Embracing the Journey: Learning from My Academic Failures for 2023 and Perseverance


I am reminded of the stark reality of academic life every year. It comes back to me every year. It’s a world that often idolizes the “idealistic academic researcher”, setting standards that many of us find hard to match. I confess, I am not one of those ideal figures. I am a fraction of those idealistic academic reseachers. I cannot stress how much my life is a mess.

But it’s high time we acknowledge that it’s perfectly okay not to be.

My Academic Failure CV for 2023

Here’s a candid glimpse into my academic setbacks for 2023. Note that these numbers are not quite accurate, but somewhat close. They are more of an approximate. Check out https://johanneshaushofer.com/ for the inspiration for this post.

Papers:

  1. Knowledge Paper – A decade’s effort, around 500 hours, yet rejected from AOM 2023.
  2. Crisis Paper – Another decade, 500 hours, rejected by both AMJ and JIBS.
  3. Negative Feedback Paper – Over ten years, approximately 5000 hours, not accepted by Org Sci.
  4. Another Paper on Negative Feedback – A staggering 10,000 hours over a decade, rejected at ASQ.
  5. Delay of Gratification Study – More than ten years and 7,000 hours, rejected by a psychology journal.
  6. Creators Paper – A decade-long endeavor, 7,000 hours, not accepted at SO!

Grants:

  1. Tools Competition – $250k proposal, invested a day, but faced rejection. No biggie.
  2. Sage Publishing Grant – $10k effort, put in 5 hours, yet not successful.

Teaching:

  1. Negative Reviews – Received at least five very negative student reviews.

This happens to me every year. I have applied to grants for the first time this year, which is unusual in my field, because someone reached out to me about the R3ciprocity Project on social.

You can see how hard I work – look at the number of blog posts, YouTube videos for the R3ciprocity Project. I do the same in my real work, and much more.

I will not get any of these ideas accepted in academic journals. I simply do not resonate with what the market wants.

These instances are just a part of my academic journey, with numerous other failures and rejections not mentioned here. This happens every year.

Remember, none of this is about the “realized” failures. It’s not just about my papers or grants. It’s also about the potential students and co-authors who hesitated to collaborate due to my track record.

I know scores of people have rejected me because “he is a perfectionist,” “he is too slow,” and “I need a paper sooner than ten years.” My reality, and almost every serious scholar I know, will privately tell you that it takes at least ten years to create a good paper.

It is only after a decade or so do those who thought about working with me see that it does take a lot of work and luck.

Or, not. Maybe I am always “that person that is too difficult to work with.” I don’t think so, but many others likely do.

The Journey Matters as Much as the Destination

To my fellow academics, Ph.D. students, and researchers, this message is particularly for you. In our world of academia, where the end results often overshadow the process, I want to emphasize the importance of shifting our focus. It’s not solely about the publications, the accolades, or the groundbreaking results; it’s equally about the journey – the relentless dedication, the nights and weekends, the experiments that don’t yield the expected results, and the drafts that need endless revisions.

I have watched my kids get old as I toil with my same papers. They were toddlers when I started them. Now, they are in high school.

Our field is not just advanced by successful outcomes but equally by the attempts that don’t make it to the journals. Every hypothesis that didn’t pan out, every research grant that got rejected, and every paper that came back with a ‘no’ adds a vital piece to the vast puzzle of knowledge. It’s these unseen, often unappreciated efforts that lay the groundwork for the breakthroughs that follow.

Trust me, nobody cares about the work that is unseen. But, it is the most important.

Resilience: The Heart of Scientific Progress

Persistence and determination are the lifeblood of scientific progress. It’s the courage to question, to challenge, and to persist against seemingly insurmountable odds that pushes the boundaries of what we know. Each time you dive back into your research, undeterred by past failures, you’re not just doing a job; you’re fueling a culture of relentless inquiry and perseverance.

The way I deal with this, which I am sure is PTSD, is to “go numb.” I often feel the ringing in my ears and loud voices in my head when I think about how I could not perform. Each rejection and each question of why did you not perform adds to the numbness.

Your resilience is a beacon of hope and inspiration, not just for your immediate academic circle but for the entire scientific community. It fosters an environment where trying and failing is not just accepted but respected as a crucial part of the learning process.

Check out this blog post about mistakes in research.

Celebrating the Effort, Not Just the Achievement

In the relentless pursuit of publishing, let’s not forget to celebrate the effort. The “try” is the most important. Most often I see people stop or remove themselves in some way before the “try.”

99% will never make the attempt.

The beauty of our work lies not in its perfection but in its trial – the process of trying, learning, and growing. The field of academia, much like life, is not a spectator sport. It demands our active participation, our willingness to engage with the unknown, and our readiness to embrace the messiness that comes with exploring uncharted territories.

It’s essential to remind ourselves that the road to discovery is rarely a straight line. It’s a winding path filled with obstacles, detours, and setbacks. But it’s these very challenges that make the journey worthwhile.

True to Myself

I’ve realized that the world often takes advantage of gentle, kind souls. Despite the organizational behavior research suggesting otherwise, I’ve seen the harshness of reality. During my Ph.D., I thought I needed to be tougher, more assertive.

But it only made me unhappy.

Now, I choose to be kind, to be myself, regardless of these challenges. Dealing with rejection in academia is an art. The key is not to let it define “you.” I’ve learned to dissociate from outcomes, to see my work as just that – work. Internalizing outcomes can lead to identity crises, so I try to remove myself from the equation. Go numb.

Remember, you are more than your publications, grants, or sales.

You are more than your academic identity.

Lessons from Personal Experiences

At 44, I vividly remember being picked last in sports at the age of 7. But I turned that into a strength. Now, my life is enriched with experiences that those who once overlooked me merely watch from the sidelines. In my career and relationships, the mantra “it is no biggie, you will be okay” has been a lifesaver. I say “screw ’em” (or more realistically, the french version) more often than not.

Funny enough, I am more athletic than most. At my age, I am might be one of the only ones that will show up to ‘play.’

There’s always a solution, and you’ll get through. It just will take some time, and others won’t see that.

Conclusion: Embracing Openness in Our Academic Journey

Let’s pledge to be more open about our experiences – both the triumphs and the setbacks. Sharing our stories of failure and struggle is not just about seeking empathy; it’s about building a more realistic and humane picture of what it means to be in academia.

It’s about creating a community where perseverance is celebrated, where resilience is honored, and where every attempt, regardless of its outcome, is valued.

To all the Ph.D.s, researchers, and academics out there: your journey, your trials, your relentless spirit matters immensely. Keep pushing boundaries, keep exploring uncharted territories, and most importantly, keep believing in the power of your efforts.

Together, let’s #changescience by valuing and celebrating the journey as much as the destination.

Keep trying, keep moving forward, and never give up!

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