In the article Getting out of a hole, the pseudonymous blogger Acclimatrix writes about the challenges of being in a low point in their pre-tenure life. One particular bit caught my attention
The hardest part about being in a hole is that you feel like you, really need a “win” to get out. The win is like a rope; it’s a quick exit from a dark, lonely place. That line of thinking is a trap, though, because the rope is totally outside your control. That “win” — a funded proposal, an award, a new relationship, or some other really great news — may never come, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. The only surefire way to get out of a hole is to climb out. Ropes are great, but you don’t need them. A little boost or an outstretched hand from a friend or loved one helps. But sometimes, it’s just going to be a long, tough, slog of indeterminate duration. Come up with a playlist of Power Songs and get to work.
I recognise this feeling. I am not in a hole by any means - I love my job and I feel privileged to have a permanent position. I enjoy the town I live in, have friends, hobbies, a family, supportive colleagues and nice students.
Still, a new job comes with its challenges and one of those is to find new routines and to balance research with teaching and administration. I applied for four grants this past year: one was a European Research Council grant with a ridiculous amount of funding for a project in the philosophy of cognitive science. I knew the odds were very low, going into it. I knew that as a matter of fact, centuries of research time are wasted each year on unfunded proposals. But I led myself to believe that with my current track record, I stood a chance and that the project had merit. My application - 60 pages in total, most of these single-spaced - took the same amount of work I would have put into 3 substantial articles, and it was not funded.
I also applied for a smaller research grant, which would have allowed me to explore the philosophy of fiction. I was hopeful. The grant awarders sounded enthusiastic about my proposal, I had got all the external funding I would need to carry the outreach part of it out, and I was shortlisted (one of 50 shortlisted) from over 300 applicants. Unfortunately, mine was not among the 21 awarded proposals. I did receive two other, smaller grants I applied for, one to organise a workshop on fiction writing for philosophers from the British Society of Aesthetics, and one for a prize competition for a philosophical short story from the APA Berry Fund. Moral of the story is, I guess, apply for many grants if you expect to get some, and expect to pour in a lot of effort for nothing.
I had put a lot of hope and effort in both big grant applications. It is thus crushing to not get them. For the ERC, I was rejected two lines of referee comments, that my research wasn’t worth a grant because I had not published in Mind and Phil Review. I then made the mistake of pouring all my hopes and dreams into the the other, smaller grant. I had constructed this happy-ever-after story where I would be the person to bring in a prestigious grant in my new department, and would be able to do awesome work on it. So when I got the e-mail that the smaller grant was not awarded either, I was crushed. The statement that I was just under the funding cutoff did not make this easier.
I then realised that mentally, I had fallen into the same trap I had so many times as a grad student and postdoc. I had relied again on a “win”, a rope to pull me out and tow me into a happy future. As academics, we rely so much on external validation. It is built into our reward system. You can write the most beautiful grant proposals, the best articles, but if you are unlucky with referees, it does not matter. I am resisting the urge to pour my hope into a paper, where I will (soon?) receive the final verdict; paper was submitted first about a year ago and has been revised and resubmitted. This feeling is irrational as I have already many papers on my CV.
Ultimately, we need to plod on, and we need some smaller and bigger successes in order to succeed in academia. While the incentive structure is there, luring us into this reliance on external validation, we need to resist it. My advisor, who is a senior research fellow in Paris, once said that he felt that the highs have become less high, and the lows have become less low, as he went on in his career. He started to rely more on evaluation by himself and by some trusted friends and colleagues, rather than on the vagaries of the reviewing process, which is extremely unpredictable and leaves many solid grant proposals, job applications, papers, on the reject pile.
In a sense, this advice may seem like luxury advice. I do not depend on grants for my livelihood anymore (fortunately!). In my present situation, I can rejoice over the small grants I did receive. Regardless of what the referees will say about my two papers in limbo, I can send them out again. But what about a student who is waiting anxiously about a paper under review (the difference between 0 and 1 pub on the CV is huge)? Or about the European postdoc who needs their grant to continue in academia at all?
Even so, I think the waiting for the win to pull you out of the dark is also a bad strategy for grad students and academics without a permanent position. Indeed, I was especially prone to this as a graduate student and as a postdoc (“If only journal X accepts my paper”,”If only I would win this grant…”[insert unrealistically rosy narrative]). I would say that it is especially important for early-career people to not rely on external validation, and especially not on a “win” to make them happy. It’s a guaranteed recipe for misery.
So how do we guard against that? One way is by having ourselves be defined by more things than being an academic. We may be parents, spouses, athletes, we may have hobbies that we derive joy from. The challenge is how to create a proper balance, something many parents struggle with, as well as people with a serious outside hobby (recall Marcus’ post about this topic).
Another way is to develop things that do lie within our control. For instance, I’ve derived great joy from the interviews I’ve been doing with philosophers on their religious practices (of course, some philosophers I’ve asked have been unable to do the interviews, but there are plenty I asked who could do it). I am hoping the mentoring project I have with Marcus is beneficial to the mentees (and perhaps also the mentors?) I enjoy blogging (we are actively soliciting early-career new contributors, by the way), and I’m currently building a career website for philosophers to get a sense of the range of non-academic careers philosophers have. All these things provide, if not a solution, at least an antidote to the incentive structure in academia.
It would be great if I were at the point where I would be able to say "This article is good, even though I did not publish it", or even "This article got published, but I don't like it anymore". I know a philosophy professor with papers in venues like Phil Review who says her best work remains unpublished--she trusts her judgment more than that of a stochastic review process, and that does not seem irrational. Similarly, about the two unfunded grant applications, I would say that they are beautiful proposals, with exciting research, will try to remodel them into new grant applications (not straightforward), will make decisions of what I can realistically do without the funding, and move on.