Failure is an option: six ways to deal with it

Failing is part of being an academic, says John Tregoning, so we should be ready for it

September 19, 2015
fail, failure, F, grade

Are you ready to fail, because as an academic you will, repeatedly.

We all do. Failure is part and parcel of academia. The two repeat offenders are grants and papers and, of the two, grant failure feels more brutal (to me at least). If you are like me, you will take each failure really badly, and it will ruin numerous evenings and weekends (and on one occasion, a child’s birthday party).

To avoid this, it is  important to develop coping strategies, a lot of them grounded in approaches to build mental resilience. Here are six that might help:

Mindset
I cannot recommend strongly enough the brilliant book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University. In brief, don’t take failure as a blow to your self-esteem; look at it as a learning opportunity. There may be a good reason why the grant or paper failed. Don’t think: “stupid reviewers, why don’t they understand me”; do think: “how can I write that better so it makes sense to even the most stupid reviewer”.

There are other opportunities
Failure is very rarely the end of the line. Grants are on a rolling cycle and many applications only get accepted on the 2nd or 3rd submission. That journal you were striving for is probably not as great as you thought, and there are more journals than ever, so your paper will find a home. Convince yourself that impact factor is an artificial construct. Successful academics are determined (bloody minded). Think how many job applications and interviews you had in order to get here and apply that same spirit now you have the job.

It’s nothing personal
Unless you ran off with the reviewer’s partner, killed their grant or ran over their dog, the critique of your work is about your work and not about you. Taking it to heart, memorising key lines and writing “you are an idiot” in red pen on the comments is satisfying but doesn’t get the grant funded. Look at it from the reviewer’s point of view: they have limited time to make decisions on a large number of grants from a range of subjects. Bear in mind that we are all called to be reviewers and through negligence, weakness or our own deliberate fault we sometimes get it wrong.

You’re not unique
Look up the success rate of your grant scheme, then take the inverse – that is how many people you are in company with. More applicants fail than succeed. Find them, commiserate and move on.

What would Alan Sugar say?
Remember, you are selling, they are buying. You have to make sure the fit is right and the sales pitch correct.

Learn from what goes well
While failure may seem bad, success has its downsides too. You’ve actually got to do the work that sounded so good on paper. You’ve then got to think of bigger and better new ideas. At least if you are unsuccessful, you can recycle the good parts of the application.

Remember, academia is just a job. It may take up all your time, intellectual capacity and emotional energy, but it is still just a job.

Take a step back, do something unrelated – garden, run, swim, paint, sing. Apologise to the child whose birthday you ruined, and then on Monday morning pick up your pen and start again.

John Tregoning is senior lecturer in the mucosal infection and immunity section of virology at Imperial College London. He runs a blog on academic life.

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