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:



My North American adventure, part 1

Last April I saw a call for papers for the History of Science Society conference in Toronto. I decided to try my luck and send in an abstract – I’m an MA student but my research is pretty advanced – I figured that the worst that can happen is that I’ll get a ‘no’. It was just after all sorts of academics started posting their CV of failures online – detailing all the jobs and grants that they didn’t get, all of the papers they have written that have not been accepted. It made me realise that my fear of failure can only hold me back in academia, that in fact, in order to achieve anything I will need to try and try and try, and fail a lot, in order to succeed, and I thought that there was no better time to start than the present. I was very surprised when I received an email several months later congratulating me on the acceptance of my paper.

And so, I was going to Toronto, to a four-day conference, and it seemed a shame to travel all the way to North America without visiting my sister who lives in New Jersey, on a little street facing the famous skyline of New York. I spent five days in New Jersey, though it felt like more, and I had such a good time spending time with my niece and nephew, and with my sister and her life partner. Here are a few snippets that I wrote in those few days.



It was a day flight, but all the shutters all over the plane were pulled down. I pulled mine up every once in a while to gaze at the tiny mountain tops and lakes below, blinking at the sun reflected by the clouds. Most of the flight I passed in the darkness, with the harsh yellow reading light above trained at my kindle screen, furiously reading the first volume of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust. I started reading in the line for the check-in, and finished after eight hours in the air. I read like I did when I was a child, in wild abandon, completely lost to the world. It is hard to put into words what it felt like to be back in Lyra’s Oxford, to come back to the world Pullman painted in His Dark Materials, the first book of which, Northern Lights, I read when I was 12, falling madly deeply in love with that world, and it, and its characters, have been a part of my life ever since.


Woke up this morning to a sliver of light peeping through the curtains, so that I knew right away that I had finally slept the night away, as dawn begins to break at seven. My eyelids felt heavy and painful with sleep, so I opened the bedside lamp and read a few pages on my kindle before going out of my room. In the living room, on the royal blue sofa, sat my niece and nephew, with wild bed-hair and glistening eyes, and watched an animated movie on the gigantic screen as the sky outside slowly turned a lighter and lighter blue. The atmosphere in the living room was slightly gloomy, but cosy at the same time. Two childish faces gazing at their own private wonderland in that dark, half bewitched hour, in which the skies slowly open, and the grownups are not yet awake. I never had that, since my mother was always up at six. Maybe that is why I curved out my own space at the witching hours, between 23 and 2 in the morning. Though my father was still awake, he remained in his study upstairs, and the rest of the house was mine, asleep, and bewitched, to read, watch Hallmark films (the magical king – Legend of the Leprechauns, Merlin, and so on, not the sickly-sweet dramas), and mess around on the internet, building my own website, and spending hours in book lovers’ forums.

I put the kettle on to boil and made myself a breakfast of a tortilla smeared with peanut butter and apricot jam, and a soft blueberry cereal bar stuck in the middle. I sprayed it with salt, and made a cup of spicy cinnamon tea, grabbed a banana, and sat down to eat and read. I am continuing a book I started on the plane, ‘Just One Damned Thing After Another’ by Jodi Taylor. The strong tea fortified and warmed me as the sun kept rising outside, and the blue skies started glowing at the edges with gold. I’m not sure what to think about this book, it is not especially good, but also not glaringly bad. It uses the same premise as Connie Willis’s – time travelling historians – but treats the subject in a completely different way. There is none of Willis’s depth of historical details or evidence of painstaking research, instead it is more of a series of episodic adventures.


When I go to London I always visit Foyles, when in New York I’ve started forming a tradition of going to The Strand. The Strand is a beautiful and gigantic bookshop, that boasts having 18 miles of books. I was walking around this shop of wonders, the floor boards around me creaking with the steps of dozens of people. They sounded like a ship, screeching and cracking around me. I felt so soothed and curious, ensconced, with the floor creak-creak-creaking around me. I spent hours browsing books in the history, photography, fantasy & sci fi, and graphic novels sections, letting images and ideas wash over me and inspire me.

The graphic novels section was the biggest one I have ever seen in a bookshop, and had many tables on which specially recommended volumes were arranged. I read two books on the spot, and leafed through dozens of others, eventually choosing three to buy. It was a delicious experience.




Woke up in the dark again. I like it. The jetlag is adding new timescapes to my life – the magical hours between four and seven in the morning on a quiet Sunday. Just me, and the computer, writing and writing and writing. Looking at the schedule of the upcoming conference and dreaming. Inhaling my pumpkin tea, luxuriating in finally wearing long sleeves and socks indoors, and looking at the bluing sky outside.



I could spend hours looking at maps, thinking. Reading place names, caressing rivers and lakes with my eyes, trying to imagine what lives are led there, what the atmosphere feels like, what are these hills and oceans dreaming of.

I am performing open heart surgery on my writing sample for the PhD applications. It is lying, dissected, spread-eagle on my screen, innards poking out in disarray. I am poking and prodding, rearranging organs and limbs, trying out different variations, until finally I connect all of the right veins and arteries to each other, and the paragraphs and chapters begin to pink with the healthy vibrance of a well-structured argument.



Today I worked until noon, and then decided that being so near New York and only visiting once is heart breaking, so I threw on some clothes and caught the bus to Port Authority. I spent the afternoon in the Met, mostly in the Modern European section.

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Seeing paintings I know and love felt like meeting old friends, but I had one uncanny experience, when I walked into a room and a full length painting loomed before me like a ghost from my past. I realised that I bought a postcard depicting this painting 13 years ago, and it used to hang on the wall of my bedroom as a teenager. It was eerie and spooky and lovely.



Walking home from the Met I was surrounded by squirrels. Silvery-grey ones, and small ashy-black ones. I saw two squirrels with short tails, which I found out a few months ago happens when a predator grabs hold of their tail – they can break it off, like a lizard, and leave the frustrated hunter with a useless piece of fluff in their mouth. Central Park was darkly and glossily green, with castles rising in the background, and orange leaves strewn on the ground between jutting brown-black boulders, and curling tree roots that looked like sleeping squirrels with red fruits in their mouths.


As the bus left Port Authority in the direction of New Jersey I opened my laptop and starting working on my application materials again. I raised my head to see New York standing before me, black and blue and yellow, wet from the rain, full of whispering promises. I’ll be back.


Incredible shrinking women, or – getting my voice heard

I think this video is very important, I think this young woman is a genius, and I am so glad that this is going viral. It is such an important issue, feminism, and equality, and the fact that many people believe we have achieved this equality that we have been fighting for, for hundreds of years (doing research for a paper I stumbled upon the fact that not all researchers agree as to when feminism begun, the dominant view is that it started at the end of the 19th century, but some argue that it started with the quarrel de femme – “the woman question”, in France, 1450).

So we live with the sense that we are finally equal, men and women, living peacefully. I believed that, until I started to open my eyes over a year ago. I started reading feminist blogs, learning about feminist and post-colonial criticism of literature in university, I started looking around and seeing that actually all is not equal. I watched, and learned, and read about how women are sexually harassed in public spaces, even small things, like strange men commenting on women’s clothes, or shouting sexual remarks, or calling women “baby”, or “sexy” (for example). I experienced it myself, and finally acknowledged that I was experiencing it. I learned that women’s wages are still considerably lower than men’s, a condition which also has a trendy name – “the pay gap“. I learned that most movies do not pass the Bechdel test (does the movie have two female characters, who have names, and converse about something other than men – seriously, try it out, you will be amazed at how many movies fail at this). There are myriad examples, and these are just ones that I managed to fish out of my head right now.

A final example that I would like to talk about is academia (This site has some horror stories about what it is like to be a woman in academia). Going into the academic world requires you to make your voice heard, boldly. And that is a thing that I have always struggled with, and also the thing which touched me the most about this video. Lily Myers talks about women who shrink, so as to make more room for men, women growing thinner and thinner, being silent, being expected to “contain” men. And she also talks about women getting their voices heard, or rather – women being afraid of raising their voices, with a very poignant example: she says that she asked five questions in genetics class today, and all of them started with “sorry”, because as women in academic situations we sometimes feel the need to apologize for getting ourselves heard, almost as if our opinions are somewhat lesser.

Women have been holding back their voices for centuries, in the Renaissance it was not acceptable for a woman to write an original text, and women were actually forcibly held out of the academia and academic pursuits by not being taught Latin and Greek, *the* academic languages of the era, but only the vernacular tongues. But even then, there were a few exceptional and inspirational women, who learned these languages and found themselves a niche in the literature world, beginning with translation (which was somewhat respectable for ladies, since nothing original was written – although you should give them credit, they did find a way to put their original voice in through introductions and via the way that they translated, emphasizing certain things, while making others seem of less importance), and moving on to writing original pieces. These women inspire me and fill me with awe, like the woman in this slam poetry video, they make me want to go out there and show the world what I can do.

And so I have decided to acknowledge all of this, and make the conscious decision to get my voice heard in academia. I have just been accepted to graduate school, beginning my MA next October, and although I am rather timid and reserved, I have decide to make a change, to be more present, to excel, to stop being afraid that my opinion does not deserve to be heard. So I decided to publish my first article, I already have the basis for it and just need to develop and fine-tune it, perhaps I will elaborate in my next post.

So my plan to get my voice heard is made up of four parts: 1. Start writing more often in this blog, as an exercise in writing, and in getting my voice heard, 2. Work on my article and publish it, 3. Actually participate in my seminars this semester, I am clever, I have things to say, I’m not just a fly on the wall, 4. Speak out more in everyday life, complain if needed, and not just swallow it all and hold it in.

Because it’s my time to grow.


Leore Joanne

The San Diego blues

One of the joys of being in a foreign country – discovering all those new birds, that you don’t have in your home country (of course other animals are exciting as well, but birds are much more commonly seen than any other species, except perhaps for insects), being surrounded by unrecognized bird songs feels positively exotic to me. Also the fact that San Diego has hummingbirds (!!) who sometimes come to our garden (we have rented a villa for our family), and that is way beyond exotic for me.

My room has a gigantic window, floor to ceiling, right beside my bed, outside is a tiny stretch of garden, and a small tree with purple flowers right across from me. I sit in my bed, delighting in the grey coolness of the sky outside, and look at the birds and insects (bees, and giant metallic beetles) that find their way into my small piece of sky.

I am on vacation, but have to write two and a half papers during said vacation, so while my family goes out to shop and have fun, I have to stay in the villa and study. Looking out into the garden, seeing all this life going on around me, all these animals I haven’t seen before, soothes my soul a little bit.


Yesterday we went to San Diego zoo, one of the largest zoos in the world, and one of the zoos most active in preservation and breeding programs. We went with two small children (my nephew, who is one year old, and my five year old niece), so we sped by most of the exhibits, and I didn’t get to just stand and stare at anything to my heart’s content. But I did get something of the gist of the place, and I looked at the keepers, with the geeky khaki shorts they need to wear, and thought how lovely, if I could go back to this zoo someday as a veterinarian.

I find it hard to get into a habit of writing, especially with so many things happening around, but I know I’ll be glad later for documenting some of it, some day in the future, when I shall want to wallow in the memories. Perhaps I’ll write the next post about my library escapades in New York last week.

What I HAVE been good about was updating my instagram! So if you want to check up on me, look me up – www.instagram.com/leorejoanne

And now, my mom and sisters are going to Anthropologie and other exciting shops we simply don’t have in Israel, and I need to go back to reading and writing about the gothic in children’s literature, and the poetics of Charles Dickens in Bleak House. And when I finish both of those (next week), I can start comparing the presentation of hybrids (centaurs/fauns/mermaids etc.) in classical writings (ancient Greece), and in contemporary fiction (Narnia, The Magicians, Harry Potter, etc.). Only thing I can say is – at least I have really interesting subjects.

Have a magical day,

Leore Joanne Green