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Overcoming a sense of academic failure

Thursday, June 30, 2016 -
3:45pm to 7:00pm
St John's College
Kendrew Cafe



This event for early-career academics at Oxford was motivated by the fact that academia (perhaps especially Oxford) is full of people who feel like impostors. The widespread feeling of not being good enough is fuelled by many facets of the academic system, not least the intense and intensifying competition to publish and get increasingly scarce jobs and grants. Above all, however, it is fostered by the insecurities of all the other people who feel the same (at least some of the time), and who do their best to hide their failures for fear of being found out. Everyone plays the game, it's far easier to fool other people than yourself, and so the academic world gets ever less honest and less happy.

One simple part of a solution is to be open about our failures. Like publishing negative results in science, this allows us to learn from what didn't go to plan, and lets others see that no academic career is a neat progression from success to success. The problem and this solution were set out by a then postdoc, now lecturer, Melanie Stefan in a Nature article in 2010. Since then, an Assistant Professor at Princeton, Johannes Haushofer, has attracted a lot of attention with his CV of failures (his 'meta-failure' being that 'this darn CV of failures has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work'). And Bradley Voytek, Assistant Professor at UCSD, offers a great example of a CV which includes both successes and - without further comment - failures and rejections.

It's this spirit of openness, pragmatism, and hopefulness that we harnessed at this event. Our brave academic contributors were:

  • Julia Bray (Laudian Professor of Arabic)
  • Robin Dunbar (Professor of Evolutionary Psychology)
  • Barbara Gabrys (Academic Visitor, MPLS Division)
  • Ritchie Robertson (Taylor Chair in Modern Languages)
  • Chris Wickham (Chichele Professor of Medieval History and Head of the Humanities Division)

We were also joined by two people who have taken unconventional career paths from academic beginnings (at Oxford): 

  • The science writer, photographer, and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis (who began his career as a postdoc in Chemistry) 
  • And the writer and broadcaster Susan Blackmore, who gave up her lecturership in Psychology to make more time for writing about memes and consciousness.

All of them talked openly about the things in their careers that have felt like failures, and about how they've dealt with them and what their perspectives are on these things now. 

A range of topics were covered, from grant/publishing rejections to working fewer (or more) hours than other people; from not asking (good) enough questions at seminars or conferences to moving from one fixed-term contract to another; from not having all the answers in tutorials to feeling generally like an impostor - as well as making the decision to exchange full-time academia for something else.

The discussions (first in small groups, then all together at the end) have fed into a document designed to outline some of the common kinds of failure people experience at Oxford, or in academia more broadly, and sharing coping strategies and learning experiences that have come out of them. This helped prevent it from feeling like a communal wallowing-in-misery afternoon, and we hope that the resulting document will be of use both to people who attended and to others who didn't. You can download it here.

Contact name: 
Emily Troscianko
University of Oxford only