The consolation of sharing failure

Strawberry Fields, Central Park, New YorkImagine you are not alone.

Once more Thesis Whisperer is a mirror. Last time supervisor stress, this time the need for academic resilience in the face of rejection. I was low after being turned down for an opportunity to talk about my research then Raising the Risk Threshold appeared on my feed. I read the first line… When you get rejected from a journal or conference, or your grant doesn’t get up… and was hooked!

The post is about being unsuccessful and dealing with it. Tseen Khoo calls it academic resilience. I call it Academic Aptitude. AA to the rescue. You have to get good at dealing with rejection. It’s a learning curve. An exercise in positive thinking. Finding something you’ve done is not considered good enough hurts. Moving on takes guts but it has to be done. The easy option is to think I’ll never do it again but risk taking goes with the research territory. There’s no substitute for conference presentation, publication or a successful funding bid. Even when you’ve accepted you can’t change the world, but believe you could alter a tiny bit of it, getting your story out there and networking with like-minded people is a necessary part of the academic game.


No matter how you say it, the word ‘no’ never sounds good in the context of rejection. It makes you feel vulnerable. Not good enough. You beat yourself up over the smallest detail and end up doubting the whole research package.  We all deal with rejection differently. Responses are complicated by gender, age, career status, existing workloads and colleagues.  It takes one to know one. Empathy comes from experience. I know who I can and can’t talk to. I’ll get over it and by next week will have moved on. It’s the here and now which is uncomfortable but it’s been a busy week and I’m tired. Two time zone changes and 15 hours with Virgin Atlantic in 5 days.  But now it’s back to business!

Academic Aptitude is an essential skill, right up there with critical evaluation and reflective practice.  AA is not just being gifted in a specific discipline, it’s about attitude; in particular towards research and being dedicated to the research process. It’s about looking ahead, moving on, knowing bruises fade and other opportunities will appear.  It’s about a special kind of strength and being prepared to temporarily skew the work/life balance.  I was down but felt better for reading Raising the Risk Threshold. Whether face to face or online, there is always consolation in sharing failure.


Thesis Whisperer is a bit Schadenfreude then you realise it’s your reality.

thesis whispererThe Thesis Whisperer





I’m not a fan of online self help. In fact I’m starting to wish the internet had fixed opening hours like 9-5 and closed early on Wednesdays. If it wasn’t available outside work I’d have an analogue life again; one with real books and paper. Maybe I’d write better if I had to think about every sentence, rather than throwing words at the screen, using cut and paste to chop – change – delete and start all over. I love words. I’m a Gutenberg whore. My kindle is full of freebies. When I travel the classics come with me but I download more than I finish. I’ve always had problems with boundaries. Good at setting them for other people; giving advice on what’s essential, optional or unneeded, I’m less adept at applying them to myself.  My phd year has not ended well. Part-time doctorate is an oxymoron. Like Fun Run. I knew the health of my PhD was getting critical. I tried resuscitation but it wasn’t having it.  Thesis Whisperer has been the one consolation.

Thesis Whisperer is an online support site for doctoral students. It’s every blogger’s dream. A success. The pieces are short, succinct and act as mirrors. In the depths of doctoral despair with a work pile larger than my motivation, I found the Valley of Shit. I’m not a fan of four letter words. Hate them on screen. If it was my piece I’d have added an e or found a different word all together. But somehow it didn’t matter. Thesis Whisperer is a bit Schadenfreude until you realise it’s become your reality.  Someone somewhere has been where you are now; even in the depths of doctoral despair they have words of support, advice and comfort. I think about writing a piece but doubt they need another account of doctoral doom. Although when it comes to despair I am there at the top; my despondency cup runneth over. It’s true what everyone says. You will want to stop the pain now! Give up. Walk away. What real difference will it make? And you know even as you gather the D words – doom, despondency, despair, drugs – deep down you have to continue, you need to find a way to make this work, make sense of the text, because this is what it comes down to. 80,000 words to describe the journey; where you went, why, how you got there, what you took, what you found. Think of the phd as a travelogue to a new country. I love to travel.

There are two ways of dealing with detritus; sweep it under the carpet or get down and dirty with the mess it’s made of your life. Somewhere in all these pages of words was a moment when it fell into place and made sense. Once I had a direction, knew what I was doing and why. Now I just need to find it again.