s achievements in these more relational aspects of academic work reflect great effort and are often hard won, but don’t appear on CVs because they are not amenable to lists of concrete outputs or events.

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

Recognise that saying ‘no’ can be a real strength: it is not just about valuing your time, but protecting the quality of what you are already committed to. I think I used to say ‘yes’ so much because I doubted my next paper or if I’d even get a big research grant. The $ might have come sooner if I’d declined a few more offers. So it’s about trusting the integrity and quality of your work will eventually pay off, and not displacing these by jumping at every possible opportunity.

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