26 August 2015

Low points

Professionally, I have had a good summer. I’ve had two papers and three book chapters land, and got a little attention on the national media stage. And next week, I’m being promoted to full professor.

I was watching this talk by Bradley Voytek, who reminded me that it’s important for us not just to talk about successes, but our failures, too. I shouldn’t pretend that it’s all been easy.

The idea of talking about failure is something I’m familiar with. I’ve done it a little bit on the blog from time to time. And a large part of many stories behind the papers is, “Why did this take so long?” But I think it’s worth revisiting this to give perspective to what’s be coming down the pipe recently.

I’m not sure what I’d consider my lowest point, professionally. There are a few candidates.

My first few years of grad school were not good ones. I had a psychology degree, had switched into a biology department, and I didn’t have a lot of background knowledge that others grad students would have. Some things were easy: I was well prepared to think about experimental design and statistics (better than some biologists, I’d wager), and a philosophy of science class was a breeze. But leveling work in undergraduate physiology? Cellular physiology? I was way out of my depth there. I got a conditional pass on my qualifying oral examination.

As a teaching assistant, I was moved out of one section of an introductory biology lab to one later in the week because of student complaints about how I was handling the class. This meant I had to replace another instructor, who had been quite popular with the students. And they never let me forget that.

In one post-doc, I didn’t connect at all well with one of the other people in the lab. It was never mean or angry from my point of view, just distant. At one point, my supervisor said to us, “You guys should be talking to each other, not to me. You have very similar projects.” I was never able to do that, and we continued to run along parallel lines, rarely intersecting. That was a missed opportunity.

I had a rough road to tenure, too. The department recommended giving me one more year. After that extended year, I came within a hair’s width of not making tenure. A last minute REU grant changed one committee vote from one recommending against me to a one vote majority recommending tenure.

Even after tenure, there have been projects that got rejected, rejected, and rejected some more before getting published. The low point was one review that said, “I don't believe it,” without specifying any flaw in methodology, analysis, or reasoning that would leave the reviewer not to believe it.

These things happen. And I know they will happen again. That’s how it goes. I may not have ever had a “rock bottom” moment professionally, but there are always low points.

And I think it’s important to pull those out when, to an outsider, you might look like you’re having some measure of professional success. Because it’s easy for those moments of success to look unattainable to others, particularly incoming students. And it’s also important for me myself to not forget the screw-ups, so that I might improve.

Related posts

You do not know the end of your story
Now part of the problem
Abandonment issues

External links

Building a shadow CV
My shadow CV

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