How I Fail S01E03: Eric Anthony Grollman (PhD’13, Sociology)

How I Fail: Eric Anthony Grollman (PhD'13, Sociology)
How I Fail: Eric Anthony Grollman (PhD'13, Sociology)
For this post of How I Fail I’m profiling Eric Anthony Grollman, who is a Black queer feminist intellectual activist and sociology professor at University of Richmond. They are the editor of ConditionallyAccepted.com – a weekly career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Find Eric on Twitter at @grollman.

1. Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself and if you already have any “failure statistics” you would like to share.

I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I am a scholar, broadly defined, placing importance on research, teaching, and service, as well as the connections among these domains of the academy.

I am currently on a yearlong research leave following a successful mid-course review. While remaining productive, submitting 4 papers to journals, I felt set back by the rejection of every manuscript by 1 if not 2 journals. Rejection after rejection set the stage for me to feel as though I was failing all around, and that I would have nothing to show for a year’s leave.

Though so much rejection at once is new for me, I am no stranger to journal rejections. One article was rejected five times before receiving a favorable revise and resubmit decisions from the journal in which it is now published. One of my forthcoming articles was previously rejected after an R&R at one journal, and desk-rejected from two other journals. I’d say I have an equal number of articles that were published in the first journals to which I sent them and that were rejected from multiple journals before they were finally accepted. Overall, it still feels like a crapshoot, not knowing whether a manuscript fits in an article, will be liked by reviewers, will pique the interest of the editor, will overlap too much with a recently accepted piece or fill a gap in the journal, and so forth.

2. Do you keep track of your failures?

I’m no different than the average academic here, at least until recently. That is, I try to avoid dwelling on my failures – because they feel exactly like that, rather than minor setbacks or growing pains or lessons in living. It’s much easier to see how failure fits into the larger narrative in hindsight. I do believe I differ from others, however, in intentionally celebrating my successes. Specifically, at each year’s end, I make a list of all that I have accomplished in both the personal and professional domains. For, just as I tend to numb myself to by losses, I also tend to overlook or downplay my wins. So, this end-of-year reflection helps to remind myself that I accomplish quite a bit – and probably can stand to recognize that more so I stop pursuing project after project and service opportunity after service opportunity to prove to myself that I am worthy.

This past year’s end, I experimented with reflecting on failures alongside my successes. I even shared it publicly, though I acknowledge I was more generous with my wins that my losses. (I’m only human, and an imperfect one at that.) I doubt this will occur outside of new year’s resolution and old year’s reflection activities, as reflecting on how I’ve failed isn’t something I’d like to do often. But, there is an overall sense of growth, overcoming, and hope that comes from directly engaging with lessons I’ve had to learn by screwing up.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online?

I appreciate the failure-CV idea – it’s a rather brave and noble act. It helps to normalize failure in academia. The reality is rejection is the norm. If a journal touts a 8% acceptance rate, that means the overwhelming majority of papers will be rejected immediately, after the first review, or even after subsequent reviews. Grants, jobs, positions, and other milestones in academia likely carry similar odds of success. Being the best, beating out your competitors, is a bizarre feature of our profession. So, sharing those wounds publicly is pretty courageous.

But… I think it’s cute when privileged folks do something to prove a point, but ignore that the stakes are much higher and the rewards are much lower for those who are disadvantaged. I actually never read the failure-CV that went viral because I (correctly) assumed its author was a white man, probably senior level faculty at an ivy league school. (Well, apparently he’s an assistant professor, but even a tenure-track position is a pretty cushy gig considering the majority of PhDs are in exploited contingent faculty positions.) After it was first published, I began seeing critiques of his efforts as nothing more than an exercise of privilege, or that he’d only be able to get away with airing his failures because he was incredibly successful. So, that confirmed that I didn’t need to bother reading it. And, I didn’t until recently.

I have a reputation for being outspoken and sharing potentially professionally damaging information online. But, I would probably never make a concise list of all of the ways in which I have failed in my career. In a year, I will be applying for tenure; as an assistant professor, I do not want to make it easier for my colleagues to pinpoint my failures. Academics are hypercritical people; while airing my failures would be a noble act, it opens me up to be further judged and criticized. “Oh, they only published that in that journal because it was rejected from four other journals.” “Wow, they applied for that three times before they got it? I got it on the first try.” I suffer from playing the same comparison game. So, as someone who currently lacks job security, and is additionally vulnerable by virtue of being Black, queer, and outspoken, I’d rather not play with fire (or failure) anymore than I need to. Sharing my failures won’t help me professionally (and actually could hurt me) and it does nothing to liberate fellow marginalized people.

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

When I receive rejections from journals, I read the reviews immediately. I curse the reviewers for being idiots, for not realizing I couldn’t do the things they wanted to see in the paper. I curse the editor(s) for not giving the paper a second chance with a perhaps harsh R&R. I make an impulsive plan to submit the paper elsewhere without changing a thing, because those reviewers didn’t know what they were talking about. Then, I put the reviews away for at least a week, or perhaps more if I was in the middle of working on another manuscript. Rejection stings, but over time I have come to see them as just part of the long process of peer-review and publishing.

While it is never my plan to get rejected, reviewers typically offer advice that will increase the likelihood of success at the next journal. It still frustrates me that over half of the comments are useless (anger may be exaggerating my estimate here…), but I recognize that the reviewers have identified one or more fatal flaws – at least for publishing in that journal. And even that sentiment – it’s just a rejection from this journal – reflects an evolving, more balanced reaction to failure; often they have nothing to do with the content or quality of my paper and, instead, may be any number of other factors that I cannot control.

5. What about when you receive good news?

Good news is immediately shared online, with my partner, and with anyone who supported me in achieving that win. Successful outcomes require a lot of work and patience, so they indeed warrant celebration when they happen. And, then I update my CV – personal copy, on my website, and on Academia.edu. And, I stare at the new line on my vita for a minute or two to let it sink in. Then, the critical voice in my head gets louder and I go on to do something else.

6. Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

As I reflect, no specific rejection comes to mind as particularly hurtful. Some have temporarily made me mad because they felt unfair, and rejection closes the line of communication so I am unable to defend or explain myself. But, I just improve what I can and submit elsewhere. One journal’s rejection is another journal’s acceptance.

But, thinking of failure on a broader sense, not simply as concrete outcomes, failing myself by not being authentic has hurt the most. In getting swept up in the elitist, competitive, impact-factor-obsessed game of academia, I am embarrassed to admit that I have made many decisions to excel that went against my sense of self, my identities, my politics, my values, and my goals as a scholar-activist. I have failed myself (and my communities) by conforming or “souling out” because the normative or mainstream path in academia demands it. This has left me doubting every decision that I have made (like working at a liberal arts college) and feeling disconnected from my work. I am making strides toward getting back on the path of authenticity in my career, but only after years of struggling and distress. Conforming was the worst thing I’ve done in my career.

7. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

Breaking ties with my grad school mentors was a hard, yet inevitable step in pursuing a self-defined career as a scholar-activist. I was literally traumatized by my graduate training. The constant microaggressions, efforts to “beat the activist out” of me, and the questioning of my career choices left me weepy and filled with doubt in my first year on the tenure-track. I had to suck the poison out of my life in order to define this new chapter of my life for myself. This was a huge success for me; but, of course, I’d never list “broke up with my grad school advisors” on my CV!

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

Given that failure is as common, if not more so, in academia, it should be normalized. A positive first step would be to openly share the ways in which we fail, and not only when we are successful enough to “compensate” for those failures or when we are privileged enough to weather the risks of such vulnerability. Rather than regularly celebrating our long lists of achievements, we could talk about our careers as journeys with wins and losses. We only fuel perfectionism-induced anxiety in others when we introduce invited speakers by reading an obnoxiously long bio that is just their CV disguised as prose. (Though, I’m sure that is the point.) Sharing failures tells others how you overcame them and finally became successful; failures are a part of the story of success. It is much more inspiring, in my opinion, to hear how you got knocked down over and over but kept getting back up. I can learn something from the person who had to cope with and overcome failure, not much from those who (supposedly) succeeded on the first try.

But, we can’t ask academics to become vulnerable if the risks of doing so remain high. We can’t ask others to share how they screwed up if we’re only going to judge them and, worse, allow those judgments to influence formal evaluations of them. I suppose one way to change the hypercritical, competitive, judgmental climate would be to celebrate scholars’ journeys rather than just their wins. Maybe we could celebrate that it took 5 years to publish an article because it kept getting desk-rejected and not just the impact factor of the journal in which it is published. Or, celebrate the personal backstory of an article, like persevering despite a neglectful, abusive former co-author, and not just that it was published and will be widely cited. What I’m suggesting here is a fundamental shift from celebrating our journeys, perhaps in a qualitative sense, and not just quantifying success, contribution, and impact. Indeed, these quantitative assessments fail to acknowledge stark disparities in academia.

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

To my past self, I think that one piece of advice would have spared me a lot of stress and heartache: live your truth, tell your truth. Success by someone else’s terms is not nearly as satisfying as failure on my own terms.

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If you have any suggestions regarding this series, please leave a comment below. You can also join the weekly newsletter if you want to make sure you won’t miss any posts!

How I Fail S01E02: Steven Shaw (PhD’91, Psychology)

How I Fail: Steven Shaw (PhD'91, Psychology)
How I Fail: Steven Shaw (PhD'91, Psychology)
For this post of How I Fail I’m profiling Steven Shaw, an associate professor who blogs at ResearchToPractice and tweets at @Shawpsych.

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you doing now, what did you before to get here?

I’m an associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University in Montreal, director of the Connections Lab and Graduate Program Director of the School/Applied Child Psychology program.I got my Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of Florida in 1991. Before entering academia, I had 17 years of experience as a school psychologist in school, university, hospital, medical school, and independent practice. My research interests include pediatric school psychology, improving education of children with rare genetic disorders and autism, advancing concepts in evidence-based practice, and development of resilience skills in children at risk for academic failure.

The picture is pretty much what I look like most days. In my basement, at a standing desk, looking grouchy, and editing.

2. Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

I started to do it, but have recently stopped. I’m now to the point where I don’t really think of these things as failures. Rejections and unfunded grant proposals are simply part of the progress that moves toward success.

3. What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

I think it can be instructive for many people. It can be an effective tool. Like most of these sorts of activities, if it is useful for you and your students, then it is worthwhile. If not, then I do not think this is a requirement. We certainly need to get rid of the idea that rejections and unfunded proposals are embarrassing or a sign of failure. I have no difficulty with any of my rejections being made public.

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

I don’t really think of most rejections as failures. It is just a method of improving the quality of my work. Given that the majority of submissions are rejected or unfunded, a rejection should not come as a surprise. The hardest part is to help students understand this. I usually read reviews and decision letters immediately. And then I let it sit for at least two days. I estimate how much time it will take to address the concerns of reviewers and either put that in my schedule or delegate those tasks to co-authors. The only part of the process that has changed is that I don’t really get upset and there is not an emotional component to the process. Sometimes rejection used to make me upset.

5. What about when you receive good news?

Nothing really changes. I just move on to the next project. However, if the paper is in large part due to student work, then I make sure that the lab celebrates their collective success. I am much more excited about the development of new ideas and data support for new findings. That is when we celebrate. Whether a paper is accepted or a grant funded is not something that we have full control of.

6. If you would have a CV of failures, how would it compare to others in your field?

I have no idea. I really don’t think about what other people in my field do. I really just focus on my work and making it better. If the activities that I engage in are valued, then I will have a job. If not, then I will find something else to do with my time and energy.

7. Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

There is some frustration when I have tried my hardest and done the best work of which I’m capable and that is still not good enough. That is usually the time that I know I need to develop a new skill set, seek out mentoring, or make changes in my process. The failures that hurt me the most are when students do not have success. When students fail or receive an unsatisfactory evaluation from me, then that is a failure on my part and a failure that hurts very much.

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

I am sure that there are, but I can’t think of anything specific. Things generally work out as they should. My success as a scholar and value I provide to my field are only minimally related to my CV.

9. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

Probably media interviews. I’m frequently asked to be on television and radio for interviews and been interviewed by newspapers related to parenting and education. Those activities probably reach more people and have made more of a positive difference than anything I’ve published in a refereed publication.

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

I like to use neutral language when writing editorial decision letters. For example, I never
write the word “reject.” I will say that “the paper is not currently ready for publication.” Take the emotion out of failure experiences and use productive feedback to continuously improve.

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

There are a few things. First, smile and laugh a lot more. Second, I have learned that the work is not about me, the process is about the work and how it can affect others.

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If you have any feedback regarding this series, please leave a comment below. You can also join the weekly newsletter if you want to make sure you won’t miss any posts!

How I Fail S01E01: Eva Lantsoght (PhD’13, Civil Engineering)

How I Fail: Eva Lantsoght (PhD'13, Civil Engineering)
How I Fail: Eva Lantsoght (PhD'13, Civil Engineering)
For the first post of How I Fail I’m profiling Eva Lantsoght, who inspired me to do this series with the “How I Work” series on her blog.

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you doing now, what did you before to get here? What do you like to do in your free time?

I’m a Full Professor and Researcher in Civil Engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, and a part-time postdoctoral researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. I’m originally from Belgium, and did my M.Sc. in Civil Engineering at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium. Then I went to the United States for a M.S. in Structural Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. I returned to Europe for my PhD in the Concrete Structures research group of Delft University of Technology. In my free time I run a blog for PhD students and academics, PhD Talk, I play music (cello and vocals), and I do crossfit and yoga.

2. Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

I keep track of my rejected journal papers. I have a Google spreadsheet that I use to have a quick overview of the status of my different papers (in progress, in review, …) and ideas for future papers, and in that spreadsheet I use a color code. One of the colors is for “rejected paper but submitted elsewhere”, and another color is for “rejected paper, need to take action.” Since I’m never deleting any paper from this list, I simply keep the “failures” in there. I don’t do the same for rejected abstracts for conferences, perhaps because an abstract feels much smaller than a complete paper.

For grants and job applications, I don’t keep track of failures, but I must admit that I haven’t had rejections in those yet (but I’ve only applied to very small research grants at my university).

3. What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

The first time I tweeted that I received a paper rejection, I had a discussion with my husband. He thought it made me look bad. I think it is just part of life in academia, and that if I only write and tweet about the things that go well, I am not authentic. I can see both sides of the discussion though, so I think that, given the incredibly high expectations and standards in academia, it is uncommon to talk about failure or share these online. It shouldn’t be – we should be more open about how hard some steps in an academic career can be, but at this moment, we aren’t; and the odd ducks that speak up may be eyed with suspicion by some.

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

Not really. If it’s a rejection of a journal paper, I look at the comments of the reviewers, make changes to the paper, and submit it elsewhere.

5. Did you know about the amount of rejection in academia before you started your PhD or your current job? Did this knowledge influence your career decisions?

I learned about it when I applied for universities in the United States for my second Master’s and for scholarships. That was the first time I became aware of the small chance of me getting funding, and getting into a university. It didn’t influence my subsequent career decision though – I guess the research virus had already taken a good grip of my body by then.

6. Do you think there is such a thing as a “fair” amount of rejection? Do you think you have been rejected more or less than others in your field? What factors do you think influence this?

In my field, the rejection rate for journal articles is about 66%, and for graduate school applications, the number sits between 66% – 85%. I’m not sure if 66% is a fair number, but that’s what I have as a reference. I’ve been rejected less than the average for my journal papers – just calculated it as 23%. Part of it must have been a stroke of luck with the reviewers, and part of it is that I’ve worked very hard on my writing over the past few years.

One important element for this relative success, I think, is that we have been doing unique experimental research in Delft over the past few years, and that it is “attractive” work to publish. I’ve noticed that it is harder to publish about my new research topic (field testing), as the majority of the reviewers need to be convinced that what we are doing is not “standard industry practice”. Similarly, it has been more difficult for me to publish from smaller research projects that I carry out at USFQ; the results simply are not that spectacular and we lack resources to bring experimental support to desk research or theoretical studies.

7. Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

The first two times a journal paper got rejected! For the first rejection, one of the reviewers was really sour, and I guessed between the lines he/she had some conflict with my supervisor. The second rejection came from an additional reviewer after I had resubmitted a fully revised a manuscript. I thought I had made the reviewers happy, but then the additional reviewer came in and completely broke down my work – by misinterpreting my results. I really wanted to shout at my screen: “Noooo, my paper is not about Failure Mode X but about Failure Mode Y!!”

8. Can you share some failures which, in retrospect, were useful learning experiences?

I guess you learn from each failure? Ever paper rejection is an opportunity to submit an improved version elsewhere.

9. Are there any opportunities that you regret not taking because you were afraid of failure?

No, I’ve never been held back by failure. I’ve always tried, and had a plan B in case plan A does not work. But to my surprise. Plan A has worked in a good number of occasions.

10. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

When one of the BSc students who graduated under my supervision gets admitted to graduate school, I feel so proud. I feel proud of the student, of course, but also a bit of myself, as I’m actively helping our students to continue their studies abroad. Similarly, I sometimes receive mails from readers of my blog that a certain post I wrote really helped them get through a difficult time in their PhD – something like that makes my day/week/month.

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

Ease up a bit and be more supportive of each other. Be more open about failure rates. Stop thinking everybody else is out there to come and compete against you, and that you need to stop them in their tracks before they get “better” than you.

12. If you could time travel, what is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

My past self that just started in academia? To worry less (and imposter-syndrome less, if that’s a verb). To my much younger self: spend more time with your family and friends – you’ll miss them sorely when you start living all over the world.

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I’m very happy that Eva agreed to be interviewed for How I Fail, as well as a few others I have contacted so far. If you don’t want to miss any posts, please sign up for my weekly newsletter in the menu on the left!

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