In my post the other day on Eric McCormack's, "Some Lesser Known Lessons from Academia", I mentioned how in my experience his lesson #3 ("You don’t need to feel like you’re succeeding") is really apt. One of the biggest challenges of academia is that you "fail" far more often than you succeed. Consequently, learning how to grapple effectively with failures--both large and small--is absolutely vital for burgeoning academics. Whether one wilts in the face of failure, or whether one finds away to recover and adapt, can make not only an enormous difference in whether one succeeds professionally, but also with one's mental well-being. I know this from experience. I went through some terrible times early in my career--both in graduate school and during my many years on the job-market--and, in all honesty, barely made it though.
Anyway, over at his blog Digressions&Impressions, took up McCormack's topic as well, discussing one of his own tough times in grad school:
A recent dinner with friends from graduate school and Daniel McCormack's useful post (see also this moving piece by the late Josh Parsons) brought to mind a painful memory: my equivalent of what McCormack calls the "candidacy defense."...For me this exam came in my fourth year.
I knew my draft-chapter was not very strong...[And] My Preliminary Essay evaluation process had not been a happy experience because the committee was very divided about the quality of my work (about that some other time)...
I don't recall much about the actual candidacy defense, except that it was in my supervisor's office, and that after, I felt like a total intellectual idiot/nitwit. (The more recent jargon would be imposter.) It was clear that my project relied on half-baked assumptions and badly understood distinctions. Even though none of them had any special expertise on my topic, they had seen right through the project and honed in on its weaknesses. They were not mean, and I sensed no ill-will toward me (and this made it worse); it was strictly business, and I was left holding unsaleable shmattes. While they were conferring on my fate, I recall sitting in the hall-way too numb too feel, but contemplating if I should apply to law-school at once or move with my Bullmastiff to Red Lodge, WY, and spend the rest of my life in exile from the world. (No way I was going home having proved myself such a failure.) Before going to graduate school, I spent a year working in corporate America researching by phone what kind of Linotype printers European print-shops owned, and I was not eager to go back to such mindless drudgery.
Schleisser's story got me thinking that it might be helpful if we all shared some of our own biggest failures as early-career folk, and how we grappled with them. I think this might be helpful for two reasons.