A while ago, Teresa made a post here talking about imposter syndrome and perseverance during the PhD. I had been wondering about similar topics myself. Reading a thread on Twitter discussing grant applications and the number of times they are not accepted (which I sadly lost somewhere), I realized how “failure” is an integral part of the academic career in all its different levels. And how incredibly rare it is that someone will simply talk about it openly.
Thinking about this, I started digging into the topic to see how other scientists deal with the feeling that things are not working out in their research. The first thing I realized is how most of us have been educated to see things as a success or a failure, as discussed in this editorial of the Circulation journal. The author points out that this is not an ideal way to see the progress in science, because each “failed” result brings us closer to the reality of the problem at hand. Nevertheless, the competitiveness and structure of the academic environment still enforce that we see our progress in binary terms.
A quick review of our own careers is enough to see how surrounded everyone is with “failures”, as was also nicely illustrated in this post about the PhD life. Yet I think people under-appreciate the value of sharing their failures in safe environments, as I found out firsthand a couple of months ago. I was struggling trying to make sense of my results, and due to tight schedules it was hard to discuss it with anyone. This led to huge frustration, since it seemed I was wasting my time in my research.
Discussing this problem with colleagues, and hearing their own issues, was the only thing that made this feeling go away and got me excited about research again. Talking about the issues highlighted the wide range of problems all of us face in our daily work and helped me appreciate better the things that were going well with the PhD. Moreover, we can prepare ourselves better for the next steps in our careers by having a realistic perspective based off the experience of our senior counterparts.
Dealing with failure is part of the academic career and is what moves the knowledge in our areas forward. I believe researchers should be able to talk more openly about such issues, even if it is in their own groups, so that the all-too-common imposter syndrome can be mitigated, and we can start appreciate our progress instead of focusing on the setbacks. In fact, it may actually lead to better outcomes.
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