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.


2 thoughts on “On Failure”

  1. Your story reminds me of another post by a researcher on a similar topic: https://byorgey.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/on-being-a-researcher/

    I myself am in a bit of a different situation, because I finished my thesis (haven’t defended it yet, though), but what brings me down is a feeling that I’ve wasted 4,5 years of my life. Why? Because I’ve quit academia now and have been searching for a non-academic job for the last four months now, with no luck. Apparently getting a PhD in computer science made me a terrible candidate. I’m an over-educated 29-year-old guy who feels entitled to a good job and a good salary, but has absolutely no coding experience. It all seems to indicate that the only job I’m gonna be able to get is an entry-level junior position (next to undergrads fresh out of college), or a bike mechanic job. That sucks.

    Anyway, sorry for whining on your blog. I really hope you’re gonna get a great position soon. Good luck!


    1. I don’t think its really whining, its a legitimate concern facing so many people who are about to or have just finished their PhDs. There aren’t enough postdocs for all of us and I think it’s important that PhD students be encouraged to think about a life outside of academia and also get support for aquiring some skills and training to succeed in their goals (be they within academia or not).
      I’ve also just had yet another rejection from a PhD position. It seems that while people are impressed by my CV (no publications though) and lab skills, they always seem slightly put off by the fact that I’ve quit one PhD, so I’m really not sure how to deal with this or present it as not having failed. Many seem to hold it against me, or maybe thats just my point of view. I’ve sent so many applications recently, hopefully one of them works out positively.


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