From the jaws of victory.

I am a failure.

Well, I could just leave it there I suppose. Still, I imagine you were expecting a little elaboration.

I’m a qualified failure.

So obviously, if I’m a failure then my PhD makes me a failure with qualifications. Har har. Nonetheless, my recent failure has been specific and educational and so it’s worth discussing. I’ve expressed on this site before how weirdly dual I feel about my chosen career – academia is cruel and soul crushing, and the idealist who I am at heart struggles to stay afloat in a world of pragmatic cynicism. On the other hand, I love research. I love doing research. I love the creative process, and the discovery. Sometimes, I feel like I live for the moment of revelation that comes after finally solving that tricky differential equation. The graft pays off [1].

[1] – (sometimes)

Because of this duality, my career ambitions have rocked dramatically between “I will win a Nobel prize” to “I hate this career” to “I just want to put food on the table, spend time with my wife and maybe own a house eventually [2]”. My scattered thoughts have inevitably slowed down my progression along the career, and I am at times keenly aware that there’s only a short window in which to “make it”.

[2] – (considering the cost of housing in my part of the country, this is perhaps the most ambitious I ever get)

While I was going through a particularly desperate phase of hating my job and everything about it, I got an email from a collaborator about a fellowship opportunity. They were offering to mentor me through the application process to run my own project, with its own budget, and generally Be Prestigious. Not only was it a major chance to further my career, but it constitutes a serious endorsement of my ability – I don’t believe one outright offers mentorship like this on a whim. In that sense, it was the most unqualified endorsement I’ve received from an academic, and that really meant something to me.


Science (TM)

Now, I didn’t think that I could do it and I didn’t think that I wanted to. But it’s too good an opportunity to pass up, so I promised myself that the experience would be worth the work of putting together a serious proposal, budget, project plan, and pitch in under a week. Oh, and I had to find an idea before any of that. This is, to put it lightly, really bloody difficult and stressful. I hit the deadline and wrote a proposal I was really proud of, thereafter forgetting all about my application. There was no chance I’d actually be taken seriously, after all.

So I panicked quite a bit when the invitation for an interview came through. I prepared hard, worked my socks off to impress, because now I was being taken seriously I realized that I really wanted this opportunity. In the end, I gave a great pitch and a good account of myself in the interview. I was really excited, because I had a good chance of actually getting this position which I hadn’t entirely realized I wanted so much.


Also Science (TM)

And I failed. The competition was really tough – even the director of the institute thought as much – and I just didn’t do quite enough to convince the panel that my proposal fit their intended  theme. I was a failure, and thus I felt crushed.


Yes, I failed to get the fellowship. It’s disappointing. But I learned so much about my own abilities; I proved I can come up with novel and interesting ideas without others’ input; I presented myself well and looked “impressive” to a panel of brilliant academics. I gained all the experience I set out to get, and then some. So I failed, sort of. I failed constructively…

… and that really is a qualified failure.

About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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1 Response to From the jaws of victory.

  1. angelaching says:

    Great post about failure. Kinda went through my own up and down in terms of failure and just now I’m coming to terms with it (and still trying hard to accept it). If you’re interested I’ve collated a lot of personal stories about peoples’ failure stories (in every aspect from work to academics to relationships etc), to try and normalise failure in today’s society ( , hopefully you can find some comfort in it.

    Apart from that though, keep up the good work and posts. Hope that you get far (you’ll definitely find a better opportunity later)

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