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Intro to Failure

by Eva Amsen

I’ve started to write up a blog post on the topic of “failure”. I led a session about this at BioBarCamp in August, but I was way too busy at the time to ever write anything down about it. Before writing that impersonal post, I thought I should mention in a separate post that I’m not entirely objective on the topic of failure. I feel like a failure, and this is partly a result of the way people react when I tell them what I would like to do in the future. So here is my personal story, and the actual Failure blog post will come in the next week or so. Consider this an intro to failure.

I am two months away from getting a PhD degree in Biochemistry. Naturally, people have been asking what I’m going to do when I’m done. The normal thing to do is to have a postdoc lined up and do some more research. But I have come to realize over the years that I am not as interested in research as others in the field are. I wanted to get my PhD because I wanted to teach at a university. And I still do! The thought of preparing lectures doesn’t fill me with the same dread as it does others. The thought of more years at the lab bench, however, does.

I also always pictured myself doing the things you see scientists doing on the news: talk about science. You never see any of them writing grants or being in a meeting. You see them being interviewed about something, and they explain what they’re working on. That’s what I wanted. I never wanted the research, I just wanted to do the teaching and public engagement parts of a PI’s job.
In the mean time, I have been writing on the side, and I enjoyed that far more than doing bench work. It was also difficult sometimes, especially doing research on a topic on a deadline, and formulating what I found out in readable sentences at 2 in the morning to make said deadline, but it didn’t make me miserable.

So I decided a while ago that I would not line up a postdoc job for after graduation, but give myself one year to decide if I want to do a postdoc at all. Maybe I just don’t like the research related to the field. After all, a lot of my complaints are related to working with cell lines, so maybe I’d be fine with a computer-based research job. This is one of the things I need to find out, so one of the things I’ll be doing in the coming year is teaching myself some programming skills.

Another thing I’ll be doing in the coming year is more freelance writing. I got to the point where I had to turn down writing jobs because I was too busy with my research, so the optimist in me thinks it might be possible to actually find work if I actively search for it. I’m also interested (but less experienced) in editing and consulting jobs, and I’ll probably be applying to sessional lecturer jobs for the fall, because I still really want to teach undergraduates!

Finally, I have a plan for a documentary, which is not going to make me any money at all, but which people love when I tell them about it, and I need some time to work on that, so that will be another project I’ll officially announce in January.

It’s confusing, and not the normal thing to do, so when I tell people about my plans, I get some very interesting reactions.

Here is a selection of reaction from people within science:
“Don’t apply for sessional lecturer jobs! You’ll never find a real job if you spend too much time doing that!”
“Nobody will hire you as a postdoc unless you come straight from your PhD. It’s better to find one now, and then when you know what you want to do you can always leave halfway through.”
“Oh.”
“That’s great that you’re taking time off!”
“Have you thought about teacher’s college?”
“So have you lined up a job at all then?”

Yeah. It’s hard not to feel like a failure with comments like that. (The teacher’s college one is alright, though, but missed the point that I wanted to teach university students.) Also note the use of “real job” in the first quote. They meant “tenure track job”.

I’ve had better reactions too, especially from scientists who know me better and have noticed that I am much better at writing and speaking about science than I am at producing Nobel Prize-winning data. My supervisor, supervisory committee, and collaborator have all suggested things I could do, and people I could contact for either lecturing or writing jobs. I’ve also had very positive reactions from people outside of science or from totally different fields.

But still. I’m not doing the “normal thing”. I don’t have a postdoc lined up. I feel like I told people I am dropping out of high school and moving to Hollywood to become an actor. No Academy Award would ever make up for the feeling of failing high school. And no matter what I end up doing in a few years, no matter how much I love it or how good I am at it, it’s not going to make up for the feeling of failing the standard research career.

One of the things I talked about in my failure session at BioBarCamp was my aversion to the term “alternative career”. The fact that it’s called “alternative” already makes it sound like it doesn’t quite live up to the career it is an alternative to – the research career.

More about failure at the personal level, failure at the lab level, the pressure of publication, alternative careers, and negative data in the actual Failure blog post, which is still under construction.

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28 comments

Martin Fenner October 5, 2008 - 6:56 AM

JK Rowling gave a wonderful talk about failure at this year’s Harvard Commencement. Anna “blogged about this”:http://network.nature.com/people/U2929A0EA/blog/2008/06/17/hero-worship-rewarded, but now that we have YouTube on Nature Network:

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Massimo Pinto October 5, 2008 - 8:55 AM

Great Speech from JK Rowling.
Eva, the very best of luck for your decisions. Exploring multiple avenues, as you are doing, is perhaps the best gift that you can make to yourself. Looking forward to your documentary!

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Stephen Curry October 5, 2008 - 10:27 AM

Eve, from what I can tell you are most certainly _not_ a failure. You’re about to get your PhD (which I hope you will celebrate as a great achievement) _and_ you are displaying great maturity in thinking deeply about your career options.
I don’t think there is a well-marked road that you are _supposed_ to follow and it is far better – for your future peace of mind – to follow your passions. At the same stage I thought I had run my course with science and got a placement on a management training scheme with the UK National Health Service. I thought it would be worthy to do a good job of running hospitals. The only trouble was I was useless at it and hated the job. The experience made me realise how much I had enjoyed doing science. So I applied for postdoc positions and the rest, as they say, is history (well, it was a long tome ago). I was happier re-entering science because it was a positive choice; if I’d stayed on i a lab after my PhD just because I couldn’t think of anything better to do, I would probably still have doubts in my mind about my career choice.
I certainly _failed_ at hospital management – but that was a great lesson to learn: that it’s OK to fail at something. Not that I’m suggesting that you are – just that you shouldn’t be afraid to try a different course for fear of failure.
Oh, and “Robert Frost”:http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/frost_road.html is also on your side!

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Mark Tummers October 5, 2008 - 11:26 AM

_“Nobody will hire you as a postdoc unless you come straight from your PhD. It’s better to find one now, and then when you know what you want to do you can always leave halfway through.”_
Oh I didn’t know that. I have a break of a year between end of PhD and first Post doc.

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Henry Gee October 5, 2008 - 3:28 PM

Eva – so many people on NN are in your shoes, or have been, or are just about to be, that this is definitely the place to talk about ones (perceived) failures and misgivings.
First, you are _not_ a failure. _No_ experience is ever wasted (cripes – I hope that none of my ex-girlfriends ever reads any of my novels). I know that as you approach a PhD one’s spirit does tend to crumble and you can only see the dark side of everything, and looking on the bright side of life (Graham, _don’t_ do that) can be hard. You should take time to list your achievements. They will be greater than you think.
Practical advice? Whatever you do, get your Ph.D. first. _Then_ take time to decide. Try a few things on to see if they fit – internships and so on (get in touch with Anna Kushnir, for example). Do some travelling, some thinking, some reading, and some writing. Gipsy Rose Gee says that something fabulous and completely unexpected might lie around the next corner.

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Maxine Clarke October 5, 2008 - 4:21 PM

This post does not read to me as if written by a failure, or that you have failed at anything, Eva. To the contrary. In my opinion it is the mark of success to take your time to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life, rather than to proceed on autopilot (i.e. some standard course that “everyone else does”). To me, your post (and previous ones) read as if, whatever you choose to do, you will succeed at it – partly because you aren’t afraid to write posts such as this one.

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Mark Tummers October 5, 2008 - 5:24 PM

Although I am considered to be a failure by many people, I am way ahead of most of them. I actually enjoy what I am doing, despite all the stress of deadlines, impossible demands, and an insecure future.
And I am starting to be convinced that am actually quite good at the stuff I do.
I’m sure many people view my papers as ‘small’, maybe even ‘unimportant’, yet I love every single one of them that I constructed myself. Even the ones that made me miserable.
What is a failure? I see many succesful people who are unhappy. Or worse, have turned into something ugly.
I’d rather be me. It is who I am. And it creates my kind of science. Which I like.

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steffi suhr October 5, 2008 - 6:14 PM

Eva, here’s just another one telling you you’re _so_ not a failure. Just look at it: besides doing a PhD, you’ve managed to pursue writing, and the fact that you’re being asked for more than you have time for attests to the fact that you’re good at it.
Right after finishing my PhD, I stepped into a job supporting science, rather than doing it myself. It really wasn’t what I had planned, but it happened at the time and was actually quite fortunate. Over the years that followed I then spent a LOT of effort and energy trying to keep publishing, and writing and submitting proposals, besides having a full and demanding job (which included many business trips and long absences abroad) and a small child. Although I’ve been suspecting it, I never _really_ admitted to myself that this energy spent on desperately still trying to make that science career happen for myself might have been more usefully invested somewhere else.. until recently.
Then again, maybe I needed to ‘waste’ that energy. I agree that nothing we do is useless, including failures (very good example from Steve above), as long as we learn from it (sounds so good.. but I’m still struggling with that one very much myself – haven’t figured it out yet, not by a long shot).
By the way, and ironically.. in the (very technical) science support role, I (having a PhD) was very often looked at as the oddball too, even though I did my job quite successfully – in oceanography, the technical types make fun of the academics a lot.. so maybe I’m just a misfit generally. It’s ok, really 🙂 Someone up for a post on ‘misfits’?

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Eva Amsen October 5, 2008 - 6:32 PM

Thanks everyone! I _know_ I’m not a failure, but I meant to point out that there is this kind of “cookie cutter” culture, where everyone is expected to do a certain thing when they’re finished with their PhD.
My actual post on failure (partly done) is not going to be personal, so I wanted to scrape out all the personal stuff I wanted to say about it and move that to its own post (this one). I really don’t feel that insecure about my choice of career as I might sound, but it’s just not easy to constantly have to battle the ivory tower guards on the way out. I was never very good at Nintendo…

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Heather Etchevers October 5, 2008 - 8:53 PM

Although I am coming into this late, I just wanted to second Stephen’s _”it is far better – for your future peace of mind – to follow your passions.”_ Every transition period in one’s life is fraught with choices and therefore risk. As you finish your full-time education – though you haven’t had coursework for a while, now – you can’t really make any wrong choices.
As ever in life, know what you *really* want. That is a measure of success right there.

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Eva Amsen October 5, 2008 - 9:12 PM

That’s true. A friend of mine just left an office job to start her own cafe (coffee shop), and she’s so happy about it all!

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Åsa Karlström October 5, 2008 - 10:24 PM

Eva: I guess I don’t need to repeat “you’re not a failure” but it seemed appropriate 😉
It is, as you say, however interesting about this feelings about “alternative” careers and how people react when you say that you don’t want to pursue bench science.
Mind you, I don’t think alternative career is a bad word – it’s just that I don’t agree on when people use it. I don’t think “teaching science at a SLAC or other uni place” is an ‘alternative. Opening a coffee shop – yes that would be an alternate career since your PhD might not really matter to what you then do. Teaching science, your PhD have plenty to do with that.
I find the hardest thing to know what I want to do though 🙂 I always* thought “professor/staying in Academia” and then I decided to do a post doc to evaluate if this was what I really wanted to do – since PhD is different from post doc times. Now do I know? Nahh… I have an incling but it is too soon to be open about my thoughts I think.
I wish you all the best on your journey to deciding but don’t feel like a failure! And good luck with the thesis!!!
*for a long time

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Mark Tummers October 6, 2008 - 4:45 AM

People actually sometimes refer here to ‘getting out’ as success, mentioning obtaining a ‘real job’.
It’s all about perspective.

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Henry Gee October 6, 2008 - 11:29 AM

Steffi’s comment about having children reminded me about an important component of self-esteem – _physical fatigue_. Only parents and people finishing Ph.D.s really know the meaning of this.
If you are just finishing a Ph.D., I’ll bet that you’re working 37-hour days, not sleeping properly, not eating the right things, and not getting enough exercise. All these things will consire to make you feel miserable.

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Anna Kushnir October 6, 2008 - 8:24 PM

So sorry for coming in to the discussion late. My stomach churned as I read your post, Eva. It’s so close to my own experiences. A number of people wrote me off once they found out I wasn’t staying in academia, going as far as making eye contact and conversation only with the person standing next to me, while talking about my area of expertise. Shudder. It is generally assumed that people who don’t stay in academia leave because they have to – because they are not good enough to make it. That mentality is rarely voiced, yet it seeps in somehow. I was absolutely terrified to tell my PI that I was getting out of research. Terrified. Took me a year to get up the courage. That’s not right. It reinforces negative stereotypes about academic researchers for one, and gives me ulcers to boot.
I still don’t know what I am going to do with myself though. Now that my time at NN is coming to an end, I am in the same position I was at graduation – with no clear goal or specific profession in mind. I have the general strokes down, certainly, but how those translate into actual employment is a different story. This lack of certainty and direction in themselves are enough to make me feel like a failure, especially in comparison to my peers.

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Cath Ennis October 6, 2008 - 8:51 PM

The word “alternative” really doesn’t make all that much sense now that a majority of PhDs are apparently NOT going into the traditional tenure track…

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Maxine Clarke October 6, 2008 - 9:11 PM

“Now that my time at NN is coming to an end” – is that so, Anna? Come and apply for a job over on our side of the pong!
Nature Network has and is benefitting tremendously from your efforts, well done to you.

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Maxine Clarke October 6, 2008 - 9:12 PM

Pong? What happened? POND!

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Anna Kushnir October 6, 2008 - 9:22 PM

I suppose I shouldn’t sound so dramatic! My internship ends in mid-December, and I am trying to figure out my next move. I would love nothing more than to migrate to London. Am keeping my eye peeled for appropriate job openings! Yet again, thank you for your kind words, Maxine.

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Stephen Curry October 6, 2008 - 9:58 PM

The other side of the _pong_ sounds much better!
And do come and join us here Anna… Boston is great but London is greater!

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Anna Kushnir October 6, 2008 - 10:11 PM

Don’t have to tell me twice! If only it were up to me… I would be there tomorrow.

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Robert Pinsonneault October 6, 2008 - 10:35 PM

Eva-
As is evident in the above comments, there are many folks here who identify with your narrative. When I was through with my PhD program and considering all the options that one is supposed to consider (I even went as far as to interview for a postdoc position) I realized quickly that I was completely lost. So, I decided of course to do the only rational thing: I went and worked at a ski resort. After essentially doing nothing but partying and such for 8 months with next to no responsibility, I decided I would try science out once again to determine if it was the process/PhD Endgame that I detested or the bench. With that perspective in hand, I then went on to set up a postdoc, which is now coming to end in the next few months.
Happy ending? Heading towards a faculty position where I’ll finally get to teach? Not remotely. Turns out I still loath bench science and will never get the publication count needed for a professorship. I absolutely love (like you and others here) talking and writing about science, however. I’m working on a cobbled approach very similar to your own and am equally frustrated… but I continue to tell myself it will be worth it.
My take is: The only failure is in doing the expected in lieu of doing the inspired.

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Brian Derby October 6, 2008 - 10:35 PM

I am not a great one for advice having stuck to the academic career path but I can certainly vote for changing country after your PhD. I worked in Grenoble for my first postdoc and it was a great experience. I was fortunate in that it was a very open position and it enabled me to work in a very different area from my PhD in a non-English speaking environment and proved to me that the world of science is not exclusively Anglophone. Do not think of a postdoc as being the start of a determined attempt to reach the halls of academe, think of the PhD as a passport for some international experience and then determine whether the scientific life is what you want to do.
Very few of my PhD cohort are still in academia. I can think of one each in Berkley, Oxford, Birmingham and Nottingham out of about 30. A large number fled science immediately but many climbed other greasy poles – I can think of one who is HR Director on the board of a top 10 company but most have faded from memory or contact so who knows where they are now. Science is something you should keep on doing if you enjoy it. The enjoyment must be why the relatively low pay compared to many other professions is tolerated. However, a postdoc position has its benefits. There is little administration, teaching is optional, no managing of others is required and generally you have a single target to focus on.

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Eva Amsen October 6, 2008 - 11:44 PM

Brian, I did my entire PhD abroad – I’m not from Canada originally. And now I’m just sticking around to figure out what to do next. Moving continents was a huge endeavour the first time, and I dread to think about things like selling furniture, shipping books, and vaccinating the cat at this moment.

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Åsa Karlström October 7, 2008 - 2:58 AM

Eva: As one fellow person who has moved across the Pond -not only once but once there and back “home” and then back over again -it’s not as bad…. or…well, I could store my stuff at my parents and if I’m moving from here again I’m not sure that I would move back so – I understand the heistation.
Anna> _I still don’t know what I am going to do with myself though. //I am in the same position I was at graduation – with no clear goal or specific profession in mind. I have the general strokes down, certainly, but how those translate into actual employment is a different story._
I’m trying to accept that life is slightly not as planned as I would have wanted it to be – nor what I thought it would be (get phd, get post doc, move into t-t-position, become professor 😉 ) – and I am starting to actually like this uncertainty a bit. (not too much but definetly more than a year ago). Maybe try and think about what you want to do now, and what things you do now when you feel happy and content? It’s a start maybe?
To no-one in specific>
Henry has a great point too though. The first time after the thesis and the PhD is done – it is a bit overwhelming and TIRED. Rest and do something completly different is my suggestion as Robert mentioned. I ended up between my PhD and post doc almost going mad as a march hare since I didn’t do as much as I was used to doing as a grad student. THat all took about six weeks to get over and then I was off to the next thing… 🙂
I’m looking forward reading more about your thoughts and decisions!

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Michael Nestor October 7, 2008 - 3:40 AM

You _are not_ a failure. I am really inspired by what you wrote and look up to you for being so candid about your experiences. If there were more scientists like you, there would be better mentors-and thus better students and finally a better scientific culture which in my book equals better science.
In some way the system has _failed you_, (and I was in a similar boat as you-I just graduated this year). The system (and the mass media science apparatus out there) never tells us scientists how it _really_ is.
Even in grad school we are sheltered from reality as everyone around us weaves a mythical thread based on the assumptions they know we have about being a scientist.
The system is failing all of us by not giving us a rounded experience during our PhD training and explaining that there are more postdocs than there are poistions and that we may toil for years longer than our mentors.
You are a resounding success for highlighting the awkward orthodoxy that is inherent in the biomedical sciences in terms of PhD training. Ans so damn right about that whole “alternative careers” thing!
I sure hope you do teach, there are a lot of young minds that need to hear what you have to say!

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Henry Gee October 7, 2008 - 9:56 AM

I am 46. This December, I’ll have been an editor at _Nature_ for so long that people who weren’t born when I started will be fully entitled to vote, marry, fight for their country, procreate and even consume liquor (legally) in the United States.
But I _still_ don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.

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steffi suhr October 9, 2008 - 5:58 AM

Thanks for putting things in perspective, Henry 🙂

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