On failure in academia

Oh boy. I haven’t been really good at updating my blog, have I? Nearly a year ago I was full of plans of how I will use it to document my amazing research trip to the UK, which I didn’t, and then I thought I would write about the process of applying to grad-school and writing my MA thesis, which also didn’t really happen. Applications have come and gone, and we are now in the middle of March which means that scholarship decisions are starting to roll in. As a result, I get a painful jolt of adrenaline every time I see the blinking green light on my phone that means a new email is waiting in my inbox.

A few days ago I found out that I failed to get a scholarship for international students at King’s College London. It is one of only two scholarships I was eligible for at that university. An hour ago I received an email notifying me that I wasn’t chosen for one of the scholarships I applied for in Cambridge. It’s not the end of the world, but in all honesty – I started crying. I have been under a lot of pressure lately – I’m trying to write a 120 pp. thesis in four months (one and a half of which have already passed), one of my cats has just been diagnosed with chronic renal disease, and anything after July is a hazy fog of uncertainty (will I be moving to the UK next autumn? This wholly depends on whether I get a scholarship; where will I live? When will my husband join me?).

It’s tough to get rejected – even though I know that I applied to a lot of scholarships, so it stands to reason that I’ll get a lot of rejections, it still hurts. I still wonder what I did wrong, and why I wasn’t good enough. But I know that this is a perilous path for my thoughts to take, because in academia you get rejected, A LOT. It’s something you have to get used to pretty early on. In order to achieve anything, you first have to put yourself out there – which means applying for scholarships, awards, and grants, sending conference proposals, and submitting articles, chapters, and books. Then you wait. I suppose that out of every 10 things you apply to, you’ll be rejected from at least half. Sometimes even 9 out of 10. But that’s the thing – that one thing you do get propels you onwards.

I’m trying to learn how to try things and fail elegantly. I am a very neurotic human, and I tend to really get in my head sometimes, obsessively roaming around in circles in my mind, lovingly grooming thought-monsters that distort my reality. Over the years I have come to realise just how much my fears and anxieties have been holding me back. It’s hard to fail, it’s awful to get rejected, and it’s crushing to get several rejections – but it’s impossible to get anywhere without taking chances, and when you take chances, you, inevitably, fail sometimes.

An interesting newish trend which has helped me put my academic “failures” into perspective is that of academics who publish a ‘CV of failures’. See for example this CV published by Johannes Haushofer. We are so used to seeing only successes and end-results, most especially with modern social media, that we either forget or are unaware of the processes that preceded these accomplishments – processes that often involved failures. This puts me in mind of Angela Duckworth’s theory about grit, and Carol Dweck’s concept of the ‘growth mindset’. Both of them believe that in order to succeed we must process failure in a different way – not as a be-all-end-all, but as a natural part of learning and progressing. According to Duckworth, the secret to success is grit, which she defines like this – “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint”. While Dweck contrasts people who have ‘fixed mindsets’ with those who have ‘growth mindsets’. The difference is in their response to failure – those with fixed mindsets believe that they can’t improve, and that if they fail (say, at a test), that failure defines them and their intelligence and abilities. In contrast, people who have a growth mindset see themselves as constantly improving, and hence perceive failure as a challenge, or a mere bump in the road.

I tend to veer automatically to the fixed mindset, and it’s something that I really want to change about myself. For me failures tend to seem catastrophic and tragic, I let them define who I am, and who I will be. I am so scared of processes that I expect to either be a natural, or forever and hopelessly bad at whatever I do. I don’t want this grad-school experience to be tragic, and I don’t want to let these failures define me. I’m scared of hearing back from the rest of my scholarships, but I know that at least I’m trying, and that the worst case scenario is that next year, I’ll try again.

Joanne Leore

P.S. – Because it’s also important to remember and celebrate the successes (which tend to get swept aside in the consternation over the failure), here’s a #tbt from two months ago: