Failing – and getting up again

Welcome to 2018! I wish you all the best in achieving your PhD goals this year and commit to continuing to support you in my own, small way.

The New Year (whenever that happens for you culturally) is the time many set aside for reflection and goal setting. For some reason, people like to change things up in the new year. The gym I go to is always full of ‘January joiners’ – the people who sign up after new year hoping to improve their health (and maybe lose the holiday flab).

Sadly, most January joiners don’t tend to last much beyond January. Self imposed rules are prone to failure – perhaps because we immediately feel restricted by all those ‘must’ and ‘should’ declarations. This is why I use keywords instead of resolutions – I find they are a productive guide for action and making real change.

Last year’s keyword was ‘Less’, to quote myself in my opening post for 2017:

I’m going to aim to have less stress and worry. I would like to buy less, so I can have less of a mortgage at the end of the year. I want to eat less so I can lose this last 5 kgs of my post-pregnancy weight (when your teenager is nearly a head taller, it’s time). I want to be less lazy about exercise. I’d like to work less hours, but I don’t want to achieve less, so I’ll need to look for ways to be more efficient. I want to do fewer projects, so I can spend more quality time on the ones that are important to me…

In the spirit of this season of self reflection, I should report back on whether I lived by my keyword… and the answer is: nope.

Nope nopetty nope.

I totally and utterly failed at ‘Less’. In fact, when the team analysed my diary they told me we all worked the equivalent of 70 weeks instead of 48 last year (I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I’ll take their word for it). So I failed at spending less hours at work. We did save some money, so that’s a win, but I still bought stuff I didn’t really need. I certainly threw out food (usually salad, but it still counts). Did I lose 5kgs? No – I just weighed myself and I managed to gain 4.2. Crap!

In my defence, ‘Less’ is a very hard principle to follow in the competitive, under-resourced and over-stretched world that is contemporary academia. If your years as a high performing undergraduate haven’t instilled a ridiculous work ethic, the PhD certainly will. I often hear PhD students talking about themselves as failures for all manner of reasons, such as:

  • Not publishing any papers / ‘enough’ papers / the same or more papers than other people in your lab/office
  • Not finishing that chapter in the week / month / semester deadline you arbitarily set yourself
  • Not writing enough / everyday / the ‘right thing’
  • Throwing a lot of your writing out
  • Not reading enough
  • Reading stuff you later realise you don’t need to read and then dwelling on all the time you ‘wasted’ going up the wrong path.
  • Reading ‘too much’ and not writing ‘enough’
  • Not being as relaxed about your PhD as everyone else is
  • Being much more stressed about your PhD than everyone else seems to be
  • Being a terrible partner / friend / pet owner
  • Spending too much time being a good partner / friend / pet owner and not enough time on your PhD
  • Not standing up to your supervisor enough
  • Not pleasing your supervisor enough
  • Not seeing your supervisor enough
  • Stuffing up experiments / analysis / data gathering
  • Never finishing your ‘to do’ list
  • An overflowing email box

I am sure you can relate to at least one of the things on this list – if not, please tell me what university you work in so I can move there immediately. I could tell you that none of these things really count as failure, but that wont really help if you genuinely feel like they are. When your standards are ludicrously high, living up to them is probably impossible. Feeling like a failure seems to be the default setting for many academics, and it’s a worrying tendency. I want to start critiquing this narrative because it’s part of the problem.

Objectively, I failed spectacularly at ‘Less’. But failing is less important than how I acknowledge and respond to this perceived failure. One thing that helped me was listening to Kameron Hurley’s ‘Get to work Hurley!’ podcast over the holidays. She’s a fiction writer that Mr Thesis Whisperer is into and her podcast is aimed at helping professional fiction writers. I don’t really dig her fiction, though I did love her book Geek Feminist Revolution. The podcast is worth a listen though, because what she has to say is helpful for writers of any stripe.

In her ‘Home for the Holidays’ podcast, Hurley points out the tendency to think of creative work in terms of a linear progression. Not only do we think will we get better and better at something if we do it longer, we assume the rewards for hard work will be greater too. While there is some truth in time spent = better performance part, Hurley points out that linear thinking is a trap. It’s easy to suddenly fail and start to think you are on an inevitable slide downwards. Hurley then shared an insight the actor Neil Patrick Harris shared on Twitter:


Surfing, Hurley argues, is a more helpful and realistic analogy for creative work. Surfing involves paddling out to where the good waves are, attempting to catch one, then riding it as long as you can. As Hurley points out, the paddling out part is a giant pain in the ass. Writing involves a lot of research, preparation – and false starts. Making creative ideas happen is anxiety provoking – it’s very hard to force your brain to spit out the answers.

Once you have paddled out, the next problem is to catch a wave. You can think about the wave like a flow state in writing – where the work becomes less effortful and words are stacking up. It might take a long time for the wave to come by, or it might be there immediately – you can never know. Once you are on the wave, your problems don’t stop. As Hurley points out, you might fall off the wave early, and have to paddle out again, or you might ride it all the way to the shore. Riding the wave into the beach is one form of success, but if you are a professional writer, or academic for that matter, you are never ‘finished’ writing. Eventually you have to start the process over and paddle out again.

Once you know what a pain the paddling out bit is, it’s easy to delay or avoid paddling altogether and merely sit on the beach. It takes an effort of will to pick yourself up from failure. So admitting I failed at Less is a good first step. Clearly I need to do more of Less, at least until I get the hang of how Less looks for me. I think I know where I went wrong, so I have some ideas about how to start. Part of it certainly involves looking for the really good waves, not just jumping on the ones that roll in first.

What about you? Which items on my PhD perceived failure list do you relate to? Do you think these are reasonable grounds for declaring yourself a failure? If so, what do you think you can do about it?

Related posts

Less is more?

On life in the lab, and failure

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20 thoughts on “Failing – and getting up again

  1. Gillian Hutchison-Perry says:

    For many reasons you cite, I don’t even bother ‘promising’ anything in January (in Canada it’s not exactly a motivating time of year either!). MY ‘new’ resolutions/starts etc. don’t start until February. I can ‘plan’ them all January to make it workable, then I (desperately) hope to accomplish something in February. Of course, it also helps me feel better about ‘failing through January’!

  2. Denise says:

    Thank you for this. I have just made a decision to suspend study for three months. This is with the support of my supervisors and doctoral college. I completely related to your metaphor. Unfortunately, at the moment I am lying exhausted on the beach so am taking some time to recover the energy I need to start the paddling again. This post reminds me that I am not a failure because I’m pausing. Thank you

  3. Catherine Ebenezer says:

    How do you suggest dealing emotionally with a requirement to resubmit one’s thesis? That’s a failure by any standards. I have thankfully survived this, and resubmitted successfully (PhD awarded just before Christmas), but suffered an acute stress reaction at the time from hearing the outcome; I became anxious off the scale and physically quite ill, for weeks on end.

    • louloureads says:

      I would also really like to know how to deal with this. One of my friends has just been asked to resubmit, and I am very worried that I will find myself in the same position shortly. There is not a lot of advice out there for students in this position.

      Well done for resubmitting successfully after such a setback – sorry that you went through that though.

      • Catherine Ebenezer says:

        You are right that there is a dearth of advice; it could be described as a ‘site of silence’. Some of the best information I found was on Mumsnet!
        The key things that were said to me that most helped me to cope were:
        1) The difference between a resubmission and minor corrections is one of degree, not of kind. A candidate will be asked to resubmit if their corrections are extensive enough to take more than three months as estimated by the examiners. If you are asked to resubmit, it means that you have a worthwhile basis for a PhD there. You just have to explain yourself a bit better …
        2) Get the emotion out of the way as soon as you can, and focus on doing what the examiners want. You will feel better this way, rather than dwelling on what a failure you are …
        Following advice I was given by my supervisors:
        3) Do the easy stuff first, then move on to the trickier stuff when you are feeling more confident.
        4) Do a table with the examiners’ required changes in one column and how you have addressed them in another column. You can submit this formally with the revised thesis for the examiners’ attention. Get feedback on the wording of this, as well as on the actual thesis. Keep a master hard copy of the examiners’ report to hand, and cross things out when you have done them, so that you can see the progress you are making.

        I was fortunate enough to have feedback and regular meetings with my supervisors during the rewriting process. If you haven’t got this, it is much harder, so you need to find someone to set milestones, and who will give you feedback on your work and encourage you.

        I heard recently about a mediaevalist who was asked to resubmit and then won a university prize with her revised thesis. All the people I know (3) who have been asked to resubmit are now successful academics; one became a professor of Russian studies.

        HTH and best wishes.

  4. Katja says:

    This is great. My supervisor had me setting three goals for the year today. SMARTER ones. Specific, Meaningful, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound, Exciting, Risky. Risky as in a bit out of the comfort zone. Aaaargh! I think it’s a good idea though. Even if I am sort of her guinea pig on this. Will try to get a couple of papers written and published.

    The other reason I love this is the surfing analogy. I just bought a surfboard this week, waiting for it to arrive. Can’t wait to go play in the waves with it. Will see if the experience reminds me of writing. If so, hopefully some of the pleasure of playing in the water can be transferred back to the office.

  5. Kate says:

    I spent a lot of last year feeling like a failure after returning to my PhD part time and work part time from maternity leave – not producing enough, not having enough time, feeling like I couldn’t apply myself to anything to the level I thought I had to. I decided I was going to change my research direction to something more related to what I do for work thinking this would make me more productive. I told my research supervisor I was changing which meant a change in supervisory team. At Christmas I had one of those “What AM I doing!??!!” moments. I contacted my research supervisor feeling like a complete goose and asked him to take my research supervision back. He graciously agreed. This year I just want to stay healthy and happy and keep digging away at my research bit by bit!

  6. Anonymous says:

    What about actual, tangible, no-doubt-about-it, the panel said you failed that milestone, good luck with your second go or you’re out of this program and not doing a PhD anymore failure? Not the easy to wiggle out of kind but the stiff stuff? How do I deal with that? Other than walking the dog and avoiding from daytime drinking?

    • Alice P. says:

      I guess this might depend on how you feel about having failed the milestone. Are you ready to jump right in, reflect on your mistakes, and hit the ball out of the field on your second try? Or do you need a little time to mourn what could have / would have / might have been?

      If you fall into the second camp (I have been there too at times), try listen to a recording of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”. I think it was actually written about relationships, but it makes a certain amount of sense for “letting go” of failures as well.

      Smile, though your heart is aching
      Smile, even though it’s breaking
      When there are clouds in the sky
      you’ll get by
      If you smile through your fear and sorrow
      Smile and maybe tomorrow
      You’ll see the sun come shining through
      for you

      • Catherine Ebenezer says:

        Alice – when I was asked to resubmit my thesis, I had to mourn first. Gradually I was able to re-engage with revising the thesis; working on the easier bits made me feel better. I forgot to mention in my earlier post, which was also said to me by several people, that there is always a matter of uncertainty as to what examiners will want. My main supervisor’s take on my situtation was that there had been a considerable divergence between his (and his fellow-supervisor’s) view of how I should present my work and the examiners’. The implication here is that supervisors inevitably bear some measure of responsibility for failure at a milestone, as well as the student.

  7. Marlena says:

    In 2017, I was failing at pretty much every item on your list.. possibly all simultaneously. BUT – here comes the kicker, it’s been the springboard for change – a big change. I’ve taken long service leave and with my supervisor set some really achievable goals… and I’ve already achieved 2 of those goals. It’s been SUCH a long time since I’ve actually felt vaguely productive or passionate about my PhD so this feeling of achievement is almost foreign to me. I’m going to declare 2017 was less about failure and more about a reality check about what is actually achievable given the resources one has. Bring on 2018 – it will be the year of both less (paid work) and more (writing).

  8. Lynne Kelly says:

    I needed this post at the start, again during and again towards the end of my PhD. All that self-doubt was so damaging! I am now a full time writer and it is just as relevant. Maybe repeat it every few months just to remind me to keep a grip on reality?

  9. Clifton Evers says:

    Ahhh as a lifelong surfer the example does not work haha e.g. one is rarely in a flow state when riding a wave (that can only occur at rare moments for the very experienced), paddling out is not a pain but can be a joyful leisurely stroll or challenge, getting to the end of a wave is not success as when surfing you try things that forfeit ‘getting to the end of the wave’ for a different sensation, and the surfer is not in control due to the agency of surfboard and what the wave does etc. But the gist of the article is great. Thank you.

  10. Clement Sitali says:

    I found this post encouraging. I felt I was a failure in spite of all the effort I was putting into my PhD. The analogy of surfing was very powerful and thought-provoking.

  11. Michele says:

    Sadly, I relate to just about all the items on your list. However, I had a think about the label ‘failure’ after reading your post and I realised I have not directly or consciously called myself a failure for those reasons. What I have done is stress about many things, get panicky about how time challenged I am, stress some more and in between somehow manage to get stuff done. I do think about all the things I could or should have done differently during this PhD journey so far but have tried to accept that what’s past is water under the bridge and it’s what I do next that matters. Thanks for the post, it is inspiring!

  12. Ruth says:

    I’ve been stewing this over for a few days as I’m going through a relapse in my chronic fatigue and am facing a year that will involve ‘less’ whether I like it or not. I’m wondering whether less is the best choice of word to capture what you want to achieve. It reminds me of the something I found really useful in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying: when sorting through stuff, you should focus on deciding what to keep (things that bring you joy or are genuinely necessary) and get rid of the rest, rather than deciding what to get rid of. Less has a similar feel to me, in that it seems to focus on the things you won’t be doing.

    I think ‘choose’ might be a more helpful word, as a reminder to take the time to consider the options, not just continue with what I’ve been doing or what other people expect me to do. I also think it captures the fact that everything we decide to do is also a decision not to do something. For most people, this might mean giving up on a relaxing weekend, a good nights sleep or time with friends/family, but for me it may mean giving up a day (or longer) free of bad fatigue symptoms.

    For me, I also think ‘accept’ is going to be an important word. The best way for me to get through this is to not spend too much time being angry or hoping I’ll just get better. I also need to make realistic estimates about what I can and can’t do, otherwise I’ll just disappoint myself and other people when it doesn’t work out.

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