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 .
 – (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 ”. 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”.
 – (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.
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.
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.