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.