Everybody is failing, you just don’t know it!

January is a tough month for everyone, but we are determined to motivate you and prove that hard works always pays off. Our new post is about one PhD student’s rocky road to full funding…

The Process

I started my PhD with partial funding, hoping that things will get better as the time goes by. As I really love what I’m doing, from the beginning I thought it was worth it – I’ll just figure it out along the way. And I did, I found a part-time job, and kept on applying for funding.

And it wasn’t just funding… I applied for Warden and Junior Dean positions as well, which would provide me with campus accommodation, anything that could promise a bit more than I had, but I wasn’t successful in these, either. When I look back to the previous 2 years, I must have applied for at least 20 different funding schemes. That means I have written (or adjusted the ones that were already written) around 20 statement letters, CVs, secured funding lists, long research proposals, short research proposals, you name it. Hours and hours of my life went into it.

After my first year, I was about to give up. I was talking to my supervisor and said something like: I don’t think it makes sense to keep on trying. I’m just wasting my time. To which he replied: But if you don’t apply, you’re not going to get it. As ridiculously obvious as it sounds, you never think of it that way. Us humans, we have this tendency to wish for something to happen, even though we’re not actually doing anything to make it happen. It’s like dreaming of all the things you would do if you won the lottery, but never actually buying a lottery ticket.

Image credits: Winky / CC BY-NC 2.0


Getting it right

Within that second year, I worked on improving my application, and naturally, as you progress through your PhD, your CV starts looking better as well. And then suddenly, I got it right. When it finally happened, I realized one thing: if you try, you’ll eventually get there (though it might not seem that way while you’re still trying). Again, I know this sounds like one of those obvious things, but those are sometimes the hardest to believe in. The road to full-funding is often very bumpy, and can make you feel like a miserable failure, but again, you do need to buy the lottery ticket to be able to go on that trip around the world you always dreamed of.

Talking about failure

When talking about the whole process with a friend, she told me about something she saw online, the CV of failure. The idea was that even though an academic CV is a road map of one’s professional career, it usually just shows the successful side of it, and therefore, leaving the impression that there were no failures along the way:

But that is exactly the problem. My CV does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts — it does not mention the exams I failed, my unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication. At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed. As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected. (A CV of Failures

And I agree completely – what makes me an academic is not that one application that got me into my PhD program or the one that secured me full funding. It’s both of them together with 3 unsuccessful MA program applications, 12 unsuccessful Junior Dean applications, 11 unsuccessful scholarship applications, 10 unsuccessful part-time job applications and who knows how many more unsuccessful job applications in between my degrees. It’s also those two exams in my BA that I failed miserably, and only then got an A.

But the real concern is that nobody knows about it. We tend to talk only about our success, sending out a message to the world that failure never happens to us. And since we don’t share it, we’re doomed to always deal with it alone. So to all academics and non-academics out there who feel like a failure: you’re not alone in this! Everybody else is failing too, you just don’t know it!

What do you think: should we talk about our failures more?

Are they an important part of who we are?

Text credits: Ana Werkmann Horvat is a PhD student at the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics at the University of Oxford. She holds a BA and an MA degree in Croatian and English language and literature from the University of Osijek, Croatia, and an MA degree in Linguistics from the University of Ottawa. She is currently doing her PhD in Oxford, mainly focusing on the semantics of modal verbs in Croatian. You can learn more about her research here.

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