On Failure

I realise I haven’t done an introduction blog post, but I’m planning on just introducing myself and my story as we go! But if you’d like an intro post to get to know me a bit better, just let me know J

This post will be about my perspective on the struggles of academia and accepting failure, which I hope this is helpful to anyone struggling with similar situations.

Last year, I was doing a PhD, but a few months ago various things lead to my decision to quit. This blog isn’t an appropriate medium for discussing the details of this part of the story, but it was a tough decision for me, and those few months were rather stressful. What follows is a retrospective look at how to deal with such problems

Throughout my whole PhD, I struggled to come to terms with Imposter Syndrome, which seems to badger so many in this line of work. I believe that this feeling of inadequacy and not being good enough or smart enough for what you are doing comes from the background of most PhD students and academics. Those of us that choose this intellectually challenging career path tend to come from a background where we have usually been top of the class, with many people complimenting us on being so “brainy”. Often this becomes our biggest point of pride and, for me, was a huge part of my identity. I loved (and still do) being smart and being able to figure out different challenges! Rather suddenly, you transition from being in the top portion of your academic peers, to being mostly surrounded by those on par, or even smarter than you (or just further along their career path). I think the best way to combat these feelings of inadequacy is to first realise the difference in your environment and who your peers are. Something else that helped me gain a better perspective was to find friends outside of academia, it makes you realise that other people struggle with similar feelings and that this is all just a normal part of finding your feet in the real world. I have some great friends that gave me great advice, and they had no experience with academic career paths and pressures. Overall, I’d say this variety in your circle of friends isn’t just important for your mental health, I think its just important to stretch your legs outside of the ‘Ivory Tower’ for a bit.

Leading on from this, quitting my PhD brought a lot of these feelings to the surface for a while and it was very difficult to not feel like a failure. It took a while, but I came to realise that my year was not a failure and not a waste of time. I realised that a PhD isn’t just an individual effort, and if anybody tries to lay the blame at one person’s feet, they don’t entirely understand how science is almost always a team effort. From my perspective, everyone in the scientific team (whether that be for a PhD or a collaboration on a paper) should know where they stand with the others and expectations should be clear. If someone is lacking in one area, give them a gentle heads up before things get drastically bad. Constructive feedback can be very difficult to give and receive, but it’s vital to any team being successful. If you feel like communication is lacking, don’t be afraid to speak up, it can be terrifying, but this goes back to the feedback and constructive criticism. Those overseeing your education and research may still be learning themselves, so it’s important to bear this in mind. But if it does come down to it that quitting is the best option, don’t you dare think you’ve failed! For me, I see it as a learning opportunity. I’ve learnt how to best tackle a PhD, and I’ve picked up so many great lab and research skills. Overall, I’m ready to tackle PhD attempt two, and I’m sure this one will end not with quitting, but with a new title before my name!

Lastly, if any of this has in any way brought forth thoughts that you would like to discuss, please reach out to your support network. Or if you’d like a different perspective, I will do my best to reply to any correspondence that comes my way.

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Inspiration

This week, I saw someone reach out on twitter in regards to a school aged girl who wanted some advice as to how to be a marine biologist when she grew up. I got a copy of her letter and wrote a response. I thought I’d use this as a first, optimistic post for my new blog. I’ve not included more details on how I heard of her, or her name just for safety’s sake. If you know any young people interested in a career in science, I hope you can pass on a similar message 🙂


Dear [Young Science Enthusiast],

It’s great to hear that you’d like to be a marine biologist, the world needs more enthusiastic scientists like you!

I’ll tell you a bit about me, you could say I’m a bit of a marine biologist, but my degree was in genetics. Most of my scientific work has been with marine animals, so it just shows you that the path to marine biology might not always be as direct as you think it is. A lot of my work has been in developmental genetics and evolution, so I basically just find out really cool things about the biology of a few marine animals from when they are a fertilised egg till adulthood, which if you ask me, is pretty awesome! But, if genetics or developmental biology aren’t your thing, there are so many other ways to be a marine biologist!

In answer to your question though, a degree in biology or a similar field (ecology, zoology, or botany, to name a few) would really help. After this, you could work in an aquarium, a zoo, or continue with scientific research. Not all of these mean that you have to work away from home, but you probably will travel for work at some point in your career, whether that’s to a conference to share ideas with other scientists, or field work to get more information about the animals you study. But, I don’t think you need to be scared of doing some work away from home, its usually great fun and you get to experience so many different things and meet some very cool people that share the same interests as you!

Really, there are sooooooooooo many options if you want to be a marine biologist (even underwater photography or filming to show others how cool marine biology is), and I don’t know if I’ve helped you choose, but my main advice is to follow what you are passionate about, and you will find something that you enjoy. I really hope you stay curious about marine biology, and don’t let anyone discourage you from following your dreams!

I hope I helped,

Yours sincerely,

Julie Blommaert


I hope more of you are inspired by a young girls’ interest in science and I encourage all of you reading this to encourage as many young, enthusiastic minds to pursue their interests no matter what!