I began my journey as a researcher over 7 years ago. Over the course of these years I felt that despite the evident progress, there were an overwhelming number of setbacks and obstacles along the way. I have faced many rejections: PhD applications, internship applications, and more regularly, academic paper rejections. Some papers were rejected multiple times before being accepted, and some were eventually tabled, where a continuation of work on such papers is indefinitely postponed. I have seen research that I passionately worked on turn into dead ends and ending up nowhere. In addition to this, two years into my PhD I had to switch advisors, and a year later to another university (along with my new advisor). I thought time and time again whether all or any of these are to be considered as failures. Even if they are termed differently, how can one deal with the immense feeling of dejection that accompany them.

Failures are commonplace in academia. For many who enter, facing failure almost on a daily or even a monthly basis is new. It comes as a shock to those in the early years of their careers. The shock eventually wears off, but the failures do hurt every time, despite past experiences. Success is a transient emotion. One starts to worry the moment they are at the brink of failure, notwithstanding the previous successes. The challenge is to treat failure as a transient emotion as well. Failures compound with other issues in academia, such as the encouragement of overwork and the discouragement of self-care, both of which can give rise to or exacerbate mental health issues.

In academia, there is a constant pressure to publish papers, and for faculty, to submit grant proposals. “Publish or perish” is a phrase repeated in many academic circles. Aiding this unhealthy competition are comparison metrics such as number of publications, h-index, citations, and grant awards. Unsurprisingly, the pressure to publish also has adverse effects on the quality of research and has “led to unethical practices and waste full research”. There is also a stigma attached to leaving a PhD program and pursuing Alt-ac careers (careers outside academia). These norms impose on us a certain definition of success or failure. When a community normalizes something as a failure or a success, many of us try, or are forced to conform to such norms.

How to handle failures?

How we define success or failure is subjective. We can define them based on our aims, needs, and circumstances, without conforming to social norms. Lack of success is not necessarily a failure. More importantly, the concept of ‘failure’ in the academic world is meaningless. Learning is a continuous process and as long as you continue to learn, there is no reason to believe that you have failed at anything. We can learn from yesterday, learn today, and learn for tomorrow. If one understands this, then it is possible to dampen the effect of the apparent day-to-day failures we face in academia.

Prof. Jennifer Heemstra in one of her tweets advises that “You can’t control when failure happens, but you can [however] control your response to it. You can take away shame and drag it around with you, each failure adding more weight to slow you down. Or, you can take away knowledge and use that to learn and grow, propelling yourself toward success”. This quote reminds me of a verse from Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu scripture) that I think of in times of crisis, in which the Hindu god Lord Krishna advises Arjuna, one of the heroes of the epic Mahabharata that, “[you] have a right to perform your [actions], but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.”

Seven years ago, as I began my academic journey, it felt as though I was alone in facing regular failures. Occasional successes only made me feel more like an imposter. But as seasons changed, and as years passed, I realized that I’m not alone. Among the major reasons for mental health issues in students and faculty is the “fear of failure”. With this in mind, it is important that we discuss failures in academia, and not just the successes.

I am a 5th year PhD student in Computer Science at the University of Virginia. My research interests are Approximation Algorithms, Network Science, and Explainable AI. I grew up in Nellore, a small town in South India, moving later to Hyderabad for a masters, and from there to the United States to pursue a PhD. I like to think and write about my experiences in academia and to advocate for mental health awareness, equality, and inclusion. Find me on Twitter @prathyushspeaks.

Failure in Academia
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