Dressed in a freshly dry-cleaned suit for graduate school visits, I marched proudly and eagerly into my first one-on-one interview with a prospective PI.
“Hi, I’m Amanda!”
“Nice to meet you, I’m Rob. Are you good at failing?”
“What do you mean?” I stared blankly, taken aback by his bluntness.
He smiled knowingly and leaned back in his chair. "Do you know how to deal with failure?" he said. “Most of you – the cohort invited to visit top PhD programs – experience, perhaps, a larger proportion of success than your peers. What I’m asking is, do you know how to deal with failure? Failure will be everywhere as you advance in your career as a scientist, especially as you take steps forward as a graduate student.”
He had a point.
Failure is ubiquitous. You can’t escape failure.
A year later, the topic flooded my thoughts again when Prof. Johannes Haushofer’s “CV of Failures” went viral. Highlighting a long list of prestigious professorships and awards he didn’t get, Haushofer aimed to provide perspective on the application process by making his invisible failures visible.
“I have noticed that [my CV] sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me,” he wrote. Haushofer’s CV of Failures quickly became a powerful tool for helping others – including myself – deal with perceived “shortcomings.”
As inspired by Haushofer, I want to share a sample, in graphical fashion, of my own journey – full of many failures and much fewer successes:
Figure 1: Cumulative number of applications I submitted that were rejected (open circle; n=45 in 2016) or accepted (closed circle; n=18 in 2016) since my high school senior year. Data include applications that required at least 2 of 3: recommendation letter(s), personal statement, research proposal (i.e. degree programs, scholarships/fellowships, summer internships)
Let’s focus on the story hidden in the data of Figure 2. In 2010, I graduated high school, and got into 3 of 21 undergraduate programs (the first time MIT rejected me, and on pi day, of all days…).
In 2011, an academic counselor told me that I wasn’t going to get a summer internship and that I shouldn’t waste time applying, but I did anyway and I got 1 out of 7 – just enough to send me off to Clemson to learn about electrode fabrication. In 2012, 1 of 6 (and the second time MIT rejected me) gave me the opportunity to live in Germany and work on a drug delivery project.
In 2013, I applied to 9… and got 0 (and the third time that MIT rejected me). In 2014, I applied to graduate school and for the first time, got to choose between schools (8 out of 8 – and the first two times MIT didn’t reject me!).
Through these experiences and more, I’ve come to terms with the presence that failure will have in my career. I’ve stopped mentally categorizing failure as a taboo topic. But I still pondered Rob’s question from time to time. Now that I’m not afraid of failing, how do I become “good at failing”? Also…what does “being good at failing” even mean?!
With the clarity of hindsight, I can now tell you what “being good at failing” means to me.
- Knowing that failure is a part of the process, for everyone (yes, even Bob Langer – the most cited engineer with an H-index of 232 – probably higher now as you read this – who had his first nine research grant proposals rejected)
- The more you try, the more failures you will probably have.
- But also, the more you try, the more you will create chances for yourself to succeed. So try, try again, because working hard and letting failure inform your next move will get you somewhere.
With this, I finally understood why Rob wore that grin on his face during our interview – and failure became friend instead of foe.