Fail Better: Surviving the Slings & Arrows of Academic Fortune

Positive-Attitude-Leadership-Article-300x199Academia often seems filled to brimming with misanthropy merchants, doom prognosticators and naysayers. It is true, however, that we do have to deal with an unusually high degree of scrutiny, evaluation and appraisal in our professional lives. This can take a toll on even the most Polyanna-ish of characters. It is a tough gig, and I won’t bore you with the statistics over acceptance rates at the best journals or post-doctoral fellowships. What I will say is that you quite quickly have to begin to use your experiences in academia in a positive light, or else it will take a toll on your mental, physical and professional well-being. In the four-and-a-bit-years since I have graduated I have made mistakes, but I have also made progress towards being the sort of academic, and person, that will make a worthwhile intervention in both the discourse of my subject and my students’ lives. It doesn’t mean some feedback comments don’t still stick in my craw. It doesn’t mean that readers’ report doesn’t sting. But it does mean a different sort of approach and, at least slightly, getting over yourself.


editing_red_pen1So, you’re at that stage of your Ph.D. where things are coming together. You have something to say that is innovative, coherent and ready to be unleashed. Good for you. Then some snarky anonymous knave rips your argument and, by extension, your very being, to pieces. The first thing to do is catch a grip of yourself. If the article has been accepted with serious revisions, read them carefully. There is a good chance they will be really helpful. Swallow your pride and do them ASAP. If some of them seem, well, a little avant-garde, state your case clearly and honestly to the journal editors. For example, respond with something like: ‘I value the reviewer’s comments on my article, however, I do not think Point 7 is correct because of X and Y’. If it is rejected, it is not the end of your life/career. Evaluate the feedback yourself or ask your supervisor or a trusted friend. Some of it might be reasonable and helpful for a second draft; some of it might be mean and unnecessarily vicious. A second pair of eyes will help you with that. Recently, I submitted a slated article from one journal and gained two enthusiastic readers’ reports and an acceptance from another. The difference between people who do well and people who do not is how they deal with failure: it comes to us all, and that moment where you decide ‘I’m going to take what’s useful in this situation, sod the rest’ is the moment you are a grown-up academic.


This is the one that is most liable to provoke serious anxiety, as you probably enjoy a roof over your head and food in your belly. I have lost count of the amount of jobs I applied for in the early stages of my career and the fellowship applications I pored over. Each email or letter I read made me queasy, and I read the messages of rejection through my fingers. This is where you need to be as polite and courteous as you can to academics you respect and ask them to have an honest look over your CV and application materials. It’s hard out there, but you need to show your best face to the world. Scout around on for CVs of people who have decent jobs (my own is there) and look at resources, including this blog, on how to make the most of the information you have. Be shameless in asking for help: if you are respectful people are generally happy to help for the price of a pint or a packet of Hob-Nobs.

I’ve been through the ringer, with rejected articles, countless job applications and one review of my book that would make your hair curl. If you love something and work your backside off to achieve it, then it is going to suck hard when others criticise your work. But, if you scratch very slightly under the surface of most ‘sorted’ academics, then 11pm in the pub after a conference is usually when it all comes out. You’ll hear similar stories of failure, usually told with good humour and only a soupçon of bitterness. I am convinced anyone who doesn’t have a tale to tell is either AcademiBot 3000 or lying. It’s what you do in that moment after that defines you as a scholar: so get up off the mat, use your friends and mentors to work out the truth of the situation, and then move on.

Caroline Magennis

Caroline Magennis

Dr Caroline Magennis teaches British literature, culture and history at Harlaxton College, a study abroad campus for US students. She is a graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast (BA, MA, PhD). She has held post-doctoral research fellowships at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s and University College Dublin. Caroline publishes in the area of modern and contemporary Irish literature and culture, and is the author of Sons of Ulster: Masculinities in the Contemporary Northern Irish Novel and co-editor of Irish Masculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture. For full details of Caroline's publications see You can find her profile here, and you can follow her on Twitter via @drmagennis.

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15 Responses

  1. paolo says:

    Hi Annabelle,

    Thank you for your comments. I am glad you acknowledged that academia can take a toll on the lives of people who may normally come along as cheerful. Having said this, given that my course will cost me more than £40,000 (being an international student) + accommodation over 3 or so years, how can I justify to the people that financially supported me that after 3 years that this amount is not money down the drain? How can I assure them and myself that we can service this money once this is all over?

    I have to admit that I underestimated the ruthlessness of academia especially after reading that a member of academic staff at the university I am taking my PhD up was sacked for not bringing enough grant money to the institution.

  2. Charles Knight says:

    “but what advice would you offer to those who went into a Ph.D. knowing the odds were slim, but were determined anyway? Give up, go home?”

    I’ll give my advice for what it’s worth – I wouldn’t put anyone off doing a PhD but I’d be realistic with them and I’d advise them to make sure that as they progress, they have an exit strategy in place for if an academic job doesn’t come up. I really don’t buy into to the “stick it out” advice, I give myself a deadline of a year to get a FT post and at the same time was applying for non-academic positions plus doing consultancy work on the side – if something hadn’t come up I would haven’t stuck it out for years doing AT posts and zero hour contracts in the hope that an academic post will come up.

    Now before people leap all over me, I’m not talking about doing AT posts and zero hour contracts to put food on the table, I’m talking about doing that as deliberate strategy in the hope that eventually a full-time post comes up – I think it’s a poor strategy for various reasons (your PhD ages, your CV becomes patchy, the perception of recruiters changes) and also degrades your opportunities to build up a career outside of academia.

    Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen way too many people stick it out for as much as ten years before they realise it is just not going to happen and they pack it in and have very limited opportunities because they are knocking 40 and have no real work experience outside of the academy.

    Plus the other problem with ‘stick it out for years’ is that you are effectively stealing from your future – when you are 25, your retirement seems a long way off but every pound you lose because you are struggling to get by is a pound you can’t multiple over 40 years.

    So overall, I’d still say do a PhD if you want but be aware that academy have an oversupply in many areas (Humanities) and you need to make plans about what you are going to do because the chances of a FT academic post are low and getting lower.

    As an aside, given the desperate jobs situation, I’m always surprised by the number of Post-Grads I speak to who will not apply to anything but a small pool of Redbricks in large urban areas and see working in a post-92 as akin to working in a slum.

    • Annabelle says:

      The problem is that PhD programmes as they currently stand do not equip students with ANY of the skills they need to secure a non-academic job. Career consultants paid by the University often talk about ‘transferrable skills’, but try explain to a non-academic employer why the hours you spent sitting by yourself in the Library, or the odd seminar you taught for your supervisor, make you really good at admin and time-management (really?). I speak as a newly-appointed Lecturer who strongly believes that we should re-structure the PhD programme completely and make it more relevant to both the academic and the non-academic job market. Will this happen? Don’t think so.

  3. Sarah Burton says:

    I didn’t ever think to read this as Pollyanna-ish – I saw it as extremely sound, and indeed, practical advice for people who are struggling (and struggling can mean all sorts of different things at each career stage/for each person). I certainly didn’t detect even the merest odour of smug in there. This comment comes over as uncomfortably envious and perhaps, owing to this, rather blind to the tone of the original advice.

    Two things strike me from this interaction: one – that I’m glad to have friends at each career stage, approaching academic engagement in various ways (employed, fixed term contract, student, research fellow, funded, unfunded). The different tactics used, the space to discuss and share (and moan), the examples I want to follow – or not – have all been vital to me in terms of shaping my own trajectory and taking control of this. I’m grateful to see how other people do things and I think Caroline’s post is part of this.

    Secondly, I think we could all stop denigrating ourselves for our relative successes or lack thereof. Actually being kind to each other and supportive of each other en masse would make a huge difference to how we *experience* academic work. It might not put money in our pockets or land us with permanent job contracts but it will alter how we all move through academia and interact with others.

    Sometimes it’s hard not to resent the success of others. I completely see that. But often what we view as success is simply the outward appearance of it. No one has it all – as I think Nadine and Caroline’s personal blog posts will attest to. There’s nothing to be gained in attacking others; it’s much more fruitful to continue a dialogue, to learn from others and put it into practice ourselves.

  4. Jessica Sage (@jessisreading80) says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’m at the PhD stage that you discuss and, although I am not submitting for publication at the moment, constructive (and not-so constructive) criticism is a tough thing to take on board especially when it’s hard to entangle ‘PhD’ from ‘self’. I love sharing my work and interests every bit as much as it terrifies me and I would always rather someone ripped into my argument than they let me toddle on oblivious to the limitations of my research. I reserve the right to sulk with chocolate all the same, but knowing that this is what happens and that I can benefit from it does makes the sulking shorter and the getting up easier, thank you.

    Perhaps it’s worth noting for LaBoheme (who raises some interesting points albeit in a rather unhelpful manner) that I was told very bluntly (and usefully) at application that I should not do a PhD in order to get an academic job because for the vast majority of people it doesn’t happen. I should do it, instead, if I loved researching, was passionate about my area and thought that the PhD would benefit me in some other way. Ths certainly does not excuse the point you raised but it’s not only a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation. Good universities want to encourage good research, regardless of market factors.

    On a lighter note, I spotted this GIF recently – I think if you substitute ‘academic’ for ‘author’ it sums things up nicely!

  5. EKSwitaj says:

    Thank you for this article. Something I have found useful in dealing with rejection is to act out a ridiculous over-the-top fit over it (in private, naturally), complete with wailing and gnashing of teeth. I know it sounds silly, but the point is to act out the angst to such an extreme that you can’t help but laugh at yourself and get going again.

  6. LaBoheme says:

    You think this is advice? Really?

    Face facts. Between 2000 and 2010, UK universities massively expanded PhD provision in the interests of RAE scores, and gave not so much as a nanosecond of thought to what all these people would do when they graduated. Then those lovely boys in the City screwed up and brought the world to its knees, an event that was followed by a Tory government in all its destructive, cost-cutting glory, and the few positions that were available ceased to exist as universities contracted massively, freezing recruitment, and introducing redundancy measures across the board.

    Now, when there are over 200 applicants for every job, it ill-behoves the miniscule minority that do have academic jobs to tell the rest to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with it, as this article does. A bit of awareness for the hundreds of your colleagues who are unemployed, underemployed, brutalised and exploited by the academic system that you are kow-towing to in order to further your own career wouldn’t go amiss. This type of self-indulgent, polly-anna-ish schtick is desperately unhelpful in a climate where a PhD is, at best, career suicide.

    • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

      I can see where you’re coming from, LaBoheme, but I do think you forget that those people who are now in academic jobs have often also spent years in that situation you quite rightly describe as exploitative and bleak. It is *because* the situation is so bleak that it’s important to remind people that other people have been there too, and very recently so! I do think you do Caroline (and me, for that matter) an injustice here, because we do very much talk about these exploitative aspects of academia, if not in this post. I’d also be interested what your advice would be, and I’d love to receive a response post from you – I’m open to all perspectives, optimistic or pessimistic (or “realistic”?). Would you advise people just don’t do PhDs anymore? I can’t see how this blog post furthers Caroline’s career (it’d be nice if everyone got a job for writing a blog post). Please do get in touch if you’d like to write a longer piece on your own views, and perhaps some ideas on what kind of commentary or advice *is* needed, if not this kind. Bests, Nadine

    • Martin Paul Eve says:

      Given the line in the piece “Then some snarky anonymous knave rips your argument and, by extension, your very being, to pieces”, I really hope that your uncharitable remarks here are spoken in irony. If you have some constructive counter-advice, why don’t you just voice it, rather than simply tearing into somebody whose essential line is: think positive, it’s tough, keep going?

      As somebody who does have an academic job, you’ll probably tell me that I shouldn’t preach to those who don’t, but what advice would you offer to those who went into a Ph.D. knowing the odds were slim, but were determined anyway? Give up, go home? I think the most we can do is to go in with our eyes open and — as Nadine has said — ECRs who have jobs *do* talk about these issues frequently. If people are informed and approach a Ph.D. knowing the odds, this advice is sound; it wasn’t career suicide for me, but I appreciated it could have been and had a backup plan.

      • Annabelle says:

        My problem as an early career academic is that I almost feel like it’s morally wrong to recruit more PhD students when there’s such a lack of academic jobs in the Humanities. Let’s face it, in some subjects we need postgrad students for political and financial reasons. Most of the applicants I/we as a department hear from still see the PhD as a way into academia… when clearly it’s a very unlikely scenario in some disciplines. Most of them don’t even get full funding and pay the PhD out of their pockets! Which would be fine if they knew what they’re getting themselves into. I just don’t feel that we are telling them the whole truth, nor are we equipping them with the skills they would really need for a ‘back up plan’. This is never discussed. Career advice is almost a joke and I’ve been around quite a few universities, and it’s always been the same.
        So I’d be interested to hear how other early acaremics feel about recruiting PhD students for their deparment. My senior colleagues haven’t realised how much things have changed (or pretend not to) and still think it’s enough to sit on your a** for 4 years, write a thesis, and get a post-doc/lectureship.

        • Annabelle says:

          Shame I had no response, would really like to hear other people’s thoughts…

          • Annabelle, I agree this is frustrating, but I’ve been lucky in that I don’t have that kind of academic in my department. I started here 2+ years ago, and my department as well as my Director of School were keen to take on board (and put money into) quality PhD career development. I’ve even been asked to be PGR Co-Ordinator for the School along with a more senior colleague, and the School is 100% behind us in offering funding, meetings, and workshops that will adequately prepare our PhDs for the academic job market.
            I don’t know what the structures at your department are, but can you not meet independently with your PhD student and discuss their career prospects and act as adviser on what they need to do if they want an academic job? Unless you’re actively being kept from doing so, I think it’s part of any supervisor’s job, though I understand politics can make this difficult as a junior member of staff.
            All you can do is try and be proactive. Come up with a strategy / proposal and take it to whoever is responsible. They can only say no … I know it’s frustrating, but if “our generation” want to change things we need to be willing to push and implement new initiatives. Again, I realise that this can be easier said than done, especially in very conservative departments! Even they should be able to see the reason behind such proposals, though, if you show them the job spec for an ECR post.
            Would love to hear more!

  1. 15/03/2013

    […] In between that, though, I wrote a guest post for Nadine Muller’s The New Academic Blog, which you can peruse here: […]

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