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Embarking on a PhD: failure is inevitable in the face of progress

Blogger Olly Bowling felt the fear of failure before starting his PhD but some wise words from literature helped to assuage those feelings

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Olly Bowling

November 6 2018
Trying and failing during a PhD


As a person just beginning a PhD, there are many feelings floating around about my upcoming three (plus) years. Least of all is the fear of failure; that incessant thought that casts doubt on your abilities. Recently, I discovered a quote by the writer Samuel Beckett: “[E]ver tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Despite the fact that this quote is from a typically bleak writer, it is comforting to hear someone so well respected express that failure is not only inevitable but entwined with any form of progression.

This has brought me some comfort in starting my PhD. I know that the academic world can be intimidating, filled with words that we don’t fully understand, and well-read academics who throw them around. However, now that I have started, I’ve become more at peace with the fact that I am new to this world. The knowledge will come with time and lots of hard work. I’ll do things wrong. I’ll write terrible first drafts that I’m sure I’ll look at in a few years and cringe. There’s a sense of comfort in accepting that I will fail but that I have to keep going if I want to improve.

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Lots of things seem like they could be quite testing over time. I’m enrolling at a university 228 miles away from where I live. By doing this, my path will be pretty unconventional, but not completely unusual. The aspects of PhD life that students relish, such as the sense of community, and becoming part of something larger by growing into your institution, will be much more difficult to experience. 

As such, I know that it’s important to try to find these outlets elsewhere. I’ll be travelling up to spend time at my university roughly once a month and will try to see these as social trips as much as “work” trips; making an effort to get to know other students and staff there and organising drinks with people. I’ll make sure I’m on a mailing list for events and speak to my supervisor about any events or seminars that are coming up, and try to attend them.

There are also events for PhD students in my home city; Twitter has been useful for finding out about these kinds of things. For example there is a local group called PubhD where students meet up in pubs to talk about their research. Things such as collaborative work spaces have also introduced me to new people and help to break up the routine of spending my days in isolation at the library.

Time away from research is necessary, and I found this to be a really important part of doing my master’s; having a routine of when to work and when not to work helped balance my life so I could still fit in seeing friends or playing sport and doing the other things that I enjoy doing in my spare time.

But with feelings of dejection or failure, an acceptance that these things are normal is useful and that there are always people to turn to when you need to vent. It’s important to be patient. Motivation will disappear at times, and frustration will grow. Hopefully by doing these things I can reduce any niggling doubts about any shortcomings that I may have and keep plugging away.

Read more: The romance versus the reality of a PhD


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