How to use failure to build an academic career

Failure can be a stepping stone on the way to professional success. Here, Beiting He offers tips for finding support through setbacks and cultivating a resilience mindset

Beiting He's avatar
21 Mar 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
professional woman in office with laptop with head in hands

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Macau University of Science and Technology logo

You may also like

Recognise work-life imbalance and restore resilience
3 minute read
balancing stones

Academic failure can be a crushing experience, one that can make you question your abilities and your place in academia. However, it’s important to remember that failure is a natural part of the learning process, and that even the most successful academics have experienced their fair share of setbacks. What sets successful academics apart from those who give up is their ability to draw strength from failure, to learn from their mistakes and use them as a stepping stone to future success.

It is crucial to understand that failure is not a reflection of your worth or intelligence. It is an opportunity to learn, grow and develop resilience. In academia, where the bar is set high and the learning never stops, the ability to learn from failure is a vital skill. It is an opportunity to step back, re-evaluate and learn valuable lessons that can guide you towards success.

Embrace failure

Embracing failure can be a challenge. The feeling of inadequacy can be suffocating, but there is a certain beauty in the process of learning and growth that only failure can offer. Failure is not an end point; it is a beginning. It is the first step towards improvement, towards becoming a better version of yourself.

The first step towards building an academic career on failure is to embrace it as a necessary part of the journey. It is easy to become consumed by the fear of failure, to feel as if each setback reflects your worth or intelligence. However, this mindset can hinder your growth and progress. Failure is inevitable, and it is essential to accept it as a natural part of the process.

Instead of worrying about setbacks, focus on the big picture. Failure is just a small part of your academic journey, and it is important to keep that in perspective. It is easy to get bogged down in the details, but if you keep your long-term goals in mind and stay focused on what you want to achieve, stumbling blocks become less daunting. Success is not just about achieving your goals; it’s also about your journey to get there.

Lessons from academic failure

As a young academic, the journey towards a successful career can feel daunting. The academic world is a highly competitive space, where the stakes are high and the standards of excellence are constantly rising. Any misstep can make it feel as if your entire career is on the line. However, what if I told you that failure could be the key to a successful academic career?

When faced with failure, you can take a step back and analyse the situation. What went wrong? Why did it happen? What could you have done differently? By understanding why you failed, you can use that knowledge to improve and grow.

In the face of failure, it can be easy to lose motivation and give up. However, to succeed in academia, it is essential to develop resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from inevitable setbacks and adversity, to pick yourself up and keep moving forward. To develop resilience, it is important to stay motivated, to focus on your goals and to seek support from mentors and colleagues. You are not alone in your struggles, and there is always someone who has faced similar challenges.

One way to learn from the failures of others is to seek out successful academics who have experienced failure themselves. Many academics have faced rejection, negative feedback or other setbacks on their path to success. These experiences have shaped them, and they can offer valuable insights and advice on how to navigate the academic world and overcome setbacks. Seek out these individuals, listen to their stories and learn from their experiences.

My doctoral supervisor guided me a lot. She encouraged me with her own life story, and I learned from her what it means to be a true warrior – to keep fighting and getting stronger after every defeat. As everyone knows, it is very difficult to do qualitative research. Fortunately, with the help of my supervisor, I attended academic conferences and got to know excellent scholars and like-minded friends who are kind and often give me advice.

Networking is another essential skill in your academic career. Who you know can be just as important as what you know. By building relationships with other academics, you can gain insights, receive feedback and create opportunities for collaboration. To that end, attend conferences, join professional organisations, and seek out mentors and colleagues who can help you navigate the ups and downs of your career.

Persist in learning through academic failure

Academic failure can be a difficult experience, but if we can persist in learning from those failures and embrace failure as a means of growth, we can turn setbacks into steps to success. Here are specific tips on how to persist in learning through academic failure:

Maintain a growth mindset 

Instead of seeing failure as a reflection of your personal abilities, view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Recognise that you can improve and that each failure brings with it a chance to develop skills and gain knowledge.

Keep your goals in mind 

Whether it’s publishing a paper or securing a grant, keep your long-term goals at the forefront of your mind. Use each failure as a chance to re-evaluate your goals and assess whether you’re on the right track. If you need to make adjustments, do so and move forward.

Don’t give up after one rejection or negative review

Keep working at it after rejection or negative feedback, learning from each experience and refining your approach. Persistence is key to learning through academic failure. Recognise that the path to success is rarely a straight line, and that setbacks and failures are a natural part of the journey.

Celebrate incremental successes 

Goals are important, but don’t let them consume you. Work on the steps you need to take to achieve those goals. Celebrate each small success along the way, whether it’s finishing a draft of a paper or mastering a new technique. These small wins will help to keep you motivated and moving forward along the process.

Take care of yourself 

Academic failure can be stressful and can take a toll on your mental and physical health. Make sure to prioritise self-care, whether it’s exercise, meditation or spending time with loved ones. Taking care of yourself will help you to maintain perspective and keep you focused on your goals.

Focus on process, not outcome

Failure is not the end of the road; it is the beginning of a new path. By embracing failure as an opportunity to learn and persist in the learning, we can build a successful academic career despite setbacks and failures. Remember, every failure is a chance to grow, to learn and to become.

Beiting He is assistant professor in the School of Liberal Arts at the Macau University of Science and Technology.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site