Why academics should communicate ‘failure’

A reflection on rejection, imposters and how we share achievement

‘Failure is success in progress’ – Albert Einstein

‘Rejection’ – what a negative, pervasive word! We are rejected from the moment we first engage with the world: So you were picked last for a team in school? And perhaps you failed that crucial exam? More recently you had a manuscript or a grant proposal rejected? Well, welcome to the club!

Rejection is the rule in academia, where individuals are exposed to criticisms and harsh revisions, and manuscripts are regularly turned down. Sometimes it seems we experience rejection every day.

The 2014 UQld CEED lab retreat. On (self) reflection, everyone was below 'average’!

The 2014 UQld CEED lab retreat. On (self) reflection, everyone was below ‘average’!

Academic success and failure

In general, we are defined and ranked by our academic success; measured mostly by our ability to publish in high-impact, peer-reviewed journals, and our capacity to attract competitive funding. Thus, we have internalised the belief that when our papers don’t get through or we miss out on that grant, that we have failed. Of course there are other important measures of success, such as peer recognition, promotion applications and job success.

Yet, academia lacks a system to openly turn criticism into a constructive, learning experience, and so ‘failure’ is not typically communicated among researchers. At a recent CEED lab retreat, an exercise in self-reflection led to a discussion of self-appraisal. This resulted in a worrying self-assessment that we are all seemingly below the mark of ‘average’ success. (How is that even possible?)

The inability to internalise success often manifests itself in what is often referred to as the ‘imposter syndrome’: feeling like a fraud when compared to our colleagues, and believing in our lack of intelligence, skills or ability. We feel that our successes are accidental, or due to external factors such as luck, good timing, or excellent collaborators. It can be a common feeling in academics – we are constantly, especially in the early part of our career, judged on our potential, but receive little feedback on completed work.

Research in our field has recently undergone a major change in mentality, whereby access to data and scripts is not only encouraged, but often mandatory. We argue that a healthy, productive aspect of this change in mentality must include the communication of academic ‘failure’. Everyone, at every stage, experiences failure, and maybe it is time we ‘celebrate’ it! In this context, ‘celebrate’ means identify, acknowledge, discuss, and learn from it. Failure is a hot topic – let’s drag it out from its dark, dirty corner, and expose it as the real imposter.

Confronting preconceptions

In order to document and confront biases and preconceptions about academic productivity, we surveyed 85 members of CEED at the University of Queensland (http://tinyurl.com/oxdmvh3) and collected data on their demographics (gender, age, time since doctoral graduation) and number of manuscripts and grants accepted/rejected from January 2013 to October 2014. We also recorded the frequency of communication of success and failure for manuscripts and grants. The results are summarised in Figure 1.

We are a rather productive group; and our ‘success’ rates aren’t too bad. On the whole we publish more manuscripts than are rejected. From January 2013 to October 2014, each CEED member published on average 2.31 ± 0.21 (mean ± standard error) peer-reviewed manuscripts as lead author and 3.94 ± 0.53 as a collaborator. That’s a total of over 500 manuscripts (as we also co-author with each other, these numbers include some overlap).

In that period, we submitted on average 8.87 manuscripts – or versions of the same manuscript – per person. Average rejections were 1.91 ± 0.23 for lead authors, and 2.46 ± 0.41 for collaborators.

Interestingly, neither gender, age nor academic status had significant effects on these outputs.

Rejection was greater for grants (and fellowships and scholarships). While we each obtained 1.2 ± 0.17 funded grants, we experienced a nearly three-fold higher chance of grant rejection, with an average of 3.44 ± 0.46 grants rejected. Grant rejections were slightly more likely among assistant professors and associate professors than among all other academic status.

Figure 1: Success in (A) publications, and (B) grants, fellowships and scholarships for CEED lab members as a function of their academic status. The dashed horizontal dashed line shows the ‘break-even’ value; scores above that line represent more success than failure. Although most CEED lab members are rather successful at publishing manuscripts, grant rejection is more frequently experienced, particularly so for assistant and associate professors.

Figure 1: Success in (A) publications, and (B) grants, fellowships and scholarships for CEED lab members as a
function of their academic status. The dashed horizontal dashed line shows the ‘break-even’ value; scores above
that line represent more success than failure. Although most CEED lab members are rather successful at publishing
manuscripts, grant rejection is more frequently experienced, particularly so for assistant and associate professors.

Sharing the bad news

Despite our high productivity, we are not as communicative as we could be, particularly when it comes to ‘bad’ news (see Figure 2). The vast majority of us identified family (29%) and peers (29%) as our preferred go-to targets for sharing good news, and our own mentees* (7%) as less likely – only 3% of us do not routinely share good news. (*Mentors are the people we look to for guidance, mentees are those people who rely upon us for guidance.)

These percentages do not change dramatically for rejections; we are less likely share with friends when we are the lead investigator (4%), and will share with peers (32%) and mentors (27%) but, again, very few share with our mentees (7%). Non-lead collaborators tend to share less overall; most frequently with family (21%) and peers (32%), and to a much lesser extent with mentees (3%). However, the fact that we share news, especially bad news, with friends and family illustrates the importance of a good work-life balance, and a strong support network.

Why do we share good news more frequently than bad news, and why do we not communicate more frequently with our students? In our opinion, only communicating success sends out the wrong image: that success is the rule, and rejection is the exception. This can be internalised by early career scientists, and result in a rather stressful, unnecessarily competitive atmosphere.

Our communication of success and failure should be more balanced, and particularly with our students.

Figure 2: Researchers in CEED share success and failure differentially. Percentage with which survey participants share academic success (left), and failure as lead investigator (centre) or as collaborator (right) with family, friends, peers, mentees and/or mentors. Sharing news with mentees is the least likely response.

Figure 2: Researchers in CEED share success and failure differentially. Percentage with which survey participants share
academic success (left), and failure as lead investigator (centre) or as collaborator (right) with family, friends, peers, mentees and/or mentors. Sharing news with mentees is the least likely response.

Reframing success and failure

Our results illustrate why most of us feel like we are performing ‘below’ the average: that average is wrongly perceived, as overall rejection happens just as frequently as acceptance, and people higher up the academic ladder succeed (or fail) as much as early career CEED members. We are not suggesting that this is something to look forward to, but rather that rejection is an integral part of our profession, and a necessary process by which our work is advanced.

Maybe we could reframe our relationship with academia as what we do rather than what we are, and consider that each part of the academic process is a skill, or set of skills, that we can learn, and practise and improve. Paper or grant rejection is not ‘failure’, rather, paper submission or grant submission in itself is ‘success’. As we progress along the academic path, we submit more papers and grant applications, so we are in fact becoming more successful, and of course rejected grant applications and proposals are not lost forever, but can be improved and recycled and resubmitted.

What is clear, however, is that our communication of success and failure should be more balanced, and particularly with our students and junior colleagues. To that end, we propose the following action plan:

Share rejection: Whether a paper/grant is accepted or (especially if it is) rejected, share the news not only with your supervisors, but also with your co-workers and students/ mentees. We have started doing this at our weekly Morning Tea UQ lab meetings.

Learn from it: When a paper/grant is rejected, talk about the positive feedback, and your plans to revise and submit elsewhere. This will be useful not only for you, but for people at an earlier stage, as they see how facing academic adversity can turn lemons into lemonade.

Carry it forward: when you review a paper or are invited to give feedback on other’s work, balance the negative with the positive, and suggest ways to improve the work.

Spread the word: Just as data and scripts are becoming open-access, we suggest that you face rejection with an open-access attitude too. We communicate rejection not only to colleagues, but also through Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #rejectionIsTheRule. (Why not join us!)

It’s important to appreciate that you are not alone but also acknowledge that escaping the imposter syndrome is something that takes time. Going through annual appraisals can help you remain objective in your accomplishments and discuss ways to improve your output. Above all, as Rudyard Kipling said, “if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same” you will succeed in life.


More info: Rob Salguero-Gomez r.salguero@uq.edu.au; Nathalie Butt n.butt@uq.edu.au

2 comments on “Why academics should communicate ‘failure’”

  1. Liz Law Reply

    I feel part of the problem is that many people come into graduate research as students that have routinely been given little criticism (i.e. they’ve gotten great marks, gold stars, and pats on the back, but thats about all). Then suddenly every way they turn they are being criticised, sometimes by people who feel they are under no obligation to phrase the criticism less personally, less bluntly.

    Talking about rejections and making it more visible in academia may make the transition easier (or it might just convince us we are indeed a bunch of numpties), but it doesn’t change the personal experience of going from being a straight A student to being a lowly, inexperienced researcher.

    I’m not sure what the solution is though… prepare students for dealing with negative/constructive criticism earlier in their education? But we certainly don’t want to risk discouraging them. Perhaps some advice on “Creatively interpreting criticism”? Maybe collate some of those really golden rejection comments, and how we ended up dealing with them.

  2. Winnifred Louis Reply

    Great article! There is data to show that helping postgrads & junior people deal with rejection by reframing it is one of the ways that mentors positively impact on mentees.

    DeCastro, R., Sambuco, D., Ubel, P. A., Stewart, A., & Jagsi, R. (2013). Batting 300 is good: perspectives of faculty researchers and their mentors on rejection, resilience, and persistence in academic medical careers. Academic medicine: journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 88(4), 497.

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