Thoughts on Failure

This page is part of my Advice for Students.

Read This First

I created this page to share my thoughts about failure with my students. My education and early career contained many failures, and my experiences may be useful to consider and compare to your own. I've focused on failures at the boundaries between stages of education or professional development, when one's future is acutely uncertain. Competition is also a recurring theme in the circumstances I describe. Students who set challenging goals for themselves may find the contents of this page particularly relatable.

This page takes some inspiration from the idea of a shadow CV, which people write to share their rejections. In contrast with a shadow CV, I've used the chronicle below to show that a period of success can unexpectedly lead to failures, and vice versa. This page also shares some themes with a speech I gave in 2019 for a department graduation ceremony at my undergraduate alma mater.

Privilege and Luck

Throughout the chronicle below, I had supportive family and friends, a stable financial situation, and good health. I belong to privileged demographics for gender and race. All of these factors helped me to recover from failures and to take advantage of new opportunities.

Also, sometimes I was lucky: seemingly small decisions made by myself and others sometimes had a huge influence on outcomes. It's possible that luck causes my advice to contain survivor bias, although I've tried to avoid it by describing a large number of failures. The number of years I've accumulated unsuccessfully applying for things suggests that I've perished many more years than I've survived. My work and preparation gave me the chance to compete, but luck was always involved in the outcome.

Privilege and luck are intertwined. Privilege makes it easier to take advantage of luck, and luck yields more privilege. One of the reasons I created Advice for Students is to reduce the role of privileged knowledge in this cycle.

The Thoughts

tree on a small peninsula surrounded by water, with fjords and waterfalls in the distance
Milford Sound, New Zealand.


Success: I Did Well in High School and College

In high school, I was a debate team captain and a scholastic bowl team captain. I received awards when I graduated: Outstanding Senior in Computer Science, Outstanding Senior in English, Salutatorian, and Student of the Year.

In college I triple-majored in computer science, mathematics, and philosophy. Academically, I sometimes pushed myself too far. (Ambitious undergraduates, remember that college should be challenging but not impossible.) I won some small scholarships from my university, though I wasn't successful with major national scholarships. I applied for Goldwater and didn't get it. Although I wanted to be the kind of student who competed for Rhodes and Marshall, I didn't build the portfolio of experiences to create a compelling application.

"I think when it came to the interview you seemed to freeze. All the wonderful ideas in your portfolio were there, but you did not illustrate the passion as we expected. Your answers, while adequate did not go beyond the question itself. It was difficult to get a feel for who you were as a person and why this journey is so important to you. . . I could tell that you did not enjoy being there."
— Written feedback from a panelist after I unsuccessfully interviewed for a university-wide undergraduate fellowship, in 2002.

In my fourth year, I was set to earn honors baccalaureate degrees for each of my three majors, and I received the philosophy department's oustanding senior award. I submitted applications to eight graduate programs in computer science and for NSF's GRFP. I didn't get GRFP, but by the time I received the rejection I had greater concerns.

Failure: My First Round of Graduate School Applications Didn't Go Well

All but one of my graduate school applications were rejected, and the remaining one was for a program that I realized was a poor fit for my interests. I asked my faculty mentors to check over my application materials and they found nothing wrong with them. Their conclusion was that I had been very unlucky.

I took a special opportunity to stay on for a fifth year as an undergraduate, to improve my portfolio. I rewrote my personal statement, and I retook the GREs to receive a slightly higher score. Again, I sent out eight applications to graduate programs. This time I received admission to three, including two that flipped from rejections the previous year. I accepted an offer from one of them.

"Thank you for applying to [university name] Master of Science program in Computer Science for the 2004 Fall Semester. After careful review of all materials you submitted and the criteria established by the department, we regret to inform you that the admission committee did not recommend you for admission."
— Decision letter from a graduate program after my first round of applications.

"It is my pleasure to offer you admission and an assistantship in the Ph.D. Graduate Program in the Department of Computer Science at [university name] beginning Fall 2005. Because of your outstanding academic history, we are pleased to also offer you a [fellowship] of [amount of money]. This fellowship will be paid in addition to your assistantship salary. . ."
— Decision letter from the same graduate program, one year later.

Meanwhile, my undergraduate computer science department selected me as the outstanding senior of the year, and I graduated.

I applied for NSF GRFP a second time and received a second rejection.

Success: I Survived Graduate School and Earned My PhD

In graduate school, I received two NSF EAPSI fellowships to spend a winter in Australia and a summer in Singapore. I published and accumulated a moderately successful portfolio. (Ambitious graduate students, remember that it's more difficult to be a superstar at this stage of your education than in any previous stage. Focus instead on graduating.) I wrote a dissertation that my committee approved after some revisions.

A collaborator wanted to hire me as a postdoc, and he asked me to apply for an opening with his organization. I also applied for two postdoctoral fellowships to work on projects of my own choosing.

I graduated without an employment offer in hand, but the postdoc with my collaborator was nearly certain to happen. Alternatively, if I received either of the fellowships, they would take me to interesting places.

road across a boggy plain with with mountains in the distance and a sunset in the sky
Wicklow Mountains National Park, Ireland.

Failure: None of My Original Post-PhD Employment Plans Worked Out

Soon after I graduated, I was rejected for the postdoc position with my collaborator. An internal misunderstanding about funding meant their organization couldn't hire me. The two fellowships also rejected me.

I spent the summer unemployed, searching for a job. Although I wanted to stay on an academic career track, I also submitted applications to a variety of positions in government and industry. Early on, I received offers for positions that struck me as suspicious; painfully and without alternatives, I turned them down. Later, I was rejected for a variety of postdoc positions inside and outside of my area of research. I was the rare computer scientist who couldn't find a job.

Toward the end of summer, a combination of luck and due diligence saved me.

A friend sent me an ad for a postdoc position that seemed out of my league. Grudgingly, I applied. Astoundingly, they took me seriously, interviewed me, and sent me an offer. I accepted it. The position was a great fit for me professionally and for my geographic preferences.

Coincidentally, it was in an academic unit that had twice rejected my applications to their PhD program.

Success: I Was Productive as a Postdoc

The postdoc position expanded my research portfolio in a new direction, and I worked with supportive collaborators, published in major venues, and built a professional network. I gained experience mentoring students and applying for grants. I also spent a year abroad on a fellowship, satisfying a long-standing personal goal. It was actually one of the same fellowships that had rejected me just after I graduated; I reapplied and won it as part of the last cohort before the program was discontinued. Outside of work, I also got married, traveled, lived in great places, and made lasting friendships.

"I'm sure you didn't do something really simple and primitive, like. . ."
— A professor in 2012, when I was a postdoc, responding after I briefly mentioned one of my research projects during a conversation. He then described my work in sufficient detail that he must have read about it. The project had produced a workshop paper and a journal paper; later it would also produce a conference paper and a book chapter.

A typical postdoc position lasts just 2-3 years, and it's intended to build one's professional portfolio while applying for non-temporary positions. I remembered as a graduate student wondering how postdocs coped with the uncertainty of not knowing what kind of job they would get next, where they would live, and more generally, what their lives would be like. The postdocs I knew as a graduate student seemed nonchalant about the uncertainty.

I might have appeared nonchalant for awhile too, but as time wore on, I became more concerned.

Failure: My First Three Years on the Faculty Job Market Produced Zero Offers

The CS/IS faculty job market observes an annual cycle, with applications due in the fall and interviews during the following spring. Early on as a postdoc, I planned a three-year strategy for my applications. During my first cycle I would apply for only the openings I most wanted. If I didn't receive an offer, I would apply for a larger number of openings during the second cycle. If I still didn't receive an offer, I would apply for an even larger number during the third cycle. My mentors agreed it was a good plan.

During those application cycles I received zero, two, and one phone interviews, respectively. No one invited me to interview on campus, and I received no offers.

To my knowledge, it is rare for applicants to be able to spend this many years in a row on the faculty job market. They either exit the market with an offer, or life circumstances force them to choose a different career path. I was privileged and lucky to be able to continue applying, but I was unlucky with the results.

"Name one thing this research is useful for besides helping people."
— An audience member, in a hostile tone of voice, at an interview talk I gave for a postdoctoral position in 2015. I did not receive an offer, but helping people remains an unapologetic goal of my research.
"This isn't interesting!"
— An interviewer for a tenure-track position in 2015, while holding up a copy of one of my best publications. His employer overruled his lack of interest: they told me later that they wanted to make an offer. I chose a different opportunity.

I decided to try a fourth cycle, and the number of applications that I turned in exceeded the sum of my first three cycles combined. One day I submitted so many applications that I had to stop in the evening because the thought of submitting one more made me feel physically ill. However, I reached a breakthrough, with six on-campus interviews. I received multiple offers, and I accepted one. Notably, the academic unit that I joined had rejected my application during a previous hiring cycle.

I spent two years there and then moved to a different university for another tenure-track position, one that was a better fit for me. This second academic unit had rejected my applications twice during previous hiring cycles.

I Have More Failures

I've omitted a few more failures that were just as painful as these, or nearly so.

at a high altitude, a cairn of stones surrounded by stones on the ground, with mountains and a sea inlet behind
Ben Nevis, Scotland.


Trying Again

Some of these examples appear in the narrative above, and others don't.

A few months after I moved to my second faculty position, I received a rejection letter from my new academic unit(!). I had applied for multiple openings, and the rejection was automatically generated for one of the others. I had actually applied for four different faculty positions in the same academic unit; for my success, it was sufficient to have just one of my applications result in an offer.

Success is Never Guaranteed

Any of the times I tried a second (or nth, for n>1) time to accomplish something, I might have failed again. Adjustments made success more likely, but there was no guarantee that the result would be different. After a competitive failure, it can be difficult even to distinguish meaningful feedback from subjectivity: the margin between successful candidates and strong but unsuccessful ones can be slimmer than the effects of subjective evaluation. (I've called that phenomenon criteria saturation.) I saw signs of that ambiguity after my first round of graduate school applications. Faculty members, including those on admissions committees, gave me contradictory advice on whether my three majors were an asset or a sign I had stretched myself too thin. Once I reached graduate school, they were clearly an asset.

When stakes are high, a fallback plan is obligatory. It's impossible to try again without one.

Managing Impostor Syndrome

Each failure in the chronicle above made me doubt that I was ready for the next stage of my education or career, and they made me wonder if my prior success had been an illusion. My initial inability to get into the graduate schools that I wanted, or to quickly find a job after my PhD, seemed like incontrovertible evidence that I was a fraud. It was the impostor syndrome mindset validated: people had passed judgement on my work, and in unison they had deemed it unworthy.

It's important (yet difficult) to remember that failures do not diminish your prior accomplishments. The accomplishments remain valid and yours, and any recognition that went with them was deserved. At the same time, there is no guarantee that a sequence of accomplishments exclusively leads to further accomplishments. You can be unlucky, and you might make mistakes, but no outcome revokes the past.

Maintaining Perspective

Your memory of your failures will exceed anyone else's, and it's unlikely that anyone evaluating your work will be aware of any of them. Even within a specific, sited instance of a year-to-year competition (e.g., admissions to a specific academic unit's PhD program), committees considering your application tend not to remember. They read large numbers of applications, and some members change every year.

To the extent that they notice your persistence, committees are more likely to think of repeat applications as a positive rather than a negative. Grit is recognized as a valuable trait, and sustained interest in an opportunity is seen as a plus for a candidate.

The weight you feel when remembering your failures is real, and its accumulation can take a toll on your mental health. Self-care is appropriate. It's also appropriate to resist the urge to express a pre-emptive defensiveness when you prepare a portfolio of your work, or when you talk with people about your experiences.

Finding Meaning

Here, meaning is about narrative rather than semantics. A sense of narrative adds value to experiences, although it may take awhile to find.

Creative expression, either shared or private, can be a conduit for finding meaning. Alternatively, a journal is helpful. In written or spoken contexts, it's a good sign if what you say sounds like you: it's easy to produce rose-colored insincerity and lofty claims when asked to find meaning in failure. Again, constructing meaning takes time, and feeling positive about a failure might not be as attainable as feeling that the failure is behind you and diminishing as an impediment.

It took me years to find meaning in some of the failures I've described, but the narrative is an asset. When I write or speak for an audience, regardless of topic, my failures steady my words in a way that I find difficult to explain. My failures also give me stories to tell my students, sometimes to reassure them and other times to make them laugh.

below, a blue glacier; above, snowcapped mountains
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina.

Sustaining Motivation

What motivated you prior to a failure? Options include (but are not limited to) ambition, longing, popularity, prestige, love, fear, outrage, duty, vindication, absolution, money, obligation to others, and obligation to yourself. Each of these options is morally ambiguous: it's possible to do a good thing for bad reasons, or to do a bad thing for good reasons. In graduate school, my motivation for applying for my first fellowship to go abroad was continuing frustration that I hadn't won a similar fellowship as an undergraduate. It was an unpleasant source of motivation, but the success led to good things.

Motivations that survive failures are the most valuable ones, as it's easier to sustain motivation than it is to resurrect it or find new sources. Unsustainable motivations also contribute to burnout, which costs time and well-being. Sustainability varies from person to person, but internal motivations (i.e., the ones from within you) are typically more reliable than external ones.

Talking with People

Mentors and friends are useful to speak with as part of processing failure.

When my first round of graduate school applications went poorly, two faculty members reassured me that the outcome was unexpected and helped me assess my options. One was a faculty member in my discipline who provided feedback on my portfolio and my goals. The other was a faculty member outside of my discipline whom I had spoken with often since my first year. He inspired me to try academia as a career path, and I continue to borrow from his style of pedagogy.

Friends helped me process the steady stream of failure during my faculty job search. Some were also on the academic job market, and they went through the same things I did, albeit in smaller quantities. Others were outside academia, and their outside perspective forced me to explain things. By virtue of explaining, I reflected on my situation in greater depth.

Moving Forward

If you seek advice on dealing with failure, either specific to you or for failure in general, typically you can find a lot of it. Some of it is contradictory, and some of it may seem heavy-handed or misguided. Accordingly, I've tried to restrict the advice on this page to my own experiences and to qualify it appropriately.

Regardless of where you take inspiration from, it's often your choice what to do next after a failure. It's difficult or impossible to deliberately choose how to feel about failure, but you can choose to do things that affect how you feel. Determining the best choice without knowledge of the future can be difficult, but it might be sufficient to try.

About the Pictures

I added them to break up the text; all of them are mine. I am a photographer in my spare time.

Buddhist temple on a hill from a nearby perspective with the view surrounded by bushes and trees; a city below and mountains in the distance
Kiyomizudera Temple, Japan.