It's an awful word which conjures up feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, inadequacy, and depression to name but a few. But here's the funny thing, failure can be a good thing.
Yes, failure can be positive.
I am not revolutionary in this idea. However, ask me whether failure is positive a few years ago (even a few months ago) and I would never have agreed. But being a little bit older, and possibly wiser after my PhD experiences, I now truly believe this.
I am not somebody who has failed at many things, which is not intended as a boast. I succeeded at school with As and Bs, got into a university and came out of the process with a PhD. Success, not failure, right?
Well, I have had failures throughout the PhD process, and I have been inspired to right about them here following on from an article in the Guardian about learning how to fail better in academia:
The first point made is to BE HONEST
Well, this is the entire point of this blog - honesty in sharing my experience to help prepare others for their PhD journey. And every one of us will fail at something. I failed to get one of my articles published. I failed to "pass" my viva first time around (I did pass, it was major corrections but at the time it felt like a failure). I failed to get a research position after reaching the interview phase. I failed to land an academic job immediately after the doctorate. If more people were honest about the failures they experience along the PhD way, the less stigma would be attached to certain issues such as the viva, job hunting, etc. Not only will this help fellow and future PhD students, but it also can open dialogues with supervisors and other academics who may not be as aware of the problems facing students today.
"To remove the stigma of failure, we need to first acknowledge its existence rather than spinning or denying it. We must discuss it more openly in seminars, conferences and supervisory meetings".
The second point is to BE THANKFUL
The article writes that "failure can be a gift. It can come before major advances and is usually not as bad as it seems". I wholeheartedly subscribe to this belief, even if I haven't reached the "major advances" stage! I am thankful that I did manage to get a job immediately after the PhD in the environment I want to be in - universities. It may not be an academic position, but I am enjoying every moment and learning an immense amount about universities which will serve me well no matter what I do next. I am thankful that I got major corrections. You may think I am crazy for saying that, but it forced me to revise my thesis which I likely would have had to do anyway if I wanted to get it published. Much better to get it sorted immediately than embarrassingly sending something which wasn't ready to a major publisher. Failure at an early stage in the process can save time, energy, tears, or embarrassment further down the road.
"When failure happens, be grateful that it occurred but was not bigger, more damaging or more complex. Then list the actual and potential benefits of what did happen".
The third point is to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY
We love to blame others. When I walked out of my viva, I wanted to blame my examiners for "not getting it" or for "being out to get me". I was reactionary to the experience rather than reflective. Now, that is not to say that I wholesale agreed with all the criticisms I received, but time, reflection, and consultation with my supervisor allowed me to have a clearer view of what areas of responsibility I needed to accept and change.
"It’s easy – and tempting – to blame failure on others. Yes, a manuscript may have been rejected because of a cranky reviewer, but refusal is much more likely to be the result of weaknesses in the article, lack of fit with the journal or poor writing".
And sometimes there are times when maybe you are not responsible, but again blaming others is never the best solution in the long run (although a short-term rant can make you feel really good!). I had a particularly unpleasant and difficult interview experience for a research position (you can read about it here), and while I was angry and frustrated, I ultimately has to (a) be honest and realistic about my chances, (b) be thankful for the useful experience, and (c) take responsibility for not standing up for myself more in the process.
The fourth point is to LEARN FROM IT
There is no point acknowledging the three points above if we don't do anything to change the situation. We must learn from our failures. As the article states:
"in adulthood, failure can make us doubt if we are good enough and wonder why others seem to better".
This is something which surely resonates with so many PhD students. For me, I may ask why I had such a tough viva when others had "easy" ones? Others questions PhDs may ask include: why did their article get published so quickly and mine is still in review?; Why do they get teaching experience and I don't?; Why did they get funding and not me? There are undoubtedly other factors at play in these questions far beyond any question of the quality of the individual. But by placing the emphasis on other, "better" people, we can stifle ourselves from seeking other opportunities or other avenues for success. The article puts it better than I could:
"Academics should be rewarded for learning from failure. We need safe spaces and places to talk, write and share what was has been learned. This culture allows everyone to benefit from failure and make these discussions more common, conventional, and constructive".
Finally, the fifth point is to MOVE ON
Now, you may think that I keep harking on about my viva and that I can't move on from it. And earlier this year you probably would have been right!
"Don’t hold on to negative or damaging emotions towards yourself or other people. Remember, it takes courage to face failure and learn from it; doing so is testament to the skills, openness and relationships of all those involved. Failure is inevitable in academic life but wasting it is not".
But now I have put that "failure" behind me. I see my doctorate as the same as someone who sailed through their viva. I bear no ill will towards my examiners, and my thesis is better and stronger for that experience (as am I to be honest!). I talk about that experience to fulfil that first tenet:
I hope this post, and the Guardian article, can inspire others to be open and honest about failures during the PhD process.