How I Fail S0201: Pedro Leão (PhD’18, Microbiology)

Pedro Leão has a Ph.D. in Microbiology (2018) from UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). His thesis was named “Diversity of Magnetotactic organisms: New frontiers for magnetotaxis evolution.” At the moment, Pedro is an FSE fellow at the University of Groningen, working in the Groningen Biomolecular Sciences and Biotechnology Institute (GBB). His main research interest is in linking genomics data with ultrastructure characterization. You can find Pedro on Twitter (@Leao_pel), where he mostly advocates about empathy and emotional education in academia.

Hi Pedro, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?

Thank you for having me, Veronika! I’m a Brazilian microbiologist passionate about two things: Science and Sports. I join a research group in my second year as a Microbiology and Immunology bachelor (2010). I end up staying in the same group for the coming 9 years, where I receive my bachelor’s (2013), master (2015) and PhD (2018) titles under the supervision of professor Ulysses Lins. In my second year as a PhD candidate, I had the chance to stay for one summer at professor Arash Komeili’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley.

All my research formation was done on the same topic: magnetotactic bacteria (MTB). More precisely, I analyze the diversity (phylogenetic, ultrastructural, morphological) of this group of microorganisms. I consider myself really lucky to have been “raised” in this scientific community, which is amazingly inclusive and, in general, super friendly and open to collaborations, but especially lucky to have these two mentors along with me through this journey in academia so far.

In the middle of my stay at UC Berkeley, I received a call about my advisor’s death in Brazil. I stayed there for one more month and went back to Brazil and decided to finish my PhD 1 year earlier. Here I am two years after, as a FSE fellow doing some lecture and research work as a postdoc at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands! I’m currently under the supervision of professor Dirk-Jan Scheffers doing research in Bacillus subtilis’ cell wall and membrane structure.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

My most memorable failure is a recent one! Right after I finish my PhD, a position at the institute I had been working during my whole career was open. Not any position, a position to fill the chair left by the premature death of my supervisor – a guy I had worked with for the past 9 years! At first, it did not even cross to my mind to apply for it. Our group was in great hands, led by a young professor who had been mentored by Ulysses also.

Two weeks after the announcement of the position, some friends and professors approached me, telling me that I should apply for it. “You have all the requirements?”, “What can go wrong? It is worth the shot”.

Long story short, I applied for the position with 16 other people, and I did not even pass the first round of selection (which in Brazil is a writing exam). I failed to get the position, but that is OK. For me, the big failure was to not fulfill the expectations of my peers and from myself that I would be at least competitive in this scenario. I was crushed for a while. That impostor syndrome that we all know about in academia hit me hard. In the end, I had a PhD, was unemployed, and my self-esteem was on the ground.

Lucky, a 2-years visiting professor position in the same institute was open, and I was able to be selected for this one. After 18 months in this position, I had to start to search for a new job, but because of significant cuts in science funding in Brazil (as always), no one was hiring. At this point, I gained my confidence back and started to apply for some postdocs abroad.

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

Sort of. I keep track of all applications I made, so I can check some old ones when preparing new ones. Doing this helps me in two ways: (i) I can keep track of improvements that need to be done; (ii) It allows me to travel back to the time I submitted that application. By remembering the will to get these things, the high hopes and plans that I had while applying keeps me ground it. I know that I fail to achieve those goals, but I still here! Things did not go as I wish, and that is OK, I was able to set the route and find alternatives to keep seeking my pathways towards my goals.

I still have a folder with all the 29 applications I made for postdocs while in Brazil. From those, I received 9 (31%) replies and was invited for 4 (13%) interviews. Now I see this as a huge success, but back then, it feels like a complete disaster.

Often people use the words rejection and failure interchangeably, what do you think about that?

I don’t think they are interchangeable. I believe rejection is when we don’t fulfill the standards of someone else. It could be a company, a person, an agency. Failure is something more deep and personal, as we don’t cope with our own expectations. We were unable to reach even what we set as a standard for ourselves. And as always, we are our worst critics, so a failure, in my opinion, always hit harder than rejection.

From my perspective, some rejections can be failures for you – like in my case, not getting the position, and performing way below my expectations.

Is there anything you regret not trying, even if you had to add it to your failure CV?

No. If I really want something I have to try it. I can’t live with the uncertainty of the “what if?”. To have this posture, you have to deal well with failure, because the truth is the chance to fail is enormously higher than the one for you to succeed.

It took me some time to learn this, but maybe it was one of the most valuable lessons I had: failing is fine, as long as you don’t fail to the point of no return. In other words: Crash! Just make sure you don’t crash and burn! How you build this to deal well with failure? Failing and mostly importantly, normalizing failure by not being too harsh on yourself and surrounding yourself with people that support you!

Can you share a success, that traditionally would not be on a (regular) CV?

I think a CV of failure itself. I’m really proud of all the rejected applications I had. It represents how many failures I could handle and still get to the place I’m today. Be proud of your failure is a tough call, but I think all of us should at least not be ashamed of them. They tell more about you than your successes.

Is there anything that you feel you are failing at yourself?

To be honest, yes. I’m in limbo at the moment. The thing is, I had a safe place in my advisor. He was a friend and a mentor who knew me thought all my academic career. I always thought I could do anything if I set a good plan because I would approach him to look for guidance at any point in this plain. Now that he is not here, I sometimes feel a little lost, thinking I’m aiming too high, sometimes too low. I miss the feeling that someone that knows me will keep me accountable in my ambition.

I built a level of tolerance to failure, knowing how much I could handle. This tolerance was taking into account my support system, and he was a big part of it. I need to relearn what are my limits, or build self-esteem and realize that I can do it with the people I have by my side now.

I feel I’m failing at this. I have some plans that are on hold because I don’t feel confident enough to make a move. I will learn my new limits, one fail at a time, but now I’m afraid to fail, as I hadn’t been for a while ad this is scary and frustrating. Fortunately, I still have great friends and colleagues that don’t know me as well as him but are valuable advisors to help me through this.

Are there any people who have been important to the way you deal with failure?

Yes! I have amazing friends on the field, some better established and renewed scientists, and others growing in the field side by side with me. The exchange of experiences with these people and the openness to talk about failure were really important in understanding that failure is a significant player in our career. Failure is inevitable in science, what you are going to do with it is what decides how healthy your work/life balance will be.

Everyone should have a support group! Dealing with failure on a daily basis is not something trivial. Surrounding myself with people having the same experiences that I was having helped me see that I was not alone, sometimes things go entirely unexpected, not only with me.

Are there any books, podcasts etc you would recommend on this topic?

I cannot recommend enough the book “Failure: Why Science Is So Successful” by Stuart Firestein. I think all scientists should read and reflect on it! It shows failure as an inevitable part of scientific progress, and do it in a fresh why without glorifying it. I love this book.

For me, mental toughness and emotional intelligence are key factors to deal properly with failure. A book that opens my mind to the importance of being educated on this subject was “The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance” by George Mumford. You can virtually interchange the sport’s scenarios for academic ones in this book.

Do you think there are any factors (field, country) etc, that influence how failure is seen?

Yes! In Brazil, it is common to see people saying they are sorry after committing a mistake. Even if what went wrong was completely out of his/her control. I think we perceive failure as always our fault. You can imagine how energy-draining a mindset like this can be for a scientist.

From one side it is good because if the problem is with you, it is easy to fix it, you can work on it. On the other hand, the problem is not always on you, and if you don’t handle this carefully, you can be trap in a self-depreciation loop. That is why it is so important to have a good PI as an advisor and a nice support group.

In the Netherlands, I think it doesn’t happen that often. People are more secure of their skills, and if they fail at something, it is how it is, they try to fine-tune some details, but if it keeps going to a dead end, they just move on to the next one. I’m about to finish my first year here, so this can be just a superficial first impression.

In the US, I believe the extremely competitive and fast-paced atmosphere in academia doesn’t give people time to properly handle failure. Once you fail, your first reaction must keep moving! Put that plan B, C, D in practice to achieve your results. In a scenario where productivity is the goal, this works perfectly, but if you want to form a good scientist, this is a disaster! Ignoring failures deprives you of learning how to deal with them, and once a big failure is inevitable, you have no experience to deal even with small ones. That is a recipe for that “crash and burn” scenario.

What about sharing failures online? Does the perception of people who do this differ? Should more people try to do it?

I understand why some people don’t do it. But my philosophy is simple on this subject. You can choose if you are going to be proud of your failures or not, but you never should be ashamed of them. They made the professional that you are as much as your successes.

Is there anything else we could all do to improve the conversations about failure?

We “baby doctors” (as some of my senior scientist friends used to call me) have a huge responsibility to normalize the conversation about failure!

The battle I picked to fight in academia is the spread of more empathy in our community. All of us are failing in something daily. More than that, all PIs were stressful postdocs with deadlines, all postdocs were insecure grad students, that once were fresh out of college curious bachelor students.

As new PhDs, we are still in contact with memories of the struggles grad students have and are starting to experience some of the responsibilities a PI has to deal with as well. Fight the speech of “Us against them (doctors/staff vs. students)” is essential for us to talk about one of the most important things that put us together: Failing!

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

I really enjoyed Mike Yassa’s episode (S01E18). At one point, he said, “I worry more about the ones who don’t get a sufficient number of rejections while they’re in grad school”. This is the same feeling I have.

He talks about mentoring his students to handle criticism and failure (his bulletproof and crocodile skin concepts). This resonates with my idea of knowing yourself through small failures, so you feel more comfortable each time with the feeling of failing. This comfort would allow you to aim for more challenging things because you can handle the probable failure.

What would a five year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

My younger self, 5 years ago, would be entering the PhD program. He would never believe me if I told him everything that happens in these 5 years, and where he would be now! My plans had changed drastically, but not my goals!

I would tell him that it is ok to be afraid. It is ok not to feel prepared for some situations. The worst thing that can happen is to fail, which is not bad, and he can trust it will be people to help him pick up the lessons from these challenges, and eventually, he will feel less scared and more prepared to move forward.

Also to enjoy as much as possible the beach and the sun! They won’t have such things in Groningen! 🙂

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I talked a little about empathy here. If you can take away just one thing from this conversation, that it be to be kind to yourself and others. Failure is part of life and an even more significant part of science. We can only normalize the conversation about failure if we understand we all have them on our past and will keep having them in our future, no matter how successful we became.

*****

Thanks Pedro for joining the series and kick-starting our second season! Enjoy the Dutch sun for now 🙂

9 ways to fail a project in grad school and beyond

This post is a collaboration between myself, and a guest author who wishes to stay anonymous. They are a researcher and PhD candidate in neuroscience, based in Europe, and in the post they are referred to as Alice

When people talk about failures, often rejections are the first things that come to mind. But what about other things in science, that did not work out? Today’s post is all about those – projects that don’t work out, and that do not end up either on your CV and probably even your “CV of Failures” (here is mine).

Read on to find out about the ways our projects have failed, during the PhD or after, AND the lessons from these experiences.  In short, here are the 9 ways to fail a project: 

  1. Inheriting a poor project setup
  2. Failing to plan
  3. Not enough redundancy
  4. Changing the scope 
  5. Underestimating the complexity
  6. No data available
  7. Collaborating for the wrong reasons 
  8. Starting too many projects 
  9. Forgetting to advertise your successful project

1) Inheriting a poor project setup   

Alice: My first project failed in a bad way. In retrospect the idea was not thought through and vague and the methodology was not sound. In fact this is what got me into trouble – as I tried to discuss these issues with my supervisor, he got angry and said that I am at no place to challenge his authority… After two years when he left the project was evaluated by a panel of group leaders at the department and found to be crap from the very bottom. The project was killed. 

Veronika: Of course a lot here depends on the supervisor. But from the researcher’s perspective there are still a few lessons here: 

  • If you inherit an existing project, verify that the objectives and methodology are clear
  • Ask questions early on, consult with others 
  • Remember that quitting a poor project early is not your failure, but might save time and stress

2) Failing to plan

“Failing to plan is planning to fail” – no post about failed projects is complete without this quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin. If you are responsible for the project setup from the beginning, definitely do not skip this step. 

This is particularly important for side projects that you might initiate next to your main research, that “shouldn’t take a lot of time”. While that may be true, in my experience things can go wrong is it is not clear who is going to be responsible for what. Or, all content-related tasks might be divided, but nobody is taking the lead on the project. Lesson:

  • Spend time defining the project timeline and contributions of all team members, including a leadership role

3) Not enough redundancy in the project

Alice: My second project failed for two main reasons. One was founded around a collaboration which was tied to one person who left. The lesson being that being dependent on certain people for connections or data is a weak spot. 

Veronika: I recognize this! I’ve experienced problems when parts of the project depended on specific data, code or tools that were not available / accessible to others. Again a lot about this depends on the PI, but for me the lesson from the researcher’s perspective:

  • Be your own best collaborator by using open science principles, sharing data/code where possible. Consider using public data or artificial data in addition to the main data, if the main data cannot be shared. 

4) Changing the scope during the project 

Alice: […] But there was more. In the course of the project, as I processed the data, the PI got ambitious and teamed up with his colleague who did similar things and was interested. He then wanted to do a much bigger comparative study and requested me to process large amounts of public data which slowed me down significantly. By then my PI left. The lesson is getting too ambitious can drown the project.  

Veronika: I’ve had similar experiences too and see it all around me – a PI invents things to try until there are “state of the art” results (similar to HARKing). I’m getting repetitive here but again you are quite dependent on the PI. What you might be able to do: 

  • Clarify project objectives and timeline in the beginning in writing (for example, type up meeting notes, and send them around after to confirm) 
  • Open science principles like preregistration might be worth a try, although this depends on your field and will also require the PI’s approval

5) Underestimating the complexity of the project

Alice: My third project did not fail as such but rather faded away., which is a failure of a kind. It was a collaboration with a postdoc who was an expert in the field and had a nice idea. The problem was that the implementation and most importantly interpretation of the data turned out to be much more difficult than she had anticipated and it required more input from both of us than we pledged for. A mistake here I’d say – wrong estimate of the complexity and resources available.

Veronika: Agreed – I’ve had several nice ideas that sounded great when brainstorming, but in the end did not receive enough attention to progress. I have a lot of thoughts about these which would warrant an entire blog post. Still, I wish I would have been better at planning my time. My lessons would be:

  • When agreeing on a new (side) project, agree on how much time you can put into it. I think this is hard to do, but if you did have this agreement in the past, the future you will have an easier time letting go of the project. 

6) No data available

Alice: The fourth project failed when I learned that I can not get the phenotype data on the cohort I worked on and at this point there was nothing I could do. The data was blocked due to disagreement and issues between my PI and the competitors with whom initially it was supposed to be a collaboration. I don’t really have a recipe how to help that, it is one of the things that I have little control over. 

The fifth project failed for a similar reason. But this time it was because we were not allowed to collaborate with the boss of our PI (who has a cohort with the exact phenotype we need) who did not want to publish with the previous boss in view of the career. We were thus pushed to prey on the public data repositories which a) did not have such precise phenotype we needed b) required downloading and low-level processing of large amounts of data which was very straining and hard for a single person and given resources. We managed with the published subset of the data and we found nothing. I spent almost a year working on it. 

Veronika: This overlaps a bit with my previous ideas about open science, but in this case there’s not a lot somebody in your position could do other than use public data. Lesson: don’t blame yourself for decisions of your PI!  

7) Collaborating for the wrong reasons

Alice: A friend of mine went to a prestigious university to collaborate with a research group there for a few months. He worked very hard, but faced open racism and bullying. The conflict escalated and the project was tabled. Instead of support, my friend’s supervisor was unhappy with him. This is also a situation which is hard to foresee. But perhaps trying out collaborating remotely first and building relationships slowly would be a safer bet.

Veronika: Sounds like a terrible experience for your friend! Agreed it is a good idea to try out collaborations first but perhaps that was not possible. There needs to be not only a research fit, but also a safe environment.

 But on the other hand, the environment alone is also not enough – even with people who really want to collaborate, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Getting along well with somebody doesn’t mean your research project will be complementary as well. My lesson would be:

  • Know who you will collaborate with, and aim for a combination of research fit & good environment

8) Starting too many projects

Veronika: A “favorite” reason why some of my projects failed, is starting too many projects and then not getting back to them. Often this would happen if I was waiting for reviews on a paper, and already planning the next project. But when a major revision would come in, I would drop new ideas to revise the paper, and once done, fail to get back to the new_idea.txt. Side projects could also end up in this category. 

In a way, this is a combination of “failing to plan” and “underestimating the complexity”, but on a larger scale. My lesson from this:

  • Keep track of how many projects you’ve agreed to do, and what stage the are in (for example with a Kanban board)

9) Failing to advertise your successful project

Veronika: Congratulations, you finished the project! What now? While this is not technically a failure, there’s still ways to increase the success of your project.

Once you do finish a project, you might not give the project output enough attention. It’s easy to become focused on getting a paper for the thesis, especially if your PI is pushing you to. So a natural response might be to just move on to the next project, leaving the published paper as is.

But maybe it’s good to pause, and give that effort more justice by sharing the paper with your colleagues, submitting a poster about it to a local conference, or writing a thread about it on Twitter. I know I am guilty of this – despite my rather active Twitter presence, I haven’t tweeted about my research this year. The lesson is: 

  • Give your finished projects (and your hard work!) the attention they deserve! 

******

These were the 9 ways to fail a project during your PhD and beyond! These are based on Alice’s and my experiences, but there are probably more reasons there.

Let us know which ones are recognizable, or if you are missing any failures that can happen along the way. The best way is to leave a comment below so they reach both of us, otherwise as usual you can reach me (@DrVeronikaCH) on Twitter!  

Goodbye, tenure track

I wasn’t sure about sharing this, but in the original spirit of my blog, that I ought to. 

I am leaving my tenure track position. 

There it is. It feels good to write it down. There are a lot of failure related thoughts here, which I will be sharing in future posts. But first, a bit of background about what happened. 

Tenure criteria 

In the previous post I wrote about starting my tenure track position and what I was planning to achieve in 4 years. To recap, here is summary of the goals, which were approved by the department

  • Get teaching certificate
  • Setup and teach a course, co-teach in other courses
  • Supervise at least 2 MSc and 4 BSc students
  • Co-supervise a PhD researcher
  • Co-author of at least 5 peer-reviewed publications in high impact, relevant journals
  • Setup collaborations with other departments 
  • Apply for 2 medium-sized (1 PhD or postdoc) grants per year
  • Apply to small grants, for example for workshops, when possible
  • Give talks at (local) conferences, or invited talks if possible
  • Outreach about academia through blog and Twitter 

Progress so far

As far as teaching goes, all goals are achieved. I setup a course, taught in another course (both 3 years in a row now), and recently gave a number of lectures in a MSc course. So far I supervised 5 MSc students and 12 BSc students. I’m the daily supervisor of two PhD researchers, one based on my own funding efforts.  I also received my university teaching qualification in 2019. 

Research-wise, things are alright. I published six journal papers and one preprint, but it could be argued that some of these do not count. For example three were started during my postdoc, although I put in more hours during my tenure track. There’s also the Twitter paper, which is not on the topic of my research, but probably has had more impact than the others combined. I am also quite happy with my Google scholar numbers.

I am not sure about the funding. I applied for two larger grants per year as agreed, and 1 of these was funded. The others are in my failure CV. This is in line with the overall success rate, and several smaller grants were funded as well. But I have the feeling this is not sufficient, even though the tenure criteria do not specify it.

In terms of visibility, things are good. Especially in the first two years when I was blogging regularly, my website and Twitter were growing steadily. I think this has contributed to invitations for talks, and I have given more talks, including international ones, than I ever expected. I’ve also been invited as an associate editor, social media chair and other similar roles. 

So overall, not bad, considering that in my third year I was seriously ill and I spent several months recovering, which was extremely difficult. Even so I did get a few things done in that time, such as the teaching certificate. Overall, things could have been better, but given that I had no start-up nor PhD researchers I could co-supervise from the start, overall I’m actually quite happy with what I achieved.

Perhaps here I should mention two other developments. The first is the artificial intelligence “brain drain” in the Netherlands, limiting the number of people willing to teach. The second is a position paper by several organizations (including funding agencies), that aims to redesign how researchers are evaluated, and to recognize factors other than the h-index. Music to my ears.

Midway evaluation 

As I explained in the previous post, traditionally there is a midway evaluation halfway through the tenure track, to see what else is needed to fulfill the tenure criteria. My midway evaluation was scheduled for May 2019, but a month before that I became ill, so this was cancelled.

Towards the end of 2019 I was working full-time again. The idea was to schedule an unofficial midway evaluation, a year ahead of the final evaluation. I gave a talk about my research and updated my CV and progress document (summarized above).   

Given this information, the committee advised that, I will probably not get tenure if I have the final evaluation as planned in 2021. The proposed solution was to give me a temporary contract and have the final evaluation later, so that I have more time for, between the lines, getting funding and writing more papers. 

Tenure clock extension, that’s good right?

Although to many readers this extension might sound good, I declined the offer. I will therefore be leaving my tenure track position.

The first reason for this decision is the uncertainty. I believe that the trigger for my manic episode was staying up at night to write grants, and I don’t want my life to depend on a lottery. There is also no definition of what “enough” would be, and that once I achieve those things, I would get tenure.

Secondly, I feel like my illness is a bad excuse that there wasn’t enough time to evaluate me. But people are at times evaluated after two or three years – researchers who are employed by the same university before starting a tenure track position, due to the labor laws.

But most importantly, I don’t want to be in a place with such priorities. I have achieved most goals on my list – goals that were agreed upon at the beginning – despite having a major illness. I will not be an award-winning researcher, but I feel – and people have told me – that the things I do are valuable. If the university does not see this, I need to find a place that does.

What next?

My current contract runs out at the start of 2022, but since I made this decision already, I will probably leave earlier.

For now I will be finishing up various projects, and slowly searching for a job.

So dear readers, I am now officially open for job opportunities! I don’t want to limit myself to specific job titles or sectors just yet. So if you think you could use my research, teaching, outreach, organizing, blogging skills (academic CV here), please get in touch.

That’s it for now, but expect more failure-inspired content soon!

2019 – year in review

Although I wrote yearly reviews on this blog for several years, I wasn’t expecting to do one this year for two reasons. The first, simple, reason is that I haven’t been blogging recently, and just doing nothing is easier than doing something. The second, more complex reason, is that I might have been afraid to think about this year as a whole. But that is exactly the type of thing that I find important to write about, so here we go.

Mental health

The first thing I have to think about is the manic episode I had in spring which I wrote about earlier, and my diagnosis as bipolar. Mental health issues were not new to me, but this experience was extreme. Although I was stable once I got medication, it felt like parts of my brain had shut off.

Things that were simple before – organizing my todo list, for example – felt completely impossible. I also had let go of many good habits, like running, eating healthy or blogging – pretty much anything I used to write about. I’ve also isolated myself from a lot of people, and felt insecure about most things that I’m normally comfortable with. While my ability to do such things has improved somewhat, more general qualities, like creativity and motivation, did not.

I was only part of the person that I used to be, and this was extremely hard to deal with.

The fact that I am writing this now, probably means that these things are improving too, just at a slower pace. But not feeling this improvement had a huge effect on how I felt this year. Even though a lot of positive things happened, I was often feeling too miserable to properly appreciate them.

Successes

To try to beat that overall feeling, here are a few professional things that went well this year:

  • Received my University Teaching Qualification (a prerequisite for tenure at Dutch universities)
  • Two MSc students graduated!
  • Started supervising two PhD researchers four MSc students (one of whom graduated)
  • My papers on not-so-supervised learning and “Cats or CAT scans” were published and gained a few citations so far (checking Google Scholar way too often)
  • Together with Felienne Hermans, Casper Albers, Natalia Bielczyk and Ionica Smeets, our paper “10 simple rules for starting on Twitter as a scientist” was accepted (online soon!).
  • Together with Natalia Bielczyk, Aidan Budd and Stephan Heunis we got a Mozilla mini-grant and organized a workshop about open & inclusive academia.
  • Visited several places where I gave talks, both on machine learning and topics related to this blog.

Also, an important personal milestone – I got married!

Failures?

When I first started summarizing the positive things I felt guilty. There are many things to be grateful for, but my brain just couldn’t see it that way. In the transition from manic to depressed, I felt bad about many ideas I initiated, but couldn’t follow through on. Afterwards, I felt bad about not doing my part, or not keeping up with my responsibilities. I felt anxious about things I’ve done lots of times.

In retrospect perhaps these things themselves are not failures, the overall failure is that I expected too much of myself. It would have been much better for me to accept how much I’m (not) able to do, let go of everything else, and have patience. Which is why crucial part to this year were the people who experienced me from up close – they were understanding and patient and kind. It’s thanks to them that I’m actually doing alright after what happened, and I’m grateful they are in my life.

Happy new year!

Ups and downs

If you read this blog more often, you might have noticed that it went silent in March 2019. I’ve taken breaks from blogging before, but no break was quite like this, and in this post I explain why.

Although I never wrote about it in detail, I also never made a secret out of the fact that I have been struggling with depression since my postdoc. I had therapy for some of the time and was in general managing things quite well – doing my job, blogging, doing sports, having a social life. The current me almost can’t believe I was able to do all those things. 

In the second half of 2018 things started getting worse. After my cat Buffy passed away in October 2018, I was at an extremely low point and finally decided therapy alone wouldn’t do. My GP prescribed me antidepressants and I started a period of sick leave (full-time at first, part-time later) to adjust.

The antidepressants seemed to be doing an amazing job – the start was slow, but then I started feeling better and better. I soon went back to working full-time, was getting a lot done and had a lot of fresh ideas. I realized I was probably depressed for longer than I thought, and that I was now returning to the “normal” me. This was exciting for me, but somewhat confusing for many people around me, many of whom had not known me that long. 

Eventually – around March – I started feeling a bit too good. The ideas were coming at me so fast I couldn’t keep up, and neither could people interacting with me. My partner recognized this as hypomania, and following a GP visit I was told to stop the antidepressants. The GP also gave me a referral to the psychiatrist, but I ended up on a waiting list. Meanwhile, I was getting more and more out of balance.

The grand finale was a psychotic episode, during which I was convinced that people I’ve never met were giving me clues I had to follow. To top it off, this happened while I was travelling alone. After a few days in a psychiatric facility in France, I was able to return home again, going back on sick leave full-time. The bright side of this episode is that I could see a psychiatrist immediately, who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.

Now I am getting used to the new medication to stabilize my mood. Although the effects were noticeable straight away and I feel “normal” again, it has been difficult to go back to my regular life with work, blogging, sports, etc, feeling like an impostor in everything. I’m trying to accept that this is normal, and slowly building things up again. I am therefore not sure when the next post might be – but I’ll celebrate that this post is a win.

CV of Failures vs Shadow CV

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that the “CV of Failures” or “Shadow CV” are a recurrent theme on my blog and on my Twitter timeline. In this post I discuss why I think the two concepts are actually quite different, and why this difference is important. 

CV of Failures

The CV of Failures, originally proposed by Dr. Melanie Stefan, is mostly that – a list of things that didn’t work out. Most often I see failures interpreted as “things I tried to do but didn’t succeed”. This category includes rejections of jobs, grants and papers. Although these failures are hard, I think they are not very personal because they depend on both everybody else who applies, as well as everybody who evaluates you. 

Much less common is to include things that are more personal – something you just didn’t do (but should have). It’s often not your fault, because of how academia is structured – but in retrospect, you would have done these differently. This category includes focusing on the quantity over quality, not taking opportunities out of fear and being a bad mentor to others. Even more personal, it’s neglecting your health or people around you – although I haven’t seen many examples of people sharing this. 

Shadow CV

What is a shadow CV then? To me it is larger than the CV of Failures. While the CV of Failures focuses on things you have done (or didn’t do), there are many more things that influence where your CV or CV of Failures are today. It’s all the additional challenges faced by one person, and all the privilege enjoyed by another. 

There are efforts to take parts of the shadow CV when evaluating people. For example, in the Netherlands time off due to parental leave or illness can be listed on a grant application. But this is limited in scope and does not include, for example, chronic illness, financial insecurity or family problems. Even if you are lucky to work in a place where people are supportive – and I have been – these things are invisible to somebody deciding whether you belong to the top 10% of researchers who deserve funding.  

But the shadow CV is not only the challenges. It is also all the things you are proud of but that are not on any CV, like finishing a paper despite having a difficult year or a thank you email from somebody who’s read it. Regardless of what your reviewers say, don’t forget that these are the true successes.

 

My biggest mistake and what it taught me about the academy

One of the most read posts on this blog is “7 things I wish I would have done during my PhD“. Although none of the advice there is surprising, it seems important to hear stories about mistakes, without “how to” one-size-fits-all rules attached to it. So when Times Higher Education invited me to write about “My biggest mistake & what it taught me about the academy”, I didn’t have to think twice.

In this piece I talk about not realising the importance of mentors early on in my academic career. I can view this mistake as something that led to a CV that is suboptimal, at least in the eyes of my reviewers. But now I also realize it’s made my journey much more interesting, and I wouldn’t trade what I was able to learn in this process for a few more high impact factor publications.

I haven’t yet decided on what the best trade-off is, but would love to hear from you! Should your mentors prepare you for everything? Or do you need to experience some mistakes yourself? Let me know after you read the article, in a comment here or on Twitter!

How I Fail in Open Science

Last week I had the pleasure of giving a talk at OpenMR Benelux event, wonderfully organized by @fmrwhy.  Although the slides and a video of the talk will be available online, for those of you who prefer reading, I thought I would write a few of the things I mentioned during my talk. 

As I mentioned in my talk, I was feeling a bit like an imposter speaking at this event, since I neither do a lot of MR, nor a lot of open science”. Nevertheless I’ve decided to be open about how open my science is and share my experiences with it so far – hence the title “How I Fail in Open Science”. 

Open science during my PhD 

My story begins in 2011 when I started my PhD. After focusing on workshop papers for two years, I realized I needed journal papers to graduate. I submitted three papers that year and followed the suggestion to post them on arXiV because the review process could be lengthy. I used public datasets and a publicly available MATLAB toolbox, and since both the data and tools were online, I didn’t think it was needed to share the rest of my code. 

In 2015 the papers were finally accepted and I finished my PhD. Because the papers were already online for two years, I was able to benefit from the preprint bump. I would also occasionally get emails about the experiments in my paper. I then decided to share my (non-version controlled) experiments code to reproduce the results table in the paper. Miraculously even after two years I was still able to run my code AND get the same results. So I shared the code with a CRAPL license, which I felt absolved me from doing any other “cleaning up of the code”.

Open science during my postdoc

After starting my postdoc in 2015 I felt like I should publish as fast as possible. Instead of investigating the best tools for my project, I decided to go with my tried and trusted method. This was not a good strategy and in retrospect, I would have been much better off investing some time into switching to Python, creating clean code and so forth. In the end I didn’t publish much at all that year.

The publishing situation became even worse in 2016 when I started searching for my next job. However, since I was updating my CV often, I did also decide to share a few more things online. I also started using social media more often, and learning more about open science in general. 

Open science now

In 2017 I found myself in a tenure track position. Inspired by everything I saw on Twitter, I wanted to do everything right – switch to Python, publish in new open access journals, share everything online. I quickly discovered that this is not feasible next to all the other responsibilities you have when starting on the tenure track.

The only thing I have been doing consistently is posting preprints on arXiV. Here and there I have a paper for which I’ve shared data or code (still not version controlled), but it’s not something that happens by default. 

Why is my science not as open as I want it to be? It’s easy to say there’s too little time, but in the end it is a question of priorities. I am still influenced by my grant reviewers who tell me “that’s nice, but you should have published more”, and the funding agency who agrees with them. And although overall my experience on Twitter has been positive, people with strong opinions about what counts as open science, can be quite intimidating. 

How can I do better? I cannot change the system, but I can at least try to create a habit out of being more open. To do so I decided to draw parallels between open science and another area of my life in which I’ve had both successes and failures – running! 

Strategy 1: Start slow and focus on process

The first strategy is to start slow and focus on process. Find a thing that’s easy to do, and do it often. For running, my thing was “go for a run three times a week”. Note that there’s no distance or time – I just had to go out of the house, and even running 10 minutes was a success. If I had set a more difficult goal than that, I would get discouraged and quit – something that has happened to me several times before.

Translating this to open science, it’s a bad idea to try to do everything at once. I started with preprints and am now slowly adding sharing things online. I do this by using templates in Todoist. For example, every time I agree to give a talk, I import a fixed set of tasks, including “Create slides”, but also “Upload slides to website”.

Todoist project for the OpenMR talk, which includes preparing the talk but also sharing the slides

Strategy 2: Find accountability and support

To motivate yourself to continue with the habit you need to find accountability and support. With running, I find accountability by signing up for 10K races and then deciding that it’s probably going to be better for me to train on a regular basis. I also have a few friends who have either been running for a long time, or are just getting into it, so we can support each other. 

With sharing data and code, I feel accountable towards my students. I want them to do things better than I did myself, so I’m helping them set up their projects on Github from the start (inspired by Kirstie Whitaker). The code might still not be clean and run out of the box, but I feel like it’s an important first step.

As for support, I’m in a Slack group with other academics where we discuss this and other issues. And of course Twitter is a great place to learn new things and find people who are trying to improve their open science too. 

Strategy 3: Reward yourself

Finally, to create a habit don’t forget to reward yourself! After a race I might get a beer and a badge in my Strava app. But of course there are also long term rewards such as overall health, and being able to socialize with others. 

For open science there are also various metrics such as the Altmetric – here’s an example for a recent preprint. There are also gamified ewards, for example badges on ImpactStory. But more important is feeling the impact of your work on others, such as a thank you email, or an invitation to talk at an OpenMR event 🙂 

***

Do you struggle with sharing your work online? Or do you have any other helpful strategies? Leave a comment or let me know on Twitter!

How I Fail S01E26: Casper Albers (PhD’03, Statistics)

How I Fail - Casper Albers | veronikach.com

Casper Albers is chair of Applied Statistics and Data Visualisation at the University of Groningen. With a background and degree in mathematical statistics, he now works at the department of Psychology. You can find out more about him on his website, or by reading his tweets.

1. Hi Casper, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say something more to introduce yourself?

Hi Veronika, thanks for having me on your series! My main line of research involves the analysis of so-called momentary assessment data and other types of longitudinal data in psychology. With the rise of new technologies, such data have become more abundant in psychological research, yet still too little is know about the best ways to build relevant statistical models. Furthermore, I’m interested in statistical communication: how can we make sure that the main message of an advanced statistical model is conveyed correctly to non-technical end-users of the model. Furthermore, I’m a member of the University Council and thus involved in university politics.

I’ve done my undergraduate and PhD in mathematical statistics in Groningen, then did my first postdoc in bioinformatics. After spending four years as postdoc at the Open University in England, I returned to Groningen in 2009 and haven’t left since.

2. You recently wrote a column about being rejected for a prestigious grant (thanks for the shout-out!). Can you share a bit more thoughts about this?

This was an application for the so-called NWO Open Competition scheme. The goal was to obtain money for a PhD-student and postdoc on a project combining my two lines of research: momentary assessment data and communication. It was a ‘pre-proposal’, with a 500 word limit for the main text, and about half the candidates would’ve been invited to write a full proposal. I was part of the other half.

Initially, I felt frustration, of course. One reviewer mentioned a paper (published a week before the deadline) I didn’t cite, and asked why I requested a specific international visit. I did read this paper (but could not cite it due to the limit to the number of allowed citations), and the visit would be to the authors of this paper. This reviewer clearly did not read the proposal clearly. Having put in hours of work myself, that feels very frustrating.

Furthermore, all five reviewers indicated that I needed to elaborate in more detail, which to me seems impossible given the limited word count. Initially, you feel frustrated and wrongly treated. Once the frustration wears off, you realise that the reviewers reviewed multiple proposals. If all five of them claim my proposal lacked detail, then I guess others did succeed in providing more detail and did rightfully ‘win’ at the expense of me. It’s still frustrating of course, but I’ve come to terms with it. I’m now looking for alternative funding possibilities for (part of) the proposal.

3. Are there any other failures you’d like to share that were particularly memorable?

I was a postdoc at the Open University between 2005 and 2009. Near the end of my contract, we applied for a grant with me as named postdoc at a British funder, under the category ‘mathematics for business’. After the deadline, we received a letter stating that out of all proposals in this category, we were ranked first. Shortly thereafter, a second letter followed: due to a large amount of proposals in the medical categories, none of the proposals in our category would be funded. Thus, we had the best proposal, yet still received nothing.

Having participated in a funding scheme that turned out to have no money is a nice story for birthday parties, so I did get something out of it…

4. Next to grant and job rejections, are there any other things that fall under the word failure for you?

I would be hesitant to even call grant and job rejections failures. The word failure indicates that I did something wrong. Grant schemes often have a success rate of about 15%. There’s nothing wrong with belonging to the 85% – especially if you also occasionally belong to the 15%. If the system is such that the system expects you to be part of the lucky 15% every time, then the system is broken. That was also my point in my column, and I think is also yours in this series: failing is normal.

A couple of years ago, after working for this university for nearly 15 years, I got a permanent contract. Last August, I was promoted to professor. So, I’m currently in the more senior part of my career where grants are very helpful, but not essential anymore. That helps tremendously in being able to distance myself from this. When I still had job insecurity, this was much harder, of course.

Instead of failures, I’d like to call grant and job rejections major disappointments. Many other things in academia are as well: paper rejections (especially when the review’s poor or when it involves the first paper of your PhD-student), not meeting deadlines, etcetera. These disappointments are on a continuous scale. I guess how disappointing something bad happening is mainly depends on how unexpected it is and how much of an impact it has on me.

5. Are there are any caveats with sharing failures online?

With just sharing news like “I got rejected for this grant”, I don’t see any caveats. On the contrary, I think it is very good if ECRs get informed that established names also had to struggle through many failures. Having your grant proposal rejected or not being offered a job does not make you unsuitable for academia. Although there’s clear survivor bias in stories like mine. It would be interesting to also hear from people who decided to leave academia because of (too many) grant/job rejections.

But, of course, you can share too much information online. I can totally understand if someone doesn’t want to share the details of her/his rejected proposal online, out of fear of someone scooping your ideas.

6. Now that the grant rejection gave you some time to read all the How I Fail interviews :), what are your favorite take-aways from the series?

I like what Daniel Lakens wrote about mastery and performance goals a lot. I also very much liked various persons, e.g. Melanie Stefan, talking about privilege. For a straight white, male senior-researcher it is easy for me not to realise how privileged I am. It is good to read about the additional struggles that people from other backgrounds have, also in academia. This has certainly shaped the way I look at many academic processes.

7. Who should I ask as the next person I am interviewing for How I Fail?

It would be really interesting to read interviews with people who decided to leave academia because of failures, so to read about the other side of the survivor bias coin. As these people left academia, they also kind of left my ‘bubble’, so I don’t have any names for you.

8. What should I ask the next person I am interviewing for How I Fail?

Whether they have any experiences from the past that they at the time considered a success but now, in hindsight, consider a failure. As an example: massaging your data such that p < .05, making the paper publishable in some ‘good’ journal used to be regarded as a success; and we now know that p-hacking is naughty.

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

Time management. I always plan to do more in a week than what I can do. This is not a one-off failure as a grant/job rejection, but a source of constant frustration.

10. What do you think your past-self of N-10, N-20, N-30 etc years would think of you now?

My N-30 me would observe that I earn my money by solving puzzles on a computer all day, and playing with LEGO in the evening. I think that would make my N-30 me quite happy. My N-15 me would also be quite happy: I wanted a job in academia, and I got a job in academia.

11. What is the best piece of advice you could give to these past selves?

I’d give my past self a copy of Grays Sports Almanac 1950-2000 and could then fund myself. This works, I’ve seen it in the movies.

More seriously: I’d advise myself to spend less energy jumping through the hoops the system had set up for me, and spend more energy on just doing what I like to do and what I’m good at (fortunately, these two correlate quite well for me). This is fine.

12. What do you think about the current way success/failure are influencing academic research in the Netherlands?

It’s not healthy. Apart from my four years in the UK, I’ve been working at this university since 1996, so that’s about eighteen years. And I’m still in a system where I have to prove myself: if I don’t obtain a grant within seven years (at that time I’ll be fifty and will have literally worked half my life for this university), the university could strip me of my professor title. This puts stress on employees where it is not necessary. If the university can’t decide whether I’m worthy of the title “prof. dr. Albers” after eighteen years, then that says more about the university than about me.

My university is not special in this regard, all Dutch universities are roughly the same in this. Especially when we know that so many things go wrong with grant funding, such as the Matthew effect which has recently been proven to be very prominent at NWO, this is not a very evidence-based/scientific way to run academia. (Note that the university obviously not only selects and promotes based on grant success, and also includes a lot of sensible measures).

13. Do you have any suggestions on how we could change this? What is a concrete step that somebody reading this post could take in this direction tomorrow?

Focus on quality rather than quantity. Success in the Netherlands is mainly measured based on how many papers you have, how many citations you have, your H-index, etc. You can have one excellent paper, or a paper with a lot of societal impact yet few citations. You can also salami slice a semi-decent study into a series of boring papers. If I had to pick which of these versions of you would get a promotion, I would definitely go for the first version.

Furthermore, we should step away from all kinds of quantitative ways of measuring quality and including these ways in assessments. Goodhart’s law – When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure – is over forty years old, but still spot on.

Criticising things is, of course, easy. I don’t have an easy solution either. Stepping away from emphasising the importance of all these quantitative, semi-objective measures and just using common sense should be a big step forward.

14. Is this something you discuss with the researchers that you mentor? Is there anything they can do too, to change things?

Yes, we discuss these things. With one of my PhD-students, for instance, we decided to combine two studies we did in one single, hopefully high impact, paper; rather than trying to get both studies published separately, which was the original idea.

But I think that early career researchers cannot do too much: they are at the bottom of the academic food chain, and for them it’s much harder to be heard, especially individually. When they join forces, such as in the Young Academy in the Netherlands, they do reach an audience.

But the main change should come from senior researchers, like me, who are in the position to demand change. With great power comes great responsibility.

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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