A Quick Reminder That You Don’t Suck

I have been thinking a lot about failure recently.

It started when a paper I had submitted to a conference that I was really hoping to present at was rejected. This actually wasn’t so surprising – I was aware of the major issues with the paper’s methodology, and the competitiveness of this conference’s acceptances. Moreover, I knew that my paper would drastically differ from the other papers the reviewers would be reading, with my humanities perspective in stark contrast with that of the harder sciences. I wasn’t expecting to get accepted to this conference, but was nevertheless hoping that my submission would be welcomed.

Well, it wasn’t, and that sucks.

But it wasn’t all bad. When I received my rejection email, I was at a week-long conference in Montréal, and was knee-deep in a feeling of travel exhaustion. There was one plus: getting rejected from this conference meant that I didn’t have to travel for another week.

As my sense of disappointment slowly shifted to relief, I scrolled through the rejection email to see that the paper’s three reviewers had provided comments about my work. Long comments, that demonstrated quite deep engagement with it. They complimented me on my writing style (not like I’m bragging or anything). They pointed out the precise places where my methodology was flawed. They offered concrete suggestions about how to fix these flaws, and potential avenues for future research.

My paper hadn’t been accepted for the conference, but it had nonetheless received a kind of peer review that has helped me better understand my own work. The reviewers’ comments have, in a way, served as their own kind of success; I’d gotten some of the expert feedback that I had been hoping to get at the conference.

This isn’t to say that I’m completely over not being able to go to the conference. I still want to go, but know that I’ll have to skip it this year. However, I’m now able to take a step back and recognise that this rejection doesn’t mean that I’m a failure – it just means I have some more work to do to ensure that I get accepted next time.

I don’t want this to be a post about how every failed attempt is somehow an underlying success. It sucks to not get what you want, and it sucks even more when someone tries to convince you that ‘every moment is a learning opportunity’ or ‘you’ll be a better person for this’. What I want this post to be instead is a reminder to those reading that your failed attempts do not make you a failure. Not getting accepted to a conference isn’t personal; if it is, you may want to reconsider why you want to go to that conference in the first place.

PhD students are, generally speaking, unfortunately familiar with feelings of failure. Conference and paper rejections, unjustly mean criticism, unrealistic expectations from the powers that be… We often feel like what we are doing is not good enough, if they even enough. Our peers’ successes make us feel inadequate, regardless of how happy we may be that our friends are doing well.

What I have come to realise, though, is that those peers – who get accepted for everything, who are constantly publishing, who are completely nailin’ it – actually seem to face rejection more than anyone else. These people try, try, try, and just keep trying until something works. They get their rejection notices, and then they keep going.

And here is the crux of this post:

You’re only a failure if you let your failed attempts eat away at you. Accept your rejections, and then keep trying. Take any feedback you’ve been given, and apply it (or don’t). Move on.

This is something I have only just learned, and am working on internalising. I am more than my work, even if I have put my whole heart into it. A rejected paper (or two, or a million) doesn’t make me a failure. It just means that there’s room to grow.

Now, don’t let anyone – including yourself – get in the way of your growth.

Seriously, when can I get my TED Talk?!


On a Summer of International Flights and Cheap Hostels

It’s nearly October, which means that another academic year is about to begin. I still find it strange that UK universities begin their years in late September/early October, rather than at the beginning of September. The early-September Labour Day weekend always brings back memories of first-year move-ins for me.

On the plus side, this means that my September is more open to travel than it once was. If you’ve been following my tweets at all, you’ll know that I’ve been travelling a lot this summer. Well, the month of September is no different. I’ll be spending an extended weekend elsewhere in the UK at a conference, and another week of summer school in Germany. Immediately upon my return, it’s Freshers’ Week (which is really Freshers’ Fortnight here, because one week couldn’t possibly be enough), which will welcome us into another nine months of undergraduates once again dominating the campus.

Quite truthfully, travelling this so much in such a short period of time has been both physically and mentally exhausting. Although I enjoy travelling and am grateful for the opportunities to share my research and learn new things in such exciting places, I’ve struggled with being at home for less than two weeks each month. Recently I spent a Saturday by myself, which prompted me to realise that I had not actually been alone for more than about two waking hours for a month and a half. Completely unaware that I had been desperate for some temporary solitude, I revelled in my lack of plans by watching garbage television, doing my nails, and reading eighteen-century smut (Fanny Hill is actually turning out to be pretty good).

In addition to learning a lot of fun new Digital Humanities things this summer, travelling so much has forced upon me some other valuable life lessons about the need for self-care, particularly when in unfamiliar places. Readers, because I know how much you love my cheesy lists, here’s one more about travelling as a PhD student. Continue reading “On a Summer of International Flights and Cheap Hostels”