Dealing with failure

In this episode of R, D and the Inbetweens, I talk to Dr. Catherine Talbot, Lecturer in Pyschology at Bournemouth University about dealing with failure and rejections.


Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Podcast transcript


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Hello and welcome to R, D and the in-betweens.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers development and everything in between.

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Hmm. Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of R, D and the In-betweens.

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I'm your host, Kelly Preece, and this episode, I think, is possibly one of our most important episodes so far.

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So in this episode, I'm going to be talking to one of our wonderful doctoral graduates from the University of Exeter,

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Dr. Catherine Talbot, who is now a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bournemouth.

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All about failure and rejection, and about how it's perhaps unseen and under-discussed area of academic life.

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And one we hope by the end of this conversation, we can normalise a little bit for you.

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Yes. So my name is Catherine Talbot, and I actually did my Ph.D. at the University of Exeter and finished a few years ago in medical studies,

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and now I'm a lecturer in psychology at Bournemouth University.

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Most of my research is in the area of cyber psychology, so I specifically focus on social media and how people with dementia use it,

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the barriers they face, the challenges and also the benefits. So.

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What we're going to talk about is failure and rejection, and we're going to sort of undermine those terms as we talk.

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But, you know, acknowledging I think that for a lot of people that by the time they get to a research degree,

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they tend to have been high flyers throughout their academic education,

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and they tend to have been people that have done really well and been really successful and not

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necessarily having had experience of quote unquote failing or being rejected for something.

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And then when that does start to happen through publications, through funding,

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through conferences, various different things, it can be a really difficult thing.

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But at the same time, it's. It is a kind of cornerstone of the academic experience.

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So I wondered if you could say something about your kind of first your first experiences of of sort of failure or rejection as an academic,

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whether as a Ph.D. student or as a lecturer. And really what that what it was and what that felt like to you, if that's OK.

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Yeah, of course. I guess by now, I feel a bit like an expert in failure and rejection, to be honest.

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So I just really identify with what you were saying.

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So when I first came to my research programme was a Ph.D. student.

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You know, I'd done really well at university. I had a placement.

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Year, I was looking to publish a paper. All very exciting stuff.

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So I didn't really have that experience of rejection.

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And then it came to my p h d and submitted the paper to a journal for the first time.

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And yeah, just having the reviewers comments back and then really just really tearing that paper apart.

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It's something that I just put my heart and my soul into.

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And I remember receiving those comments and just crying, just go and having a little cry and thinking, I'm the worst researcher ever.

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I can't do this. I'm going to fail my PhD

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Everyone, you know, and just completely catastrophize and really from there.

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So, yeah, I just I've got much better at dealing with that now.

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Yeah, I you're saying now I'm remembering this always comes back to my memory randomly the first time.

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And so when I started my research degree, I submitted part of Masters for publication at my sort of supervisor's suggestion and it got rejected.

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And I read about two sentences of that feedback.

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And it was it felt so brutal. I didn't want to read anymore, so I filed it in my email.

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And by the time I got up, the courage to try and read it it had been archived and I couldn't get it back.

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So I never actually read the feedback.

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I just literally like, I couldn't handle it, so I dug my head in the sand just as like, No, I'm not going to deal with this I'm not

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gonna think about it, which it's very difficult, but it is so, so difficult, especially how those emails start as well.

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You just think, Oh, I'm rubbish, I'm the worst. Yes. And it very much.

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And that's the thing. I think it's it's twofold.

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It very much feels like a personal failure and you and catastrophizing what you say, you think, Oh, I'm not going to I can't do this.

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I can't do it because, you know, because of this one thing where they've said, No, not this time.

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Essentially, you know, you feel like everything is over and you can't do any of it, which of course, is not true, but it feels so real at the time.

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It feels so overwhelming. Yeah, definitely.

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And also, you do I've noticed I do tend to focus on the negatives as well that are in there.

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So even if I receive well as an example, actually, I wrote a paper recently which got accepted for publication,

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but I didn't actually realise it had been accepted because I picked up on all of the negative comments within the review.

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I didn't read that one sentence that was like, If you make these changes,

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I'm happy to accept that it just it says something really significant about our mindset and and the way that we're that,

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the way that we're both used to and respond to critique.

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We're all it's that kind of perfectionism and imposter syndrome. I think like we're always assuming that we're going to get found out.

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And so we're always trying to like looking for the negatives or looking for the flaws and not necessarily looking for the sentence that says.

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We want to accept this for publication. Yeah, exactly, exactly.

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Always looking for that critique and that criticism. And I think it is important to go back to the idea of.

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Of it feeling like a a personal failure, because one of the things I always try and say to people is,

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you know, you have to try and and I'm not saying I can't do this or I'm good at it, by the way,

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but you have to try and take a step back and realise that even though you put your heart and

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soul and all of this work into your publications or applications or anything that you're doing,

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that is not you, and that is not the sum of you.

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And so when that is rejected, whatever reason, that isn't a rejection of you, it's a rejection of whatever is on that piece of paper.

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The tiniest snapshot. Yeah, I agree. And it can just feel so personal that this is an issue with you as a person, as you as a student as well,

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when actually, you know, they're just critically appraising the work, which is what they're meant to do.

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And there will be some good bits in that. And usually reviews do add some nice little positive bits as well,

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or ultimately just seeing This as right, I can take this information and I can go and improve my work.

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And because people, they have taken the time to, to look at your work, to engage with that and to provide comprehensive feedback.

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So they're viewing it more in that way as well. But I think what you said there, Kelly, and was really interesting actually,

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because I think maybe this relates to how we see ourselves as Ph.D. students as well,

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because I know at that point in my life that was such a big part of who I was as a person was the name of a Ph.D. student.

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And that's kind of how I evaluated myself. So when having that negative feedback or that experience of rejection,

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it can be quite hard not to take it personally because that's such a big part of who you are.

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So like I was saying at the start, I think if you're if you've been, like, really academically successful.

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And most people, you know, that come of certainly through a traditional route to a research degree or a PhD have been

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you're not you're not used to it, you're not used to not doing well at things and it's a privileged position to be in.

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But it's still, you know, it's a learning process of how to deal with critique and how to deal with rejection and how to turn that into.

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Into the positive that you're talking about, actually turn that into a.

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How do I use this to improve my work to make it better rather than just going kind of falling into an existential hole of.

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Why am I doing this, why aren't you know? I'm not I'm not good enough to do this.

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I'm. So. I wonder if you could say a little bit about how, you know, a few years on.

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How you deal with any kind of failure or rejection?

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In your professional life now, like, you know, compared to that first paper when you started the Ph.D.

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If you have something now, what do you do? How do you try and and and respond to it in perhaps a more positive way?

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And how and how do you cope with the emotions that you feel associated with it?

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Yeah. So it is difficult. And I will say that I think I've got better with time and just kind of as you get more experience of it and this rejection,

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unfortunately being quite a normal part of academia, you do. You do you kind of get a little bit used to it, I guess.

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But it's still hard when you spend lots of time on something and you've got that rejection.

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And you know, initially what I found is I do feel upset or I feel angry.

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So what I do is I read through the rejection letter, so if it's a paper,

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I'll look through the reviews and then I'll just allow myself to feel the emotions that I'm feeling right.

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We shouldn't be suppressing those emotions just accept how I'm feeling.

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And then I just move those reviews to a different folder in my inbox.

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And I think, right, I'll return to those in a couple of days. And what I found actually is that when I return to that, those reviews in a few days,

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they seem they make a lot more sense and they, you know, they seem a bit kinder than when I initially read them.

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So I find that is one helpful thing to do.

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Yeah, I think that's really crucial and really important is letting yourself feel that and letting yourself have an emotional response to it,

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particularly as you put so much into, you know,

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whether you're writing an article or you're putting together a funding application, you know, these are colossal pieces of work.

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And you dedicate a huge amount of time amd yourself to and to then get that email, as it tends to be now that says no is it's really hard.

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And as you as you rightfully said, unfortunately, it is a sort of no, it's a normal thing in academic life.

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It's the mainstay, you know? The nature of what we do is you try things, whether that's, you know.

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Particular research or, you know, trying to publish something or trying to get some funding.

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You know, you try things, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and.

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Given how competitive it is, unfortunately, you tend to lose more than you win, and that's normal.

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Yeah, I was going to just add to that, actually, that I've have, and this is the same for professors and, you know, world leaders in the field.

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They have admitted they have had far more grants rejected than they've had accepted, and that's certainly the case for me.

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And you know, it's just the nature of it, and it's about almost being able to just dust yourself off and say,

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Right, what can I do with this information to improve and to succeed in the future?

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Absolutely, because there will be something in there, some nugget of wisdom that you can take forward with you to the next one.

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And you know, it is a little bit of a revolving door of.

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Right. Not that journal. Let's look at the feedback. Let's look what they said unless, you know, let's try again somewhere else.

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And it is a bit like that, and sometimes it's just it's not it's not the right place,

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it's not the right time, you know, if the research isn't quite developed and you know,

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the ideas aren't quite developed enough, it's all sorts, all sorts of reasons,

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none of which are anything to do with you or your ability as a researcher.

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Yeah, I was just going to add as well.

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There is it's also recognised in that there is that element of luck there as well, and that's something I've certainly found.

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So as a qualitative researcher submitted to journals,

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it's the most frustrating thing where you get someone who uses quantitative methods reviewing your stuff and just doesn't understand it and therefore,

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you know, suggests that it's rejected and then it gets rejected. So maybe also think about is, is this fair?

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Is it is it fair or is it that I need to find somewhere else to send this somewhere?

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That's and what I'm doing a little bit more.

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And like you say, you know. There's an element of luck in this and timing.

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There's an element of I mean, it's hugely competitive,

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I remember when I was an undergrad applying for funding for my masters and I applied to the Arts Humanities Research Council,

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the AHRC for funding and my application got rated excellent priority for an award.

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And I did not get any money because the.

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There were so many applicants. I was just going to say it is just so competitive with all of these grants fellowships,

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and there's lots of really excellent researchers all applying for the same funding with excellent proposals.

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And just the chance of success is so, so low. Yeah, and that's.

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And I say that not to discourage people, but just just to recognise the reality of it, and I say the same with academic jobs as well.

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You know, I see a lot of of PGRs coming through and applying for postdocs or for lectureship.

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And not getting interviews or getting interviews and not getting the roles and saying,

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Oh, you know, they gave it to someone and they've got more publications.

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than me they've done this many more conference presentations or they had funding for that,

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you know, and kind of starting to do this, do this exercise of right.

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These are the things I've done and these are the things that they've done. And these are all the ways they've done things.

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They've done more things than I have done better things than I have.

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And the thing that always strikes me when people do that is that they write this list of all the things somebody

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else has done that they haven't and they don't think about the things that they've done that somebody else hasn't.

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And the experience that they have that somebody else doesn't.

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They totally devalue what they have and go, well, that person's better because they've done X, Y and Z, and I haven't done that.

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That's such a good point. I'm definitely guilty of that. It's and it's hard not to do it.

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But, you know, there's all sorts of reasons why that person might be the person that gets a job over you

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They may have all of these things because they're not because they're further along.

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You know, they may be three years out of their research degree and you're only one.

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So they've they had more experience. They've had more time. You know, that's not a reflection on you.

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That's just the reality of having had more time to develop these things.

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But exactly, and we can't just judge people just based on these singular criteria,

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when we're all very different, I guess different disciplines, we have different approaches to doing research.

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You just can't really compare yourself. I don't think either. No.

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And it's it's, you know, it's like we said about the kind of, you know, an article or an application being a snapshot, you know, a job application.

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Again, it's just a snapshot. What? What's on? A piece of paper or an online form is not the sum of everything that you are.

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And somebody has got to make a judgement based on what is what they have in front of them, which is.

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So far from the sum of its parts, you know, it's so far from representative of all that that person is and all that they do.

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And so they're not, you know, they're not judging. That person is better than Person B, they're

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Looking at what they've got on a piece of paper to make a decision,

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and it's not a judgement on an individual, and it doesn't mean that that person's better than you.

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It just means that you say they fit a set of criteria and it was it was on the form that they needed.

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You know, it's. It's it's a strange way to make decisions, but it is nonetheless the way that we do it.

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Yeah, exactly. I mean, just on that point about jobs, I guess before my first postdoc, I applied well.

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I had interviews for three positions before actually getting that one.

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So getting rejected from these positions is completely normal.

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And actually, I think some of it as well is learning what to expect in an interview and actually learning how to write those job applications,

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which I've certainly got better at now and how to emphasise your skills and how to

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show that you do fit this criteria so that when a person goes through those forms,

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they can just say yes, they meet this criteria.

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Yes, they've published paper and just really trying to sell yourself, I guess, in the best possible way.

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And try and capture what you know that.

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That thing that makes you unique. You know, the thing that you know so and so might have X number more publications than you.

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But what do you have that they don't? Do you have more teaching experience that they than they do?

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Because actually, if you're applying for an academic role that might,

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depending on what the need is in the department at that time, that might be more valuable to them.

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Yeah, exactly. Such a good point. And also, when applying for the postdoc, your topic area might be a better fit than someone else.

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And you know,

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it's and also in terms of what other skills do you have in terms of networking and what kind of what wider network do you bring to the role?

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You might have some fantastic contacts and collaborations.

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Do you have experience with science communication and think about those other skills as well that aren't just publications,

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because especially if you're applying for a postdoc, you'll be publishing while doing the postdoc and you will get guidance and advice on that.

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Absolutely, and you know, it's important to remember that with all of these activities, none of it is a finished product.

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You know, it's not a finished researcher, you know, putting a box tied up with a bow, perfect number of publications perfect number of

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postdocs held. It's it's all a process, and you will develop within whatever role.

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You end up getting on you,

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and that will give you the opportunity to develop these things and to develop

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your publications and build from the bits of and all of these sorts of things.

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I wondered if you could say something about what I guess what you've learnt.

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From the process of failure, so, you know, we've said it's a common part of the academic experience.

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You get rejected and you get rejected more times than you'll get accepted.

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But so what have you learnt along the way?

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So while we've already touched on not taking it too personally, I've I've learnt that I've also learnt about it being a common experience.

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So for example, I've recently started collaborating with this amazing big deal researcher and they were sharing their experiences

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of failure actually and talking about all of these grants they've submitted and none of them getting funded.

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And I thought, Wow, OK,

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so it actually is a common experience that people who are these superstars are also experiencing it too I think that that's really important.

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And so there being an openness and talking about failure is really important because the more we talk about it,

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the more we normalise it and the more we create an environment that says, actually,

00:22:32,890 --> 00:22:41,100
you know, this is normal, this is something we're going to go through and.

00:22:41,100 --> 00:22:51,960
There are ways there are ways to cope with it. And you know that you have a community around you who've been through exactly the same things.

00:22:51,960 --> 00:22:57,360
Yeah, exactly, and I guess that's something that I try to talk about on academic Twitter.

00:22:57,360 --> 00:23:02,550
quite a bit is talking about experiences of rejection and being quite open about that.

00:23:02,550 --> 00:23:09,490
I mean, don't get me wrong, sometimes academic Twitter can make you feel quite rubbish because you see all of these people doing amazing things.

00:23:09,490 --> 00:23:17,160
And I sometimes think, Oh, I'm not doing that. But there are a lot of people speaking openly about rejection and failure on that,

00:23:17,160 --> 00:23:21,990
and it's such a good community, particularly for PhD students, I think.

00:23:21,990 --> 00:23:25,510
So definitely recommend making use of that. Yeah.

00:23:25,510 --> 00:23:36,600
And like let you say, I mean, because Twitter has historically been a kind of a publicity tool, let's say, for for academics.

00:23:36,600 --> 00:23:39,170
It can make you feel inferior.

00:23:39,170 --> 00:23:48,640
But but increasingly, there's more and more discussion of the realities, I guess, of being an academic and things like failure.

00:23:48,640 --> 00:23:53,310
And there's been an increase we've seen in people publishing failure CVs

00:23:53,310 --> 00:24:00,660
So the kind of opposite of a CV, all of the things that you failed at all of the things that you've been rejected from.

00:24:00,660 --> 00:24:09,090
To kind of bring to the surface, actually the thing the thing that you would submit to, you know, for a job application is all the positive things.

00:24:09,090 --> 00:24:12,720
But like you say, there's all of the kind of.

00:24:12,720 --> 00:24:20,160
The rejections and the failures behind that which outnumber, you know, the things that you would put on a CV for an employer.

00:24:20,160 --> 00:24:32,280
And I think that that's it's just really healthy to be for people to be sharing that openly and making it clear.

00:24:32,280 --> 00:24:34,110
This is normal, I'm not just saying it's normal,

00:24:34,110 --> 00:24:44,410
but like you were saying with working with a more senior researcher really showing and demonstrating in reality that his perfectly normal.

00:24:44,410 --> 00:24:52,360
Yeah, exactly, and I think what I've learnt the most is you've got to keep them up your motivation so that it can be so hard.

00:24:52,360 --> 00:24:57,760
But if you've got a grant application that hasn't been funded, yeah, that's rubbish.

00:24:57,760 --> 00:25:02,110
But think right? Where can I send this now? What is that?

00:25:02,110 --> 00:25:08,020
That's still useful. That will help me to grow as a researcher and really improve my skills.

00:25:08,020 --> 00:25:17,060
How can we still do this despite this rejection, are there other avenues and really thinking about those sort of things?

00:25:17,060 --> 00:25:22,790
You know, if you if you submit an article to a journal,

00:25:22,790 --> 00:25:30,090
the worst thing that happens is that you're going to be outright rejected, but you will get feedback.

00:25:30,090 --> 00:25:40,230
On how to improve. So there's always that kind of sense of of being able to move, move it forward.

00:25:40,230 --> 00:25:46,590
Yeah, and I didn't realise it as well, that people say, who do these reviews generally,

00:25:46,590 --> 00:25:53,940
I'm not going to say often, but generally people do want to be constructive and they do want to help.

00:25:53,940 --> 00:25:59,190
And there is this push as well now to be a lot kinder in reviews as well.

00:25:59,190 --> 00:26:05,230
So I know a lot of editors are giving that as outright guidance, but realising that these people,

00:26:05,230 --> 00:26:10,740
they have spent their time on it and that very often experts in that area.

00:26:10,740 --> 00:26:13,950
So it is a way for you to improve and to develop.

00:26:13,950 --> 00:26:20,970
And you know, if we're thinking about a publication, then you can actually end up with a much better publication as a result of that.

00:26:20,970 --> 00:26:27,750
So I know some of my own work from when I've submitted it to the first journal compared to, say, the third one.

00:26:27,750 --> 00:26:34,530
The paper changes so much and it's so much better, and I'm much happier with it with that final submission.

00:26:34,530 --> 00:26:41,940
So and something else I was thinking, which I find really helpful if I'm really annoyed about some reviewers comments.

00:26:41,940 --> 00:26:46,260
I will just meet up with my friends, say, go to the pub, go to the cafe,

00:26:46,260 --> 00:26:53,190
have a video call during COVID, and I will just rant about it for a good half hour an hour.

00:26:53,190 --> 00:26:59,810
Get it all out of my system and then I'll say, Oh, OK, I feel a lot better now and ready to talk about.

00:26:59,810 --> 00:27:05,890
Exactly how we'd process anything else. And I think that's what we've got to, you know,

00:27:05,890 --> 00:27:13,340
got to remember that it's how you'd process any other kind of emotion or not back if you had an argument with somebody,

00:27:13,340 --> 00:27:16,610
when someone's done something to annoy you. That's exactly what you would do.

00:27:16,610 --> 00:27:24,870
You would go and sit in a pub with your friends and go, Oh my, oh my God, you'll never believe what just happened.

00:27:24,870 --> 00:27:32,940
And that is cathartic. Exactly, and it's so simple, and I really value that pub time.

00:27:32,940 --> 00:27:42,180
Exactly. And that's why our and that's why our communities of practise and and kind of communities

00:27:42,180 --> 00:27:49,470
appears so important because actually they're the ones that kind of nurture and sustain us,

00:27:49,470 --> 00:27:54,060
share their experiences with us. You know, and say, you know, it's share.

00:27:54,060 --> 00:28:00,030
I've been through this too and kind of commiserate you when the failures and the rejections come in,

00:28:00,030 --> 00:28:06,510
but also celebrate with you when the when the successes happen.

00:28:06,510 --> 00:28:09,680
And I find that other people are very good at.

00:28:09,680 --> 00:28:18,740
When you kind of wallowing in self-pity, which I consider to be very myself, to be very, very good at is other people are very good at going.

00:28:18,740 --> 00:28:24,290
But what about that thing that you did? That's really good. What about that thing you did?

00:28:24,290 --> 00:28:31,790
That's really good. And getting yourself a group of colleagues and a group of people that will do that for you is,

00:28:31,790 --> 00:28:37,360
I think, so important as part of the academic experience.

00:28:37,360 --> 00:28:40,660
Yes, so basically find your cheerleaders, find them.

00:28:40,660 --> 00:28:46,480
They're out there and they'll be experiencing exactly the same stuff that you are ever.

00:28:46,480 --> 00:28:52,120
Pretty much everyone is experiencing those feelings, the failure ot rejection.

00:28:52,120 --> 00:28:57,490
So you just need to find your cheerleaders and you can be theres as well.

00:28:57,490 --> 00:29:01,000
Thank you so much to Catherine for taking this time to speak to me,

00:29:01,000 --> 00:29:08,230
but also for her candour and honesty about what are actually quite difficult experiences to talk about,

00:29:08,230 --> 00:29:13,510
but also admit to because it's not in academic culture to talk about these things.

00:29:13,510 --> 00:29:20,890
So I really value her honesty, both in this discussion, but also on Twitter.

00:29:20,890 --> 00:29:25,630
And that's it for this episode. Don't forget to like, rate and subscribe.

00:29:25,630 --> 00:29:39,770
And join me. Next time we'll be talking to somebody else about researchers development and everything in between.

00:29:39,770 --> 00:29:52,731


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