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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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”.
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!
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.
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.
Thread: Grant funding has raised its ugly head again. Dozens of amazing researchers have failed to secure funding. And are despairing – what's the point of all that work when success rates are low & mainly a lottery? Why bother when your fate is in the hands of lady luck?
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 ….
So, yea this confirmed for me, I get #ShareYourRejections point noones perfect we can overcome blah blah but… so far looks like good opportunity for some introspection & observations re white privilege? Even just allowed comfiness w sharing failures & praise we receive for it? https://t.co/TfPjdOPQ4D
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.
I worried about being a working mum for 20 years, feeling guilt every day for doing both jobs less than perfectly. Then to my surprise discovered my daughters saw me as a role model; proving you can be mum *&* have successful career! Eternally grateful to them for telling me this https://t.co/tMUYpMSJmB
Greg Wilson has worked for 35 years in both industry and academia, and is the author or editor of several books on computing and two for children. He is best known as the co-founder of Software Carpentry, a non-profit organization that teaches basic computing skills to researchers. You can find out more about him on his website.
1. Hi Greg, thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi Veronika; thanks for having me. I’m Canadian, I wrote my first program on punch cards in 1980, and my family doesn’t let me use power tools (I’m kind of clumsy).
2. What’s on your list of failures?
Oh, I have a loooong list. Off the top of my head, I have half a dozen unfinished book projects that I only call “unfinished” because I’m not honest enough to call them “abandoned”, all three of the open source software projects I started myself fizzled out years ago, and when I teach software engineering, I use stories from my first startup as examples of what not to do.
3. Was there any particular event that made you decide to join this series?
I organized a workshop earlier this year for programmers who want to learn about community organization because I think it’s pretty clear that decisions about tech are being made by people who either don’t understand it, or don’t care about the collateral damage caused by their greed. About two dozen people showed up, and there was a lot of lively discussion, but there wasn’t much follow-up from participants. I’ve been trying to figure out why not, and I’ve been drawing on my past failures to give myself a vantage point.
4. What does “failure” mean to you?
I think of “weak failure” as “I put in a lot of work and nobody got much out of it”. I think of “strong failure” as “I put in a lot of work and did harm that could have been avoided”. By that standard, my thesis was a weak failure, and things like Twitter and Facebook are strong failures. The fact that many people think they’re successful is, to me, the biggest misconception people have about what failure actually is.
5. Do you keep track of failures?
Absolutely: sometimes, late at night, I’ll put on some Johnny Cash and line my failures up side by side and count ’em one by one. Then I’ll have a look at this cartoon and remind myself that I’m an idiot sometimes and then have some hot chocolate and go to sleep.
6. What do you think about sharing failures online?
Yeah, I used to be one of those guys who said “fail early, fail often, fail loudly”. I also used to tell people that their Stack Overflow profile was their real resume, and that if they weren’t contributing to open source projects they weren’t “real” programmers, so I guess by my own definition, my younger self was a strong failure.
What I’m trying to do now with pieces like this is help people like my younger self understand why these positions are wrong by saying, “This is who I used to be/what I used to believe, and here’s why it was harmful, and here’s a better way to think/speak/act.” I also find that I can only really know what I think about something when I hear myself say it out loud, or when I write it down, so sharing my failures helps me figure out what if anything I learned from them.
7. Have you experienced differences in attitudes towards failure throughout your career?
Yes, but they’ve mostly been self-inflicted: I dwell on my failures much more often than I take pride in my successes. I don’t think that’s healthy, but then, I just ate a completely unnecessary butter tart, so…
8. How do you think the changing landscape in computer science [men/women, number of people in general] affects our relationships towards failure?
There’s a lot more discussion in tech companies and open source communities than there used to be about inclusivity, mental health, and unearned/unrecognized privilege. Clearer and more critical analysis of things like “Stack Overflow is your resume” and “if you’re not working weekends, you’re not really committed to success” is part of that.
9. What can we learn from how failures are dealt with in software engineering?
I think we can learn that people are able to rationalize and explain away almost anything 🙂
10. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?
Yup. I have so many projects on the go that I’m not making much headway on any of them; I keep telling myself to set some aside, but that’s working about as well as swearing off butter tarts.
11. If you could reach any group of people with a single message, what would that message be?
I would tell everyone – everyone – to get out and vote.
12. I understand you’ve read all the previous interview of the series – can you share (i) something that was a new insight for you and (ii) something you disagreed with?
The thing I remember most clearly is Felienne Hermans’ comment that “Felienne of 2013 would not believe me, I’m sure of that”. I’m equally sure that Greg Wilson of 2010 would probably not believe how much and how little the Greg Wilson of 2018 has accomplished. I honestly can’t recall anything that I strongly disagreed with – I spent most of my time nodding and bookmarking as I read the other interviews.
13. What can this series do better to improve things for everyone?
Be more widely read 🙂
14. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?
1. Hi Daniël, thanks for joining How I Fail! I wasn’t sure whether you were joking when in response to my invite you said you never failed, so I’m excited you decided to join after all.. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I think whether you fail or not depends a lot on the type of goals you set – I’m also not sure if I was joking, but see my answer on question 6 for my thoughts on failing!
I got my PhD in experimental psychology, mainly studying how we think about abstract concepts (valence, morality, or power). Now I also work a lot on statistics and research methods. I live in Rotterdam (I’ve never lived anywhere else in my life) with my wife and our dog. When I’m not working, I’ll be listening to podcasts while walking the dog, going for a coffee or beer with friends, playing bass guitar, or exploring the cultural life in Rotterdam with my wife.
2. On Twitter you shared the story of searching for a PhD position for two years – could you tell us more about that experience? Who or what helped you to not give up?
After getting my Masters degree in Leiden, I had this idea of doing a ‘social service’ year. As opposed to military service, sometimes people suggest that youngsters should spend a year working somewhere in our society that would expose them to part of society they might not see otherwise. So I decided to work in elderly care for a year – mainly just cleaning and talking over a coffee. After a year, I started to apply for PhD positions. Back then, I was strangely naive about the fact that working in elderly care for a year was not seen as a positive career choice.
What worked in my favor is that my Master thesis supervisor, Dancker Daamen from Leiden University, had convinced me to present my master thesis (on the classic anchoring effect) at the Dutch Association for Social Psychology. His support and my interest in continuing to work on research with Dancker got me invited to many job talks – but people still wouldn’t hire me. I took on all sorts of jobs to pay the rent, and at the point that I started to apply with the same research groups because after 1.5 years had passed, they had a new PhD vacancy, I thought it might be time to try for other jobs. I was invited to a job talk for a PhD position at the VU university, and wasn’t hired – again.
However, Wilco van Dijk, who was in the hiring committee, had some money to hire a student assistant to program experiments. I had some programming experience, and he offered me a job for three days a week. I worked there for a year, and when I told people at the department my contract as a student assistent was ending and I was going to look for a PhD position, they apparently gotten used to having me around, and they offered me a PhD position.
This story has made me very aware that getting to where you are is largely a matter of luck. And when hiring people, I’ve realized that a messy CV happens. For example, I’ve hired two PhD students who quit their previous PhD position, which some people might consider risky – but both are doing great. Careers are often not a straight line – and that’s fine.
3. Are there any other failures you’d like to share that were particularly memorable?
Around the end of 2012, about 2 years after I completed my PhD, a researcher contacted two colleagues and myself about a paper we had written in 2009. His analyses showed that it was statistically improbable that we would have observed the results as we reported them. He was correct – we had indeed performed multiple comparisons without statistically correcting for them, and we didn’t report a study we had performed because it had not revealed a significant effect (which we immediately shared online). When we received this criticism, my statistics knowledge was not good enough to understand it, but more importantly,
I realized I did not consider myself knowledgeable enough to perform good research. I was quite disappointed in myself, and basically stopped doing empirical research for two years and tried to learn more about how to do better research. I enjoyed figuring this out so much, and I realized so many of my colleagues had similar gaps in their knowledge that I could now help them with, that I ended up switching my main research area. I still do empirical research, but most of my time I now work on how we can do better and more reliable research.
4. What do you think about sharing failures online?
Hearing from failures from people like me is obviously survivorship bias. My life would have been completely different if I hadn’t been hired as a lab assistant by Wilco van Dijk. What is now a nice story of struggle and success, would have been been a story of how I wasted two years trying to get into science, before finding a real job.
What I see online is mainly two failure stories: 1) I struggled, but I managed (like my story). Or 2) I struggled, and decided I didn’t want to work in academia.
But there is a third type of story we rarely hear: 3) I struggled, I didn’t get tenure, and now I’m not really sure where to work because academia was probably the best fit for me.
I have two Chinese statues on my desk – on of a dragon, the other of a Buddha – that were given to me a decade ago by a colleague who was an excellent, meticulous, dedicated and cooperative scholar, but had to leave academia because he didn’t manage to get a tenured job. I keep these statues on my desk as a reminder that people who I really would like to see in science, and who really want to work in science themselves, don’t end up in science. I’m not always sure the selection filter of who ends up in science and who doesn’t is set to the right parameters, to be honest. And I don’t think we hear their stories enough.
5. Have you experienced it that people decide to downplay their successes, so as to not hurt others?
I got a VIDI grant in 2017, which is quite large (800k euro) and has all sorts of positive consequences for your career. I’m on the FWO grant committee in Belgium for psychology and pedagogy, and evaluating grants there has made me fully aware that people try really hard to rank extremely different grant proposals in a fair manner. But in the end, when the Great Excel Spreadsheet gets sorted, a good deal of random luck goes into making the final cut, or not.
I think almost all my colleagues work hard to do the best research they can do. When a single person then gets a large amount of money (and a lot of non-monetary benefits that come with this particular grant) it upsets the dynamics within a group. Both these things – the decent amount of luck you have when you get a grant, and the fact that at the end of the day, we are all doing our best – made me feel quite uncomfortable after getting this VIDI grant. I’m not sure my colleagues felt hurt by my success (we have an extremely collaborative department, and I think the group benefits when any individual has success). But I did try to make not too big a deal out of it, mainly because the amount of luck involved was substantial.
6. Next to the “traditional” failures such as rejections, are there also other types of things that we can fail at?
So this gets back to my first answer why I have a peculiar view on failure: I don’t consider rejections failures. In psychology a distinction is made between performance goals and mastery goals. Performance goals mean trying to achieve things like a number of publications, an amount of research grants, are recognition from your peers, and often involves trying to perform better than others. I have always tried to ignore this type of goal. When I started my tenure track at my current department, I received a list of goals that I needed to achieve to get tenure. I never opened that letter, but left it unopened on my desk.
Instead, I set mastery goals. I have spend a lot of time training myself to no longer compare my performance to that of others – I compare myself against my past self, or to the goals I set. And the goals I set are typically just to try my best, given the time I have. So I consider something a failure when I do something (e.g., teach a lecture) that I know I had the time for to prepare better. Or I consider it a failure when I write code that I should have checked better because I had the time for it, but I didn’t check it more carefully. Beyond that, trying our best is really all we can do. If you have tried your best, and you keep improving, you have succeeded. What happens after that is largely out of your control, so I try not to assign evaluations like success or failure to the outcomes of things.
This didn’t come naturally to me (I used to compare my performance to what others did, or what others thought was good, especially as a PhD student) but I trained to stop doing this during my post-doc. On the one hand, it has removed pressure to achieve things other people have achieved. On the other hand, it has increased pressure, because sometimes I have quite high standards for myself and I need to work hard to improve myself.
7. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at yourself?
I’m failing at time management. Things are currently moving quickly in my career, I’m not doing a good job of prioritizing what I want to do and what I say no to. As a consequence, I end up spending too much time on work. I love my work, but I want to spend more time reflecting and thinking, and less time reacting and responding in my work. I had blocked 3 weeks earlier this year, one week each month, just to think about stuff – but each week ended up being filled by activities with strict deadlines. I think this is a common problem for people in my phase of their careers – but I still would like to do better.
8. When hiring somebody or reviewing a grant application, how would finding somebody’s CV of failures online influence your evaluation?
I like real things. We currently have a science where we often pretend things are better than they are. This happens in our journals, where we tell stories that do not accurately reflect the research we actually did, which creates unrealistic expectations in young scholars of what doing research looks like. A CV of ‘failures’ makes things more realistic, which I value positively.
9. If you were in a position to change how evaluation of researchers would be done [at your university or country level], what would you address?
I think we greatly undervalue collaboration. Science is a collaborative enterprise – but we do not hire team players. We hire people who have their own research lines, but we don’t hire people who help out their colleagues all the time in incredibly important ways. As a consequence, we end up with a science where everyone runs their own shop – and their is not enough collaboration. If I could change one thing, I would try to much more strongly value scientists who do not pursue their own little thing, but dedicate their time to larger collaborations.
10. Have you made any decisions that helped you to be evaluated as more successful, but that you didn’t yourself fully agree with? What would your advice to younger researchers in such situations be?
I feel quite fortunate that I made the decision to large ignore external criteria for failure and success, and focus on what I believe in instead. So I don’t have any regrets – I’m just grateful these choices worked out. My advice for younger researchers would be to find a good working environment. I’ve worked in places where I would not have had the freedom to ignore external criteria for success. At my current job, I didn’t apply for any external grants for over five years, because I didn’t feel I had any ideas that were good enough to receive funding. And, crazy enough, the head of my department was ok with this was a very long time. It was only after 5 years he told me that he believed I should now write a grant, because the stuff I was working on had potential, and my I would have a chance when applying. I initially disagreed, but he convinced me, and he was right. I feel incredibly grateful to work in an environment where this was possible. So find a place where you can work the way that you want to work, but where you are also supported and pushed at the right moment to do something. This is an incredibly tricky balance – but try to find it. It will make your work-life a lot more enjoyable.
11. How do you approach success/failure within your lab? Is it something you discuss with researchers you mentor?
I think it is really important to make students feel as comfortable as possible to admit errors. This already starts at the level of a bachelor thesis or master thesis. Things will go wrong, and when they have gone wrong, it’s ok to feel bad, but we have to transparently report them.
12. How do you think adopting open science practices affects the way failure is perceived in academia?
People have a tendency to fool themselves, and to pretend things look better than they really are. Open science will make the research we do much more transparent. Now, we show photoshopped pictures when we publish research – it’s often not close to reality. We hide studies where our predictions failed. We hide imperfections in the data of the method. Open science will show a version of our work that is more realistic. This will also reveal much more mistakes we make, in data analysis, coding, the materials we used, etc. It is impossible that everything is done at 100% perfection. We currently don’t see the errors, even when they might be important. This is something we will need to learn to accept – especially when the errors are discovered in our own work.
13. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?
Don’t expect that other people know what they are doing. When I was in elementary school, I thought people in high school knew what they were doing. In high school, I thought people studying at the university knew what they were doing. While studying at the university, I thought staff members knew what they were doing. But now I’m a staff member myself, I realize we are all just stumbling along, trying to do our best, but there is so much we don’t know, it’s almost overwhelming. I’m really trying my best, but very often I have no clue what I’m doing while I am doing it.
14. What do you imagine your future self’s advice would be to the present day you?
People must almost by definition be horribly bad at this question! But let me try be slightly extrapolating from more recent thoughts I’ve had.
Pay more attention to the goals and motivations of your fellow scientists. There can be many reasons to want to work in science, and not everyone shares your viewpoints. A better understanding where other people come from makes collaboration easier and better.