How I Fail S01E23: Daniël Lakens (PhD’10, Psychology)

How I Fail - Daniel Lakens | veronikach.com

How I Fail - Daniel Lakens | veronikach.com

Daniel Lakens works at the Human-Technology Interaction group at Eindhoven University of Technology. He publishes on how to design and interpret studies, applied (meta)-statistics, and reward structures in science, in addition to his empirical research lines on conceptual thought and meaning. He teaches a Massive Open Online Course on Coursera on how to improve your statistical inferences, blogs at the 20% Statistician, and comments on science related topics on Twitter @Lakens.  

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.

How I Fail - Daniel Lakens | veronikach.com 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.

How I Fail S01E22: Felienne Hermans (PhD’13, Software Engineering)

How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com

How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com
Felienne is assistant professor at Delft University of Technology, where she researches programming for everyone, from spreadsheet users to young kids. Felienne’s biggest passions in life is to share her enthusiasm for programming with others. She teaches programming in a community center in Rotterdam every week, she organizes the Joy of Coding conference, a one day developer conference in Rotterdam celebrating the joy and art of programming, and she is a host at SE radio, one of the most popular software engineering podcasts on the web.

If she is not coding, blogging or teaching, she is probably dancing Lindy Hop, running or playing a (board)game. Felienne blogs at felienne.com

1. Hi Felienne, thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am Felienne, recently tenured assistant professor at TU Delft. For my PhD thesis I worked on helping spreadsheet users design better spreadsheets, with techniques to find errors and to restructure complex spreadsheets. My recent research concerns teaching programming to young children, and their teachers.

2. Was there any particular event that made you decide to join this series?

As a community, academia is very much about celebrating successes, but not that great and celebrating, or even acknowledging failures. Which is weird. Since science is so much about trying and failing and learning from it. Also I love the fact how you put so much efforts into this series so I felt I wanted to give back to you for the amazing work you do on making failures a normal topic.

V: Aww, thanks!

3. What failures have been most memorable to you in your career so far? Were there any differences between your PhD and tenure track?

Well… define failure. There are different types of failure, so I will do a few if you are ok with that.

Immediate failures: An immediate failure is a failure that you know when it happens.

My biggest one or at least the one that hurt most is when I applied for a personal grant in ‘14 that I did not get. One of the reasons, I think, is that I felt like I needed to have that one grant to succeed in academic life, and therefore the writing took lost of energy and the rejection hurt A LOT. What I learned form that is that there is always another grant and there are multiple ways to success (although sadly there seems to be a Matthew effect from this particular grant)

Failed research: When you run an experiment but it does not work out the way you want.

This is an interesting type of failure that we talk too little about I think. I always want to write great blog posts about this, but it never happens. I once ran an experiment where we needed kids with advanced programming knowledge, and a teacher volunteered his class. We drove for 2 hours to get to the school, turns out the kids were not as advanced as the teacher thought. This taught me the value of assessment!

Slow failures: The type of failure that you only know happened in hindsight.

I think if you talk about failures you talk about the immediate ones, but the slow ones are interesting too. Sometimes you are on the wrong path for a long time, but it seems like the right one! For me I think the first year of my tenure track was one big slow failure. I had no research plan other than ‘continue my thesis work’ and in hindsight I was not so interested in that topic anymore. I also had no prioritization or planning skills, so I did lots of tiny things, but since I had not big goal, they did not really add up to anything real. I felt miserable about not achieving anything and about not loving my topic. Of course the immediate failure f not getting the personal grant did not help. I only got out of this failure mode by total coincidence, because I stumbled onto a new topic (programming for kids) not because I did anything concrete to face myself from this failure.

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

I would love to have more relaxed chat time with students. I do not like it that there is little time to just run into each other and chat, because to keep myself sane I need to plan my day well. I know it is the best for them ultimately, if I take good care of myself then I will be a better supervisor than when I engage on things I cannot keep up like ad hoc meetings, but I still feel bad about it because I would like to be the type of supervisor that can just do that.

Also I fail at being as good as Veronika in blogging!

5. What are your best tips for dealing with rejections, stress etc?

Stress and rejection are not the same, so I deal with them differently too.

Rejection

Rejection remains painful, but I have gotten better at dealing with it. When my personal grant got rejected for the second time (on a different topic) I told myself: ‘it is okay to just feel sad about this, no need to be strong, no need to fix this now’. That helped. What also helped was that the second time around I actually like writing the grant proposal. I had an idea, I was inspired and the background work I did was useful to me in exploring other ideas later on, and some ended up in related work sections of later papers. If you just write a proposal to get funding, getting the grant is the only thing that will make you happy. If you enjoy the process of thinking about a research direction, of finding related papers and of writing the grant, the success of the grant is less important.

Stress

Stress is different of course, just like with failure, there is immediate stress like when a grant is rejected and long lasting stress because of all the work we have to do. I learned a lot from the great post by Philip Guo why academics feel overworked? We have so many sources of work: courses, research, committees etc. I battle stress by doing rigorous time tracking and limiting my working hours to 5 days a week, max 9 hours a day, usually during regular hours. Limiting my time forces me to prioritize heavily and time tracking helps me understand where I spent the most time, and whether I am happy with that. Also I run! 20 km every week. No excuses. Health is more important than work (and also me doing this shows my students that I do not only say it but that I mean it)

6. Do you have any advice on how to approach discussing these issues with your colleagues?

Not sure I have valuable advice here… I think in these types of discussions it is important to know what you want. Take the running for example, when a collaborator suggested that I could also not run to make more time to work on a shared project, I simply said that was an outrageous proposal, as ridiculous as proposing to save time by not eating. But that is how I am. If you simply are not the type of person to do this, this advice is useless. Also things have gotten a lot easier since I got tenure. Both practically (I do not worry about not having a job) and mentally (I can tell myself I am doing fine and I also believe it now :))

7. What type of things do you wish would be given more weight in hiring and promotion decisions?

Of course it is hard to answer this question without bias! You are basically asking what parts of my job I enjoy 🙂 I like giving talks about my research to non-scientists, so that should count a lot more if you ask me.

But I also believe that, in the time we are in, it is important to keep a connection with the ‘general public’. Vaccination grades are going down because people do not believe scientists, funding decreases in many places because people think we aren’t doing valuable work. It is our responsibility to keep people informed and engaged.

A second thing I think should be given more weight is work regarding diversity. I time track so I can tell you I have spent about 50 hours last year on diversity initiatives inside and outside of the university. That is about an hour a week, ranging from giving lectures to young girls to advising colleagues. This does not help my career at all, in fact it could harm it. And the male colleagues that are already more privileged do not have to do any of this. Some do of course (thank you if you are one of those!!) but they are not expected to. Since I am one of the few women in our department, people come to me.

8. How do you think the difference in numbers of men and women in computer science affects our relationships towards failure?

It is hard to say because there are so many aspects at play here! I think that the hardest is that people in our field have an image in their heads of how female success looks like, of that the ‘story’ is for successful women. Does that make sense? Because of that they create new, alternative stories like: the woman in question was lucky, or supported by a smart supervisor or something else. The narrative that some women are just smarter is hard to swallow for some men still even though they might give lip service to diversity.
I tweeted about this a while back:

9. What about the recent rise in student numbers in CS? Are things going to be different for them?

Yes I think so, I spoke to a programmer from Silicon Valley last week and she indicated there is now a surplus of people that can program and it gets harder to find a job unless you possess specific technical skills. With so many 1st year students in our program (my program is said to have about 800 next year!) it will likely be harder in the Netherlands too.

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

Not sure I have something here to be honest! Given advice to your past self is weird, it gets me thinking about alternative timelines. If I give the advice, does that affect my current self? How am I writing this when all my great advice should have resulted in me retiring and living on a beach somewhere and thus not writing this piece? 🙂

And in any case, Felienne of 2013 would not believe me, I am sure of that.

How I Fail - Felienne Hermans | veronikach.com

How I Fail S01E21: Ian Goodfellow (PhD’14, Computer Science)

Ian Goodfellow is a staff research scientist on the Google Brain team, where he leads a team of researchers studying adversarial techniques in AI. He was included in MIT Technology Review’s “35 under 35” as the inventor of generative adversarial networks. He is the lead author of the MIT Press textbook Deep Learning. You can find out more about Ian on his website and on Twitter.

1. Hi Ian – thanks for joining How I Fail! I have to admit, I almost failed by being too scared to invite you, so I’m very excited you agreed. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Thanks for inviting me!

I’m an AI researcher at Google and I lead a team of other researchers. We’re working to understand failures of AI better so that we can establish clear engineering principles for responsible AI development. I spend most of my own time studying how to make AI secure—for example, how to make sure that malicious attackers can’t fool AI-based systems into doing what the attacker wants instead of what the designers intended.

2. On Twitter you posted a list of rejections – can you elaborate on these a bit, for an “unofficial bio” of sorts?

My colleague Moritz Hardt tweeted to remind everyone that it was the “time of the year to keep in mind that the typical start of a successful academic career is getting rejected from a bunch of good grad schools.”

I replied with a list of grad schools and fellowship stipends that I was rejected from.

That one story probably is not much of a bio. Here is more of a bio mentioning some failures along the way:

  • As an undergrad at Stanford, I struggled in biology and chemistry classes while preparing for a career in neuroscience. I got OK grades, but I didn’t think I was doing well enough to become a professor.
  • After I changed my focus to computer science, I applied for several internships as an undergrad. Notably, Google rejected me from an internship.
  • I once applied for a summer internship with a Stanford professor. My transcript was included in my application. He replied “Why do you have an A in my class?” It turned out I wasn’t actually meant to have an A in his class. I thought there had been a generous curve, but there had only been a computer glitch. The result of my internship application was that Stanford downgraded my transcript.
  • Other large tech companies gave me internship offers, but not to work in machine learning or computer vision. On my CV, you don’t see these failures, just the eventual successes (I’m very grateful that Willow Garage and Stanford’s CURIS program gave me the chance to work on vision for robotics during summer internships)
  • In both my masters and my PhD, I spent most of my time without an outside fellowship. This meant I had to work as a teaching assistant or work on specific paying grants rather than focusing primarily on my research interests. I continually applied for fellowship’s like Quebec’s PBEEE. I spent 2009-2013 trying and failing to get open-ended funding until in 2013 I Google gave me the first PhD Fellowship in Deep Learning.
  • Vision conferences like ECCV rejected most of the papers I wrote before my PhD. I did a lot of work on perception for robots that never saw the light of day.

3. What factors do you think helped you overcome these setbacks?

In high school, I spent three years on my school’s debate team, coached by two really great teachers: Kerry Koda and Thomas King.

I’ve been surprised how many different aspects of a career in science my debate experience was able to help me with. In terms of overcoming setbacks, debate is useful because debaters all learn how to deal emotionally with failure. Every debate round has a winner and a loser. No one is so good that they always win. If you stick with debate for very long, you quickly get used to the idea of losing a round and then immediately going to another classroom and doing another round, failing to place at a tournament and then immediately going to another tournament the next weekend. You learn not to ruminate and beat yourself up. Also, your expectations get adjusted a lot. You get used to having a constant stream of both failures and successes.

4. There have been some responses to CV of Failures being a humblebrag or a sign of privilege – what would your answer to that be?

When I tweeted about this before, people didn’t react that way. A lot of people thanked me for sharing my rejections. I can definitely understand why people would see this as a humblebrag, but I think most people also understand that I’m doing this to help other people escape impostor syndrome.

5. On the opposite end, do you think that with failure being common, people might decide not to share their successes?

No, we’re all basically forced to share our successes, either for performance review at work, or in grant applications, etc. When submitting papers to conferences and journals, everyone is very incentivized to show the upsides of their paper and try to sweep the downsides under the rug. I personally fight this incentive as much as possible but I don’t imagine it going away in general anytime soon.

6. So far we are talking about successes and failures as things with discrete decisions, like positions and publications. Are there also other things that we can fail at?

I actually think that most discrete points of failure (acceptance / rejection to a specific grad school, or acceptance / rejection of a paper submitted to a conference, etc.) do not matter all that much.

I tweeted about being rejected from a lot of graduate schools, but that was fine, because I was accepted to a lot of others.

For example, in 2009, the largest obstacle for me was not that I had been rejected from some top schools, like MIT and Carnegie Mellon. The largest obstacle for me was that I wasn’t sure I would be able to do the research I wanted to at other top schools where I was accepted, like Stanford and Berkeley. It wasn’t clear who my advisor would be at either school (because there is a rotation program for new PhD students; the advisor is not assigned at the time of your admission offer), and relatively few potential advisors at these schools were supportive of deep learning research. I overcame this obstacle by going to Université de Montréal, with Yoshua Bengio locked in as my advisor ahead of time.

Probably the failure I consider the biggest is that I spent most of my PhD trying to solve supervised learning for computer vision using unsupervised feature learning methods, and was caught totally off guard when Alex, Ilya, and Geoff won the ImageNet contest with purely supervised methods. I think that in general wasting time writing papers that turn out to be dead ends is the main way that I fail in my own eyes. Especially now that it’s normal to post papers on arxiv.org, I consider my work a success if it influences other researchers, even if it gets rejected from a conference, and I consider my work a failure if it has little influence, even if it gets accepted to a conference.

7. Is there anything that you feel like you are currently failing at, or you are hesitant about in the future?

For my own point of view: I’ve been working on understanding why neural networks are easily confused by small perturbations to their input (both through my own direct research effort and working to promote interest in the topic to get other researchers to solve it) for nearly 4 years, and still no one knows how to make a model with high accuracy in this setting.

From the point of view of traditional metrics of career success: The reviews of my papers submitted to ICML this year were particularly brutal and I expect most of them to be rejected.

Another thing I think is definitely worth mentioning: The way that I work, I rapidly try out several ideas to see if they show promise, and discard most of them. On a good day when I get a lot of time at my desk, I might code up 3-5 ideas and decide that none of them work. The time investment per idea is small but I can try out a large amount of relatively different ideas. From this point of view, failure of specific ideas is just a constant part of my workflow.

8. When we talk about successful researchers, what do you think about the distribution of weights that are placed on things like publications? Are there some factors that tend to be overlooked?

I think that our metrics for success are causing society to miss out on whole categories of successful people.

For example, we spend a lot of time evaluating work and evaluating people but we don’t spend a lot of time evaluating the evaluation processes themselves. There’s no one whose job is to make sure that conference review processes are fair and accurate. We know from the NIPS experiment that there is a lot of noise in the reviewing process (Eric Price has shown that area chairs disagreed more often than they agreed about how to handle a paper in this process), and yet there is no one spearheading efforts to develop better reviewing processes backed by evidence that they actually work. The research community should value efforts that improve the effectiveness of the community as a whole, but so far we just don’t seem to have any way of putting value on such efforts.

9. Do you think machine learning as a field has a different relationship with failure than other fields? Does this affect different groups of people in different ways?

Machine learning has very high expectations in terms of very rapidly producing a lot of successful work and exerting influence over the firehose of everyone else’s rapidly produced work. For example, Ilya Sutskever has over 50,000 Google Scholar citations, while in mathematics, none of the four most recent Fields Medal winners has over 5,000 citations. It is very strange that in our field success is so explosive. This is probably in part because we use arxiv.org so much rather than being more primarily focused on peer-reviewed publications. To be honest, I don’t know a lot about how it affects different groups of people.

10. What are your thoughts on negative results in machine learning?

I think it’s hard to extract value from negative results in machine learning because it can be so hard to tell what caused the negative result. A negative result might point to something very fundamental wrong with an idea, but it might also just be the result of a very small software bug, the wrong idea of the hyperparameter values to try out, too small of a model, etc.

11. If you could reach all senior academics in ML, what would you tell them?

If I could reach all senior academics / conference organizers / journal editors in ML, I’d tell them: The community needs to have a better way of settling disputes over sharing credit for ideas.

Currently, these are mostly settled by the person who feels they have not been given appropriate credit directly contacting the author of the publication that fails to give them credit. This works if the issue was a simple oversight (author of the new publication wasn’t aware of the old publication) but usually if the two parties disagree it can turn ugly. When there’s no central authority and persuasion fails, individuals fall back to a carrot or a stick, and most people do not have much of a carrot to offer.

This kind of experience is especially stressful if a senior, famous professor demands credit from a junior researcher, such as a PhD student.

As my work has become more well known in the machine learning community, I’ve spent more and more of my time dealing with this kind of conflict.

It would be much better if a conference or journal offered a centralized place to have these conflicts adjudicated efficiently by neutral third parties.

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

I wish I’d used some of those GPUs I bought for deep learning to mine some bitcoin.

How I Fail S01E20: Przemysław Pawełczak (PhD’09, Wireless Communications)

Przemysław Pawełczak is a tenured assistant professor in the Embedded Software group at TU Delft. He obtained his PhD in wireless communications (topic: Cognitive Radio) at the same university in 2009. Before joining the Tenure Track of TU Delft, Dr. Pawełczak was a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA (2009-2011) and a research scientist at Fraunhofer HHI Institute in Berlin (2012). He is the recipient of 2013 NWO Veni grant. You can find him on LinkedIn, GoogleScholar and Twitter.

1. Thanks for joining How I Fail! Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Great to be invited to this series! I’m an assistant professor in the Embedded Software group at TU Delft since 2013. I enjoy my work a lot. The ability to work and interact with diverse, extremely bright and open-minded people at my university makes me wake up every day and go to work. I’m Polish (and very proud of it) but spent almost all of my professional part of my life abroad (Netherlands, USA, Germany), and only at research institutions. This allows me to have a broad (not Dutch-centric) perspective on how things are handled in the academia.

2. Are there any “notable failures” you would like to share? “Most rejections”, or perhaps a failure that hurt the most?

There is no specific rejection that hurt me the most. After you got one rejection and another (and another) you start to get use to it and accept is a natural part of your trade. Of course, every rejection makes you feel bad. It is very hard to dis-associate criticism about your paper/grant application from attack ad hominem, so reading emails starting with the sentence “we regret to inform you” do feels bitter. What I realized, though, is that as you get older (or as you are longer in the business) that bitter feeling is becoming lesser and lesser. When I was a first year PhD student I could not sleep for days after my first-ever paper rejection, but now I embrace it and use it as an opportunity to improve my work and make it better (if I still can).

3. Do you keep track of your failures? Why/why not?

Yes, I do keep track of my failures. For instance, my “H2020 Rejected Proposals” folder has (as of now) eight sub-folders inside. Why do I keep track of my failures? Because it is good to see how much effort you put into papers and proposal preparations. Also tracking this lets you improve your time allocation and strategic decision-making (for instance: which proposals are worth the effort to re-submit and which are not).

4. Do you think this issue is more prevalent in academia than in other fields? What about differences between academic fields or different countries?

My core observation is that academia (anywhere in the world) is no different from other fields. Everyone competes for scarce resources (in academic terms: limited spots in conference proceedings and journal issues) and there are simply to many of us academics for available top spots. So naturally you will be rejected. Embrace it and be persistent. To say it jovially: law of large numbers (resubmit, resubmit, resubmit) will eventually help you.

5. Is failure/rejection in academia something you discuss with students that you supervise?

All the time! I am actually preparing them for rejection from the first day of their work. Statistically speaking there is a much higher chance that any work will be rejected, so it is critical to psychologically prepare students for this (quite common) event. And since I am the person that sees glass half empty (rather then half-full), projection of my defeatism makes it even easier.

6. What do you do when you receive a rejection?

I am a person that over-excites about many things (either failure or rejection), so to keep my head clean I run. I find running more of a meditative ritual, rather than a physique-improving task, I started running during my second year of my PhD and I run ever since. My PR is 48:27 for 10k, which proves I do not run for the records.

7. What about when you receive good news? Any traditions/rituals there?

See my earlier answer. Whenever I can, I go with my wife to a restaurant to celebrate. Also, I thank my students for their efforts (success is never a lonesome adventure) by inviting them to spend some time together outside the university.

8. Are there any opportunities you didn’t take that you wish you had (so you could add them to either your “success” or your “failure” CV)?

I was too late with my NWO Vidi grant proposal writing preparations, so I had just one chance to apply, which ended up in rejection. All the EU proposals I mentioned earlier that were rejected I consider to be a pure lottery. There were naturally some other (less critical) failures but overall I am happy with the choices I made.

9. Can you think of something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t find in a “success” CV?

Success is built on perseverance and daily progress, so the list of mini-successes would be long… but certainly not worth putting in your CV. Would successfully submitting a paper at 5 AM in the morning after a 24 writing streak would be something worth putting in your CV? I’m doubtful.

10. If you could add a compulsory section to all CVs you receive and send, what would this section be called?

If we could measure “grit” (how persevere one is in reaching ambitious goals despite all setbacks) effectively and objectively I would be happy to see it in all CVs.

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

Accept that nobody (including yourself and all academics) is perfect, so embrace that things around you will not as fast and professional as you would anticipate.

How I Fail S01E19: Emanuele Trucco (PhD’90, Computer Vision)

 
For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Emanuele (Manuel) Trucco, MSc, PhD, FRSA, FIAPR. He is the NRP Chair of Computational Vision in Computing, School of Science and Engineering, at the University of Dundee, and an Honorary Clinical Researcher of NHS Tayside. He has been active since 1984 in computer vision and since 2002 in medical image analysis, resulting in more than 250 refereed papers and 2 textbooks (one of which an international standard in his days, with >3,000, Google Scholar Jan 2017).He directs VAMPIRE (Vessel Assessment and Measurement Platform for Images of the Retina), an international research initiative led by the Universities of Dundee and Edinburgh, and several large EPSRC and NIHR projects on retinal biomarkers and diabetes precision medicine. Recent projects have focused on robotic hydrocolonoscopy and whole-body MR angiographic data. Manuel’s hobbies (too many to do any well enough) include playing music (guitar, Scottish bagpipes), reading (avidly), drawing cartoons (not often enough), cooking (often) and running half-marathons (not every week, thank you).

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

I was born in Genova, Italy, birthplace of Cristoforo Colombo who discovered America and is therefore indirectly responsible for consequences like Donald Trump. I live in Edinburgh, deemed the “Athens of the North” during the XVIII-century Scottish Enlightenment, and still a wonderful place to be for academics (three universities, various colleges), lawyers, tourist operators and, well, tourists. I work in Dundee, home of two universities and of the Tay Bridge immortalized by the unbelievably terrible poem by William MacGonagall “The Tay Bridge Disaster” (if you think you cannot write poetry, take a look). I have three children, now old enough to accept my many idiosyncrasies without being openly embarrassed; or perhaps they have learnt to disguise embarrassment effectively. I like people more than roles, and the well-known quote “it is incredible how much you can achieve when nobody claims the credit”. I try to organize my research group, and any group I am involved with, accordingly.

2. Could you share some of your own memorable failures with us?

I imagine you are asking about failures in my work career. The first thing which springs to mind is not grasping occasions immediately when they appear. I recall the very good reviews we got when my and Alessandro Verri’s book appeared in 1998 (yes, I am that old). That created a number of opportunities that we never embraced, including a second edition; we could have done several, thinking about it. Another thing, and a very important one, is recognizing the border between being realistic and undervaluing yourself. I think many of us can do more than we think ourselves capable of. Par contre, there seem to be people who think they have done much more than they have actually. We are all different, and clusters of people and collaborations form accordingly.

3. Do you in general keep track of your failures somewhere? If yes – how and if yet, why not?

I do not keep a written track or anything of the sort, but try to learn from mistakes. I think significant failures stay with us anyway, and we must learn to cope with them. I cannot help thinking of “significant” as meaning “having an influence on our feelings”. That to me does not include a paper rejected by an important conference, normally, but (for instance) being disappointed by a friend – or by myself – in something serious.

4. What do you think about the “CV of Failures”?

I think two things are important. One is to learn from failures so that we avoid similar mistakes in the future. The second is not to obsess about failures, which may lead to depression and underestimating ourselves. That is a very serious risk. We all fail every now and then. We must always look at the bright side of life (yes, this is a citation).

5. Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure? Has this process changed throughout your career?

Of course: I wait for the next full moon, I climb the nearest hill and dance waiving a ritual wooden stick. Not really. I cannot say I have a process or ritual. I have realized that the way we deal with failures depend on many parameters, including the kind of failure, your age, your experience, the people who support you, and so on. I can see that time plays an important role: you do change, and there are ways of controlling this change, but not all of it. A good thing is that you get a higher-level view of the world, and you should be able to contextualize better whatever happens. A bad thing is that you have to stop eating a lot of cheese.

6. What about when you receive good news?

I am a natural collaborator, so good news at work often involve other people, directly or indirectly. I love to share good news and normally organize little or big celebrations.

7. Do you think there are differences between how failure is perceived between different countries, different fields, or perhaps across different career stages?

Goodness! Definitely, all of it. Age makes a difference as the kind of things which may fail and the way you face failure both change. The farther you go in your career, the larger the initiatives you get involved with, be that money or impact or intellectual magnitude of your work. So failure may be larger and more impactful later in your career, and affect more people: if you have a team of contract-paid people working with you, procuring money to keep them employed is your responsibility, for instance. It is difficult to generalize, but it looks like work ethos does change across countries and institutions within a single country. I think a significant amount depends on personal temperament: some of us are truly driven by their work (and normally ipso facto excel at it: recall the 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration adage), some prefer a balance between work and other parts of life; some are born leaders, some born followers (which does not means they are less important: no leader would achieve anything without capable followers). And so on.

8. Would finding somebody’s CV of failures online affect how you assess them, for example if you are a reviewer for a grant?

This is a complex and indeed delicate matter. I think I would not personally look actively for a CV of failures, and suspect that, in the UK at least, one would have to be very careful with what information is considered to employ people. Then there is unbalance: it takes some self-confidence to air one’s failures in public, so some people would do it, some would not, creating probably a bias. So I would not look for a CV of failures unless it were made mandatory for everybody (alas, unlikely).

As to grants, I believe they should be (and are, I hope) assessed both for the value of the work proposed and for the track record of the proposers. In this sense failures do affect decisions, although a track record includes what one has done more than where one has failed. You can always think that a proposer should have done more than they declare, of course, but this is different.

9. Are there any opportunities you didn’t take that you wish you had (even if you would probably add them to your hypothetical failure CV)?

Yes indeed. I feel I have missed serious opportunities in my life, both at work and elsewhere. I could never forget a line in Italo Calvino’s Mister Palomar: “his life looked to him like an uninterrupted series of missed occasions” (my translation from Italian). My life does not look to me like that, fortunately, but there were several big occasions missed. I think it is hugely important to have good advisors, especially in the early stages of your life. “Early stages” depend on what you do, so they extend much longer than we imagine. And open, good-humoured friends are invaluable – always.

10. Can you think of something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t find in a “success” CV?

All successes you achieve in your non-work life qualify. Seeing my children starting to achieve their own success in their lives, independent of me, is one of the best experiences I can recall. I hope there will be much more if it. I also believe that maintaining a strong sense of humour in life is a huge asset. If I have one, of course, is not for me to say (unless I develop a split personality).

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

Stop! Think. Take time. Is this really the best course of action? Have you considered the consequences for you, and for others?

How I Fail S01E18: Mike Yassa (PhD’10, Neurobiology and Behavior)

How I Fail: Mike Yassa (PhD'10, Neurobiology and Behavior)

  For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Michael A. Yassa, Associate Professor and Chancellor’s Fellow at the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at the
Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences. You can find him on the web, FB and Twitter, and the same holds for his lab (web, FB, Twitter).

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

I am a neurobiologist by training, but tend to dabble quite broadly in other related disciplines. I received my undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University in neuroscience where I first fell in love with the brain and studying the human mind in particular. I took a freshman seminar called “Mind and Brain” by the late Steve Yantis, who I came to know and grew close with as a colleague when I started my first faculty position at Johns Hopkins, before his untimely and tragic passing after a hard-fought battle with cancer. The course, and Steve’s fervor in teaching it, simply changed my life. It sparked the interest, curiosity and passion for brain science that I continue to have today.

After getting my PhD from UC Irvine, I started my research program at Johns Hopkins in Psychological and Brain Sciences, where I stayed from 2010-2014. In 2014, I moved my lab, students and staff in tow, to UC Irvine where I have been since. In 2016, I was appointed Director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Today, my lab studies the neural mechanisms of learning and memory using multimodal imaging, neurophysiology, and behavior. We apply the work to several diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, epilepsy and others. My life is fast-paced and caffeine-fueled, attempting to balancing family, research, teaching, mentorship, and Center leadership with only moderate success.

2. Can you share any of your own memorable failures?

Gladly. There are so many it’s hard to pick just one. Let’s just say I’ve learned to develop crocodile skin from the sheer number of rejections and failures.

One of my most memorable experiences was applying to the DP2 NIH Director’s Initiative New Innovator grant. I applied in 2010 before I started my tenure-track position at Hopkins. Now you have to put this in context a bit. I had helped my PI secure two grants focusing on my research, an R03 and an R01, both funded on the first try.  I somehow managed to luck into a tenure-track position without a postdoctoral fellowship. Needless to say, I had supreme confidence in my abilities to write a grant and get funded through this initiative. I remember checking the review results at NIH Commons with much anticipation. And there it was. Unscored.

I refreshed the page, checked and re-checked thinking this must be some kind of mistake. But it was true. I spent several weeks in a state of confusion. I had just published several papers that I thought were my best work and compiled the best ideas I had into one bad-ass grant that should have been funded. What happened? Then the summary statement became available and the situation became very clear. Before I saw the summary statement, I expected that perhaps there was one critical issue I needed to address or that may be a resubmission can be done quickly for the deadline upcoming in two weeks. It was not to be.

The summary statement was my sudden crash back to reality. The reviewers tore apart every possible aspect of the proposal. It felt like every thought I had was somehow invalidated. It was soul-crushing to say the least. Worse, I came to realize over the weeks that followed that they were right. Every comment had a basis and every critique was substantiated. My ego was knocked down in a big way. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I look back on that grant now and credit the reviews with shaping my perspective on granting and writing as well as showing me that good scientists must be humble and persistent. Humility and persistence were my two biggest lessons. I still struggle with both occasionally, but I am certainly a lot better than I was in 2010. This failure, and in particular it happening so early in my career, shaped future successes.

3. You tweeted about your grants folder with several successes but also many rejections. Do you do this with other things as well, for example papers?

I have not thought about posting rejected papers but that’s not a bad idea. Those folders would be considerably longer and I would have no problem at all sharing them, except that I truly have never given up on any writing project (maybe it’s pathological persistence). Papers may take years sometimes to publish, but I don’t have a “unsuccessful papers” folder. It’s simply a “papers in prep” folder… that happens to be quite substantial.

I think that BioRxiv and other venues for posting preprints makes it so that no paper is ever really a “failure”. Papers are different than grants in my opinion. While one can have a failed grant that’s been submitted and resubmitted to no avail, and it becomes critical to shift gears and re-conceive things, papers a little bit different. They can get rejected for a variety of different reasons even in the absence of conceptual flaws. So I don’t tend to think of them as failures but more as works in progress.

I am still quite new to sharing about failure to be honest. And I was not sure I was ready for the response. Now that I’ve done it, I can tell you it has been extremely rewarding, especially to hear from others who have had similar experience or junior scientists who were somehow inspired by it. It was certainly a risk and in fact some colleagues reached out in disbelief. I did not regret it one bit. My highest priority at this time to mentor and inspire a new generation of scientists.

I think sharing for me stems from the fact that I been witnessing worrisome trends in the field, among junior scientists especially. Some feel discouraged by the relative paucity of jobs, funding, and opportunities in general. While I don’t deny that any of that is true, there’s a certain mindset that allows some to thrive and be successful. Those individuals tend to treat failure as growth opportunities. They wear those badges with pride and recognize that there is no success without failure.

4. Have you always been this open about failure or is it something that developed throughout your career? Were there any mentors that influenced this?

I’ve always been open about data, tools, sharing and collaboration, but perhaps not as open about failure outside my lab. Within the lab, however, we are very open with each other about rejections, revisions, writing and rewriting. The complete openness we have now came with time. As my lab got bigger, and as my daughters got older, I increasingly felt the need to be more open about what it takes to succeed.

In terms of mentorship, I’ve had excellent ones, too many to name, over the years and they’ve all modeled terrific handling of failure and shown me that rational thought in the aftermath of a grant rejection is critical for growth. This is one of the reasons why I think modeling this behavior for my students and for junior scientists in general is important. I had that opportunity and it shaped who I am as a scientist.

5. Is this something you actively discuss with your lab? Do you think this affects how your students approach submitting grants, papers?

My lab has seen the few days following a grant that goes unfunded, especially one on which we all worked very hard. The beard grows, the mood stiffens, and everything is tense for a little while. But it resolves quickly and we get right back to writing and doing research. That period of “grief” has become much shorter in recent times (as short as an hour for some very recent ones).

But every rejection still hurts. How can it not? We are all human after all and rejection is something we all detest. The key is to get over that basic human emotion quickly and recognize the growth opportunity that is available. It is of course much more difficult to see this perspective when the fate of a lab depends on that unfunded grant.

When we get paper reviews back, the first thing I do is send the email with brief comments to the student who took the lead on writing the paper. We may exchange a few words about “Reviewer number 3” but ultimately, we recognize that we could do better. We craft a plan to improve the paper, set a new timeline for resubmission or revision and take steps forward. Handling rejection becomes a part of the graduate student experience. It is critical for growth.

I worry more about the ones who don’t get a sufficient number of rejections while they’re in grad school. We do the same with talk critiques. No one needs constant pats on the back. Everyone could use constructive criticism, so that’s where we focus. We have two buzzwords in the lab, “bulletproof” and “crocodile skin”. My aim is to make each of my students and postdocs bulletproof when they give a talk or write a paper or submit a proposal. This is the first step. The second step is learning how to handle rejection well.. what I call, “having crocodile skin”.

6. Do you or your lab have any traditions associated with failures or successes?

Ha! Yes, we do. We have a paper pony (literally a small stuffed “My Little Pony” doll – don’t judge). The pony remains in the possession of the graduate student or postdoc who most recently got a paper accepted while in the lab. There’s a formal handing over of the pony from one student to another to celebrate each other’s accomplishment. We typically do celebrate new papers and new grants together in the lab. We do not have traditions associated with failure yet, but it’s never too late.

7.  I noticed in your Twitter bio you are passionate about science communication and open science. Do you think these things and being open about failures often go together?

I believe those two are highly interrelated. Being passionate about science communication necessitates that we are honest about the process. Failure is part of that process and weighs in much more heavily than success. I strongly believe we should be as open about it as we are about success.

8. Do you think that there is a more negative attitude towards failure in academia than in other fields?

It depends. If we are thinking of feelings and attitudes towards one’s own failures, I’ve certainly seen this affect people, including myself, in different ways. In some cases, it can lead to despair and in some others, it is brushed off quickly. It depends on the magnitude of the failure and the consequences for a laboratory’s research program. I don’t think it’s any more negative than other fields. Certainly, the same is true for business enterprises, perhaps even more so.

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

Given what I know now, I would tell my past self to get over failures more quickly and move on. I spent too much early in my career worrying about failure and wallowing in self-pity every time I failed. That time could have been better spent learning from those failures and planning the next endeavor based on what is learned.

How I Fail S01E17: Melanie Stefan (PhD’09, Computational Biology)

How I Fail: Melanie Stefan

Photo by Chris Coe
For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at the Edinburgh Medical School: Biomedical Sciences. Melanie wrote the original “CV of Failures” Nature article in 2010 and since then has inspired many scientists to share their failures as well. You can find more about Melanie on her website, blog and Twitter.

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

I am interested in how we can use computer models to understand what happens in the brain when we learn. My research group is based in Edinburgh, Scotland at the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences and the Patrick Wild Centre for Research into Autism, Fragile X Syndrome and Intellectual Disabilities. But I also spend 12 weeks a year in Haining, China, where I teach on the joint Edinburgh-Zhejiang BSc in Biomedical Sciences.

Originally, I am from Austria. I studied Genetics and Mathematics (because I couldn’t decide), and then did a PhD in computational biology with Nicolas Le Novère at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge. After my PhD, I went to Japan for six months for a short-term fellowship, and then moved to the US to do a postdoc at Caltech. After that, I took up a postdoctoral higher education teaching fellowship at Harvard Medical School, where I worked on incorporating quantitative skills into the life sciences graduate curriculum. I moved to Edinburgh to start my own research group in 2015.

2. Can you share any of your own memorable failures? Is the fellowship you wrote about in the Nature article still an important one, or have others overshadowed it since then?

There is one memorable early failure though, that I still think about: When I was working on my MSc project (in Developmental Genetics), my supervising postdoc sat me down one day and asked me to seriously reconsider whether science was right for me. Of course, my scientific career since then has turned out OK, but this still sometimes comes back to haunt me (especially when I fail at something or have a flash of impostor syndrome!)

The postdoc fellowship I wrote about for the Nature article was very important at the time, because I was getting to the end of my PhD contract, and I did not know where to go from there. I had a great idea for a project, and had identified the lab I wanted to work with at Caltech, but there was no money, so getting a fellowship was really essential. And because this project was what I really wanted to do, I hadn’t applied for other postdoc jobs, so I really had nothing else lined up. Looking back now, it’s easy to say it wasn’t so bad after all, because I did end up getting another fellowship (thank you EMBO!) and things worked out. But of course, when you are in the middle of it, you do not know that it will work out in the end.

Failures since then have not been so bad (though of course I have had my share), because I now know to put them into perspective.

3. When you wrote the article, did you also share your CV of failures? Is it a conscious choice not to share it right now?

I did not share it publicly, although I had one and showed it to people who asked to see it. To be honest, I was a bit afraid to do it before I had a faculty job. Indeed, when I was applying for jobs out of my first postdoc, I googled my name and the first thing that came up was “A CV of failures”. It’s not necessarily the first thing you want associated with your name, especially when you are on the job market!

Now, it’s a bit different. I like to think I am a bit braver (and also in a more secure position), but now the problem is more that I haven’t kept up with my failures systematically enough, so a CV would necessarily be incomplete.

4. Johannes Haushofer has called his CV of failures a “meta-failure” because it attracted more attention than his research – is this similar for you?

In some ways, yes. I joke about having become “the poster child of failures”, because often that is what people know about me (rather than the awesome and really interesting science I do). On the other hand, I think the attention that the topic of failure gets speaks to how universal an experience it is, and how important it is to many people. It’s nice to see that something you write resonates with people (and frankly, I don’t get that a lot with my work on theoretical neuronal biochemistry!)

5. Has the CV of failure changed the way you approach different opportunities, for example applying for more/less things?

It has made me aware that failure is a normal part of the process. A friend of mine said “If you never fail, you are not trying hard enough”, and I think that is absolutely true. So, I have a more detached view of failure, and I am more ready to take risks and go for opportunities, even if I might fail.

6. Do you keep track of failures in a different way? Does the list contain only “traditional” rejections (jobs/grants/papers) or also other non-successes?

I keep track of failures differently in different domains. When I was applying for jobs, I had a spreadsheet that listed every application I had sent with its status (open, rejected, second round etc.) I also have a spreadsheet with all my grant applications, including reviewer feedback, so I can go back and improve on future rounds. Similar for rejected papers.

In recent years, I have also become more interested in the idea of “gamifying failure”, in a way. It started when I was applying for faculty positions and complaining to my mum about how many candidates there were for each job. My mum suggested a deal: If I got to 30 rejection letters, we would open a bottle of champagne and celebrate. It made it a bit easier to deal with rejections, because now at least, they counted towards the champagne party.

I also buy a lottery ticket every time I apply for a grant. As long as I manage to bring in more grant money than lottery money, I feel like I am winning.

Those are maybe silly things, but they make it easier to cope with failure, and in particular, to go out and try again.

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

I use them interchangeably a lot, because in my working life, this is often the shape that failure takes (e.g. grants or papers being rejected). Those types of failures are also quite clear-cut, easy to quantify and quite closely linked to our career progression.

But I start to worry more about other forms of failure that are maybe less easy to quantify, less clear-cut and more internal. Taking too long to reply to an e-mail. Not giving a student the support they need. Neglecting a project. These are harder to assess, because it depends on one’s own standards, and often we don’t take time to check whether what we do is well aligned with our goals. They also vary in importance and consequence.

8. Do you think there are differences in how different groups of people (based on for example gender, nationality, type of academic position) approach failure? Is there a bias in the CV of failures we are seeing?

https://xkcd.com/license.html

Privilege plays a role. There is that thing where when a person from the majority in-group fails, it’s their own failure. But if a person from a minority fails, their failure becomes exemplary of everyone else belonging to the same group (like in this xkcd comic: https://xkcd.com/385/

There is also research that women are more likely to be hired on the basis of their track record, but men are likely to be hired on the basis of their potential. I am sure that people of colour, disabled people or other minorities face similar challenges.

So, there are definitely groups that have a higher in-built resilience to failure, because it does not affect them in the same way.

9. If you are in a position of evaluating a CV for a job or grant application and you find the applicant has a CV of failures – does that influence your decisions?

It would certainly make me take interest in the candidate. Compiling a list of one’s failures is an exercise in self-reflection. Having that level of self-insight is something I value, as is having the confidence to be open about their failures and start a conversation. I think it would make me look on the candidate more favourably.

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

Everybody else is going through similar experiences. Talk to people. Learn from failures. It’s all going to be OK.

How I Fail S01E16: Jennifer Polk (PhD’12, History)

How I Fail: Jennifer Polk (PhD'12, History)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Jennifer Polk, a career coach for PhDs. You can find her online at Beyond the Professoriate, a membership site and community for PhDs seeking non-faculty careers,  FromPhDtoLife.com with resources for PhD career changes, Twitter and Facebook.

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

I am the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate and also operate my own coaching business under the name From PhD to Life. A side business of mine is Self-Employed PhD. Beyond Prof is my main focus these days. It’s a membership site full of resources for graduate students and PhDs seeking non-faculty jobs. All created for PhDs by PhDs.

2. What does the word “failure” mean to you? Could you say something how your definition of it changed over the years, especially through the experiences of starting your freelancing career and then coaching clients?

When I think about failure what comes to mind most is “trying stuff.” There’s a ton of experimentation that goes into creating and building businesses. Yes, you should be smart about things and learn from others, but ultimately every market is different, ever product or service is unique, every brand will have its own personality. I do a lot of trying these days, which means I also experience a lot of failure!

It can be tricky to find a balance between giving things a shot and deciding to try a different approach. There are so many factors that go into a successful whatever, and nothing I do happens in a controlled environment. Judgment plays a role, as does a bit of patience and a willingness to move on if something isn’t working. You can’t be stubborn and you have to respect your market. It’s challenging, but in a good way, too.

3. Could you say something about the perception that leaving academia can be seen as a failure, by yourself or by others? What is your advice to a person who thinks that?

“Hello, I’m Jen, and I’m a loser with a PhD.” Ugh, but that is how I used to think of myself.

There’s still a very real, pervasive, powerful culture in grad school and academia – and the world writ large! – that a PhD is supposed to lead to working as a professor. Folks who believe this, often unconsciously, aren’t necessarily jerks! They just don’t get that a doctoral degree isn’t job prep, and who can blame them when there’s so much talk of “training” in grad school?! Postdocs are “trainees”! (For what? Clearly, for jobs in bench science/academia. Gross.)

What helped me was realizing that I associated who I was with what I did. My identity was wrapped up with being a grad student/intellectual/scholar/whatever. What I realized over time was that I could still be a smart, interesting, critically engaged person no matter what sort of job I happened to have. That seems so simple and yet it was a huge thing for me.

Practically speaking, what helped was working with a career/life coach; reading and listening to wise women such as Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, Brene Brown; doing informational interview – yes, really; and making new friends on Twitter in the #altac community. Working with my coach, Hillary Hutchinson, changed my life. It was an incredible experience.

4. What are your thoughts about people being more open about sharing failures online?

Yeah, I can see why folks can get frustrated hearing about “failure” from people who are big professional successes. I get it. I also think it’s valuable to show that we’re all human, we don’t always get what we want. Ideally, these posts would include some comments that show the authors acknowledge privileges. And I’m aware that a “CV of Failure” could imply that success will come if you just stick it out. That is not always true. Sometimes failure rightly leads to moving on instead of trying again.

A list of “failures” doesn’t tell us anything about what a person did after the rejection. Did they change up their strategy? Get more experience? Call in outside help to write the next funding application? What do they think was the reason behind something not working, beyond “too many applied, too little funding available”?

5. In general, do you keep track of your rejections? Why / why not?

A bit. I do have a spreadsheet where I track potential coaching clients, from when they signed up for my waiting list to when/if they hired me. My rate isn’t very good! But that’s not really a rejection per se, since there are lots of totally legit reasons why someone wouldn’t hire me. I can usually tell during an initial consultation whether someone will end up working with me, so while it’s useful to see it graphed, it’s not something I worry about too much.
I don’t work as a scholar or academic, so I no longer apply for grants, scholarships, or programs.

6. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with it?

Nope. But that’s mostly because I don’t “receive rejections” in the way a faculty member might. It’s been a while since I applied for anything! There’s rarely an email I open only to have my hopes dashed. My work just isn’t like that.

7. Can you think of anything you didn’t dare to try, but wish you would have, even if it would end up on your “CV of Failure”?

There are lots of risks it took me a long time to take. My own “imposter syndrome” has definitely gotten in the way of me acting on an idea, whether it’s raising my fees or saying “no” to an opportunity. It’s important for me to work out what’s a savvy move and what’s procrastination or failure to commit to what I know is the right thing to do. So much of what I do is about taking small risks, so it’s not such a big deal if it doesn’t work out.

I think the biggest failure here might be my declaration – via a dedicated blog post for University Affairs – that I was writing a book. I was… until I wasn’t. That felt very silly or foolish of me for a while, but as time passes I’m less bothered by it. Still, it’s a fairly public fail and that’s never awesome.

8. How about something that looks like a success on your regular CV, but perhaps didn’t feel like it?

I do try to acknowledge – at least to myself – my own successes, however small. But! I have done things that I publicize but don’t feel awesome about. No one needs to know, though.

9. And, on the other side of that, something that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t generally find on a CV?

I don’t have a CV these days. There is an enormous amount of information that doesn’t appear on a CV, or wouldn’t take centre stage on one. When I was a grad student, for example, I did a lot of “service” and admin work within and beyond my department. That stuff was really energizing and interesting a lot of time, but isn’t nearly as important in the academic world as publications and teaching experience. The weirdness of academic CVs compared with resumes is something that trips a lot of PhDs up when they need to craft the latter. These are completely different documents.

10. When something is successful, do you have a celebratory ritual? Who do you share the news with? Do you have some ways in which you reward yourself?

After a big win of some sort, I have done things like taken myself out to dinner or for ice cream! That makes me sounds very lame, I know, but there you have it. I think there is something to interrupting the norm, and for me that means treating myself in ways I normally wouldn’t. The difference marks the occasion.

11. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

I’m not sure. I know that in the work I do now is rewarding on a regular basis. Every day there’s something I can point to and say, “yup, that was good.” That could be a coaching session with a client, an event I host that goes well, an email I write that earns a high click rate, having a new member join Beyond the Professoriate, and so many other things. For me having these small wins all the time helps lessen the blow of big things that don’t go as planned or how I hoped they would.

For big things, it helps that I tend more toward optimism than pessimism. Beyond the Professoriate produces an annual online conference and every year my business partner (Maren Wood, also a history PhD) and I worry sales will stagnate. But it hasn’t happened yet. When our instinct might be to freak out, we remind ourselves to look at the historical data: sales always peak in the few days before the event starts! Attendance has gone up each year, and while we can’t predict it will continue to do so, there’s no good reason to think it won’t.

My income also comes from a few different sources, so if I have a business failure in one area, it’s less problematic than it might be because I have other ways to earn money. There’s always a new idea, a new client, a new collaboration, a new marketing strategy possible. I take risks and try new things – and thus fail in many small ways – all the time.

I think my own success so far comes from doing things that faculty members can also do. My advice is to cultivate a community of colleagues who will support and champion your work (and vice versa), know your strengths and key skills and then focus your work on activities that draw on these, continue to learn and develop as a professional, and ask for and receive help on a regular basis from a variety of people and services. If something drastic happens – you don’t get tenure, for example – the network you cultivated and the knowledge you’ve gained about yourself will help you transition into a new job or career.
I know that this advice is all about individuals and doesn’t speak to structural challenges or outright discrimination that is unfortunately a reality for many who work in academia. I’ll let others tackle that.

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

The biggest piece of advice I’d give myself is, “Figure out what’s really important and then try to live your life according to your own values, priorities, strengths, and interests.

In academia there is so much implicit and explicit pressure to value certain things above others, to prioritize the job over a geographical location, etc. Those are fine in and of themselves, but they may not be fine for you. So the challenge for individuals in academia – and here I include graduate school – is to try to separate who you are from what you do. If it turns out you actually don’t care that much about higher education or historical scholarship, well, that’s perfectly alright. If basic research isn’t really your thing, it’s not a problem! You’re not a lesser person for wanting to spend your energy on other endeavours. There is SO MUCH important work to do in the world, and academic work and scholarship doesn’t take precedence. We each get to decide where we can best contribute.

I’d also like to tell my younger self that the work I do now has much greater impact, is more meaningful and rewarding, and is lots more fun than most of what I spent my time doing in graduate school. There is life outside the ivory tower, and for me it’s wayyyy better than I ever imagined it could be.

How I Fail S01E15: Olga Degtyareva (PhD’03, Physics)

How I Fail: Olga Degtyareva (PhD'03, Physics)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Olga Degtyareva, a physicist turned productivity mentor for scientists! You can find her website, blog and free productivity resources on olgadegtyareva.com, join her Productivity for Scientists Facebook group, or follow her on Twitter.

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

I have been a scientist in the area of high-pressure physics and crystallography for about 15 years, and during my research career I went through Masters degree, PhD, and two consecutive postdocs and also held a personal Fellowship from the Royal Society. It has been a productive and even a successful career, full of interesting findings, collaborations, papers, conferences and talks! I am an author and co-author of 38 research papers and a recipient of an international prize for my contributions into the area of my research. It was not without the challenges, and at some point I got into the self-help books and seminars to figure out a way through those challenges.

At the pinnacle of my career – in 2010 – I started my blog sharing the approaches I used to stay productive at work and also balanced and fulfilled in my personal life. The interest shown to the blog by other researchers led me to starting my own coaching practice and the Productivity for Scientists company. I’ve soon transitioned from doing research to being fully immersed in coaching. 7 years later and I’ve coached 100’s of scientists around the world, and 1000’s benefited from my free resources.

2. You have two viewpoints on rejection: one from your career as a physicist, and one from your career as a productivity coach. Can you share with us what rejection as a scientist was like for you, any particular ones you remember well?

Rejections of my submitted papers come to mind first of all. During my first postdoc I collaborated with a colleague who pushed for publications in the highest profile journals. Often I was the one who wrote the first draft, so I remember well writing numerous drafts specifically for Nature and Science for several of our projects. And although we did not get any of those into Nature or Science, I’ve learned not to get discouraged: we re-wrote those paper for the next best journal, and then if it would be rejected again we’d re-write it for the next best. As the result I got papers in Nature Materials, Nature Physics, and Physical Review Letters, all considered very high profile journals in my area of research. What I’ve learned from it is to aim high, not to get discouraged if rejected, improve and re-submit to the next best place.

3. Now as a coach, do you see rejection differently? If yes, who or what has helped you change your viewpoint?

Not differently, just deepened my understanding of it. I’ve studied and now know the dynamics of the rejection process and use it to my advantage. So here is what I teach my clients: when you receive the news with a rejection, it hurts, and it’s ok, it’s natural!… But don’t let it consume you for too long, maybe for a day or three, then you need to move on, and here is something that can help you to do this. Rejection is (often) not personal, and yet we take it so personally. So the best thing you can do is to remind yourself that is it NOT personal, and your work still has value, you just need to present it differently, improve your communication or try a different place.

After the initial period of grieving, it is now time to lift your head up and start looking around for new opportunities. Often rejection means that there are other (as good or even better) opportunities around, and if we continue to mourn and beat ourselves up, we would miss those opportunities too. So it is important to work on your mindset in that moment, and view the rejection as a pointer to something even better. We’d talk with my clients about using the rejection as a springboard to greater achievements. Instead of getting frustrated, complaining and feeling like a victim, use your energy to create better work and reach out to other places.

4. Is it difficult to advice people about dealing with rejection, while sometimes struggling with your own? How do you overcome that?

In my work as a coach, it is important to stay strong and confidence as so many other people lean on me and look up to me for support. So if I am in the middle of something upsetting, I would continue to show up strong for my clients and continue to give them advice from a confident place that I know has worked for me and for many others. I would sometimes simply mention that I can relate to their pain about rejection, as I also get it and I know that very successful people whom we admire also experience it.

On the other hand it is also important to show my vulnerable side and share my failures and rejections, and how I deal with them. So, I’d usually wait until I go through grieving and then frame it into a strategy video so the followers can see my own struggles and also benefit from the steps that I’ve applied myself to bounce of the rejection. Here is how this blog post was born.

5. How do you think this fear of failure, fear of rejection develops – is it something universal, or maybe more specific to some careers like science? Are there also cultural differences here?

My personal view on it is that a lot of the fear of failure and fear of rejection that we experience as grown ups comes from our child hood experiences. In particular, the school system is designed to give bad marks for wrong answers and to praise the right answers, basically punishing any “wrong” attempts and condemning mistakes and failure. In addition, the traditional parenting advice that prevails on our planet at the moment teaches parents to show rejection to their children to discipline them.

Many scientists I’ve talked to have shared with me those negative memories of their childhood. One client for example remembered being punished by parents for every bad mark from school so that now as an adult she freezes in inaction being afraid to get it wrong or make a mistake.

As my two older children have been high needs, I ended up studying a lot of books and going to a lot of seminars on parenting and on how children learn, and what I’ve learned confirms the above view. This was one of the reasons why my husband and I decided not to enlist our children into the school system, among other 100,000 families here in the UK, and all three of our children are happily unschooled at the moment.

So what can we do as adults when we have already a deeply ingrained fear of failure and fear of rejection in us? It IS possible to rewire our brain by purposefully working on our mindset and confidence, and to change our relationship with failure and rejection. It is important to start to understand that both of them are part of the journey to success, and start practicing reaching out and getting No answers on a small scale on a regular basis without taking it personally.

Regarding to whether the fear of failure is more specific to science… I’d say it is fairly universal. However while in business and entrepreneurship there are open talks about how it is important to make mistakes and fail, there is less of this going on in academia. As the result there is a stigma that exists in academia that the rejection and a failed project are somehow “bad”, and this is up to us to start breaking this stigma.

Regarding the cultural differences… again I think the fear of failure and fear of rejection are fairly universal, as I’ve now had 100’s of scientists from various countries and continents sharing with me these fears. Some of them shared stronger negative memories from childhood than the others, but at this point I’d be cautious to generalise.

6. One of your favorite quotes is “If you want to be more successful, double the amount of your failures”. Can you tell us a little bit more about the history behind this quote? What kind of opportunities has it helped you to take, which you would not have otherwise?

I came across this quote when I was starting my coaching business and reading a lot of books on productivity, mindset, business and success, and attending lots of seminars and courses on those topics. I have been a scientist my whole life and had zero experience with business or starting a business, I needed to learn it from scratch and was excited to do this! When I came across this quote, which is attributed to the CEO of IBM Thomas J. Watson, it downed on me that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and to start doing things differently.

Instead of holding back and waiting until everything feels perfect, I started to put myself out there with weekly blog posts, online lectures, newsletter, online courses and soon after coaching programs. Some things did not work, some were slow to grow, some needed to be abandoned… The epic failures or rejections included not getting a prize I applied for after being shortlisted, failed collaborations with other websites that focus on helping academics and scientists, failed branding project (as the result I still don’t have a logo!), failed presentation at a women in science conference etc etc…

However some things I did worked and the end result was that I was helping more and more scientists around the world through my business. One of the successes that is dear to my heart was the invitation to speak on productivity and mindset at a scientific conference, with my talk being the only non-scientific talk at the conference. It was certainly scary and exciting at the same time! Since then I’ve been invited to two more conferences and it seems this is something I’ll do often from now on.

7. Are there also caveats in this advice?

I’d imagine a negative side could be that a person can possibly get stuck in failures, not allowing themselves to succeed… I’ve observed this in some of my clients, and we have addressed the fear of success with them. Yes, there is such a fear, the fear of success! We can be fearful of this because once we succeed we can’t be a victim anymore, we can’t go around complaining and saying “poor me, see, nothing ever works for me”. Once you’ve succeeded you will need to change the story you tell and to change how you show up in your work and life and this can be difficult to change. Sometimes it is much easier to stay in the “failures” mode.

You say “doubling the amount of failures could mean producing lower quality work, but doubling the quantity”… It is a possibility I guess, but I have not observed this in any of my clients. Rather it helped them to publish their first ever paper, publish in a higher profile journal for the first time, give the first contributed talk instead of always presenting a poster, secure an invited talk, be a chair of a symposium at a conference, create new collaboration with a renowned scientist, publish an invited review article in a prestigious journal, get a new better job, apply for a promotion and also do new exciting things in their personal life too.

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

Negative response to the paper submission, grant submission, job application, book proposal, submission for a promotion and similar things can be referred to as rejection or failure. Negative outcomes such as bad performance when you nerves did not co-operate or the technology failed, or you were too late or did not meet the deadlines, or other circumstances did not align is more like a “failure”, as technically there was no rejection by anyone.

At this point I wanted to add my other favourite quote about failures: “There is no failure, there is only feedback”. So as long as we learn from our mistakes, change how we do things, keep reaching out and moving forward we are all set up for success!

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

Take time to really get clear on what do you want to create in your work and life in 2, 3, 5 years and even 10 years. Create that vision, even better create a vision board (this is something I teach now in my coaching), revisit it often, pay positive attention to you goals and vision, create time for taking small consistent steps, try different things, do it imperfectly, and you’ll get there or create something even better than your vision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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