I’ve just finished two days at a workshop for PhD students and researchers in political geography who are looking to work in academia. It was a rewarding experience, with really practical advice on getting articles published, securing money for research projects, getting job interviews for lectureships, teaching fellowships, or postdoctoral positions.
It also terrified me.
It did so because like most people, the end of my PhD is just like the end of an undergraduate degree. It’s the time when the real world starts, and you join the throngs of doctors and early career researchers scrapping for temporary teaching fellowships and post-doctoral positions.
The diagnosis of the conference was the academic jobs market is crappy. The antidote was a massive pill, to be taken without water. It’s a medicine in the form of a hard truth I’m trying to swallow. Failure is an inevitable part of this jobs market.
This is because academia is, in some ways, no different to many other jobs that graduates apply for. There are interview panels to impress, hurdles to jump and the all-important pre-requisite work ‘experience’ although, this comes primarily from academic publications and grant applications. You could be the most affable, well rounded candidate in the country, or the best teaching assistant on the planet, but it’s more and more the case that PhD students need to have publications to secure an academic job. Like other jobs, the competition is fierce (one academic at the conference estimated 75 applicants for a single advertised post, another showed us the 22 job applications she sent off to different universities). Like other jobs, there is incredible pressure to secure one of these positions as soon as the PhD is completed (some lucky students even secure a job prior to finishing the PhD, which is offered on the successful completion of the thesis).
As it happens, I do still want to be an academic. I’m willing to write 22 applications, or risk a 1/75 chance of securing a job. But the senior academics at the workshop provided some very simple advice that I think will be hard to remember, but vital to persevere.
Failure is Ok.
Although my experience has been brief, I have found that in academia, like in most jobs, we are very rarely exposed to the failure of others. If somebody in my PhD office publishes a paper, it’s great news and a pat on the back. What we don’t see are the hours of revisions, multiple journal rejections elsewhere and scathing criticisms left by harsh reviewers. We don’t see the silent tears, sleepless nights, mental health issuers or high blood pressure. In academia, an often lonely profession, people often aren’t good about talking about failure and rejection. Failure isn’t a topic for the kitchenette, it's one for endless rumination when back at their desk.
At this workshop we talked at length about failure. It was great fun. We talked about horrible anonymous review comments and rejected papers. People spoke bravely about how they dealt with rejection, or with the endless of anxiety of fulfilling university requirements of publishing x amount of articles each year. It was this that reminded me why I wanted a job in political geography. Everyone tries really hard, and gets shot down as a matter of course. Some are successful, and a large degree of luck is helpful. Talking about rejection, recognising how ubiquitous it is can be a cathartic experience. If we all spent a little more time discussing failure as something shared, instead of pretending we are all some kind of Nietzschen Übermensch who can stoically overcome our rejection in a single brisk step, we might help ourselves get away from the anxiety that failure and rejection inevitably induces by dwelling on it alone.
Now you might tell your friends and parents you got rejected from a graduate scheme, or made it to the final interview, but you’re not encouraged to talk about rejection in job interviews. I don’t know anyone who has ever been asked “how do you deal with rejection?” in any formal assessment setting, but it’s something most graduates face at some point. Research shows that we all tend to think we perform higher than the average Joe. As a self-proclaimed more-than-average-Joe, I’m at full liberty to accuse you of this. We might not have been the smartest in the class, but we were up there somewhere. Think about how you were always encouraged to try your hardest in school, to be the best you can be. If you’re doing that, and your somewhere near the top of the class, why are you constantly being rejected? It is often a nasty surprise to be rejected when working from this position of misperceived smugness.
So let’s also talk about that. After all, failure is a collective experience we can all revel in. Everyday millions of poor souls are rejected from things. Relationships, mortgages, jobs, nightclubs, the X-Factor. On the point of auditions, asking any performer how they deal with rejection is often an illuminating experience. My best friend has been rejected from dozens of auditions and is only 18 months out of drama school. Actors and actresses have to very quickly learn how to deal with failure and it’s not such a big deal to talk about it.
If you’re anything like me, I despise reading feedback that deals with an aspect of my personal failure. I feel ashamed, and usually give it a cursory glance before putting said feedback into a folder never to be seen again. This used to happen to me when I got marks in essays I didn’t agree with. One of the best ways of solving this was to always talk through the failure, and it always made me feel better after. It dispelled the image of the academic marker sneering at my woeful work, and allowed me to sit down and chat with someone about where I went wrong. Admittedly, this would be harder to do in a failed interview setting, but I am going to start talking to as many people about failing and why I failed, my supervisor, parents, friends, and maybe, if I can some up the courage, other interviewers.
Whatever happens, I’ll do my best to make failure and success complement each other.