Lead by example and share your failures

From paper submissions to job applications, rejection is part of academic life. Leaders should share their own stories of failure to help others through theirs, says Tracy Nevatte

Tracy Nevatte's avatar
Keele University
28 Apr 2023
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Normalised failure depicted in a baby bird learning to fly

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The internet is full of inspirational videos and blogs on why failure equals success. This message, however, has not translated into the working lives of academic researchers. The academic career pathway is rarely a straight line and that’s OK. It’s almost preferable because you pick up transferable skills and valuable experience along the way. Still, we see success as the classic sequential career progression: get a PhD, work hard as a postdoc, get an early career fellowship, land a lectureship, get promoted a few times and, bam, you’re a professor.

“Failures” in academia can range from job or funding application rejections to disappointing research outcomes to a failure of judgement or of good research practice. The consequences of perceived failures, irrespective of whether they are actual failures, can be isolating. For some, they are life-changing, damaging to their mental health and, in extreme cases, career-ending.

So, how can we get better at normalising failure for researchers?

Manage expectations

In a study conducted by the Royal Society, only 0.45 per cent of students who complete a PhD will ultimately make it to the top job, of the classic academic pathway, as a professor. We need to be honest with people about the academic job market. This will help them manage their expectations and provide them with the skills and mindset to make the most of “failures” when they happen – because they will. 

For example, someone could have a strong start to their career – a good PhD with publications, a postdoc with a good team and a great early career fellowship – but then they start applying for funding and all of sudden rejections start coming in. They can see the first as a blip, but then the second and third land and they start thinking: “I’m not a good academic. I can’t get funded. I’m not cut out to be a researcher.” This can often happen at a time of conflicting life priorities, such as trying to get a mortgage, start a family or manage caring responsibilities.

Let’s be honest upfront with PhD students, postdocs and early career researchers about the number of rejections they will encounter, including never reaching the position of professor. That way when it happens, they are prepared and see it as an opportunity to improve, not a failure.

Provide a supportive research culture

A colleague recently compared a researcher to a plant in your garden. If it’s not flowering well, you don’t immediately throw it out; you add some fertiliser, maybe change its position or water it more often. You try something different. Our research culture is the garden in which our researchers grow and hopefully thrive. Institutions must provide a supportive research environment that provides strong mentorship and coaching and good mental health support, and encourages a vibrant research community where people talk and share.

As leaders we should lead by example and share our own failures regularly. It may seem counterintuitive, but vulnerability is a good characteristic to have as a leader. If you’re a professor, be visible when that grant application isn’t funded, or your publication isn’t going as well as you had hoped. For those in research leadership positions, such as faculty deans for research or research directors, look out for colleagues, know what is going on with early career researchers and share similar experiences you may have had. Support them to turn what they probably perceive as a failure into a success.

We are often our own worst critic and seeing senior academics speaking openly about setbacks can encourage others to do the same and alleviate researchers’ feelings of isolation.

As much as research leaders should share their failures, early career researchers must do the same. It might be a simple conversation with a colleague while making a coffee in the kitchen at work: “My publication was not accepted by such-and-such journal” or “the feedback highlighted the following areas that needed more work” may result in an offer of support from the colleague or signposting to someone who could help. They also might find a solution quicker than trying to do it on your own.

What can be harder to manage is when you are rejected but don’t have much information to go on. As a researcher you can spend weeks or months on a funding application only to receive a rejection letter months later without any feedback or hint as to why. Often, it’s not because your research proposal wasn’t good enough. It might be that your project was fundable but there wasn’t enough money in the pot. We should help researchers build up resiliency in the face of such ambiguity because it is unfortunately part of the academic funding and publishing process.

We rarely see senior academics share their failures, either with each other or with those at the start of their careers, but their career trajectory is undoubtedly full of them. Do they not share these stories because they’re ashamed or, rather, do they not see them as failures in the first place? The latter seems more likely. Only when we normalise failure, and take the isolating power of it away, can failures equal success. But it’s going to take effort from early career researchers, research leaders, institutions and funders to get there.

Tracy Nevatte is director of research strategy delivery at Keele University.

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