CV of Failures

Today, I came across this blog post on the Nature Jobs website, which I think makes an excellent point. Being in research myself, I am more than aware of the number of failures scientists can go through in their career – not only failed experiments, but rejected papers, grant proposals, fellowship/PhD/job applications, the list goes on.

We’re constantly pressured to hide our failures and focus on the successes, even though they may make up a tiny fraction of our efforts. As Melanie Stefan, author of the blog post, writes: “At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed” – and this is the truth for the majority of researchers. Not only in presentations, but in journal articles, PhD theses and CVs, we embellish the few successes as much as physically possible, and sweep any failures under the carpet, regardless of how much work and time went into them.

Indeed, I a fellow PhD student in my year isn’t including any of the work he carried out in the first 2.5 years of his research, as it didn’t yield any results he feels are worth discussing. I think this is a terrible shame. Yes, his work wasn’t successful, but isn’t this a result in itself? Shouldn’t the scientific community know that his methodology isn’t fruitful, so that it may be worked upon and improved? Furthermore, shouldn’t his hard work be recognised and praised? Unfortunately, as scientists we’re conditioned to hide our failures and pray for a success we can cling onto.

This is where the idea of a “CV of Failures” comes in. Melanie hits the nail on the head when she says “As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.”

It is so true. We go to conferences and assume that other students are sailing through their PhDs on a stream of non-stop successes, whilst we’re floundering in mixed, confusing results. New academics come into the department with what appear to be flawless careers histories of top-notch publications and seamless shifts into new positions. However, we should know that this isn’t the case. The success rates for fellowships and lectureships are extremely low, and it is highly unlikely that other researchers haven’t faced the same rejections that you yourself are currently experiencing. Unfortunately, we hide this, and feel we need to put out a sheen of non-stop success on our CVs.

Melanie suggests that we try to change this – by cataloging our rejections and struggles into a CV of failures. Not only will this give credit to the hours of effort and work which would be lost to our memories otherwise, but it can show other researchers that none of us are perfect. No one goes through their scientific career without a single failure, and maybe it’s about time we shared them with each other and inspired one another to shake off our rejections and keep heading towards success.


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