I spoke on a panel this week of successful externally funded research fellows. These fellowships are the holy grail of early career life – recognition of your achievements and potential and secure salary for a few years.
We spoke to later year PhD students about our careers and strategies, offering tips and pitfalls. Over morning coffee, a PhD student told me that she simply couldn’t be that perfect. While the panel were all perfect and richly rewarded by fellowship funding, this was unobtainable for her. She wasn’t perfect enough.
It turns out that anyone can look perfect on paper. My bio introduced me as a leading young climate scientist, a well published new fellowship holder. Perfect! But I can readily write a more exhaustive biography. Since starting my fellowship six months ago, I’ve had papers rejected 6 times, been turned down for a prize because I didn’t meet the intellectual merit criterion and was rejected in the very first round for a science communication internship.
In that time, I’ve also had some objectively good things happen. I’ve started some new collaborations, finished a professional development course, seen my first PhD student graduate, and I received a positive review of a book proposal. These are all rewarding and will have long-term benefits, but they won’t make my bio and are unlikely to help me on my perfect trajectory.
These stumbles, missteps and disappointments are all erased along the way and my CV is made up of success after success. In the time since starting my fellowship, I’ve had just one first author paper accepted. This lonely little paper will push me slightly further along on my academic trajectory and will be added to my CV as a demonstration of my rapid progress in my fellowship. Perfect again!
While it can be hard to see ostensibly successful individuals talk about their careers, it’s important to remember that such successes are always tempered with many more failures. The internet especially dampens the routine failures of others and amplifies their achievements. I have a good friend PhD-ing in Canada. He lives a perfect life of glorious outdoor pursuits while kicking research goals with little effort. Or so the internet tells me.
It turns out his PhD has been riddled with vast data difficulties, his health has suffered and his family relationships have been strained. While I have long envied his beautiful life, he has experienced actual life – beautiful, difficult and complex, worthy of both envy and empathy.
We can all be perfect on paper, it just takes a bio or a CV to demonstrate uninterrupted achievements. But this way of thinking serves us all poorly. If we forget that a bio or a social media post is just a snapshot of someone’s life, we will inevitably find ourselves lacking in comparison. Why I am the only one whose papers get rejected and am passed over for recognition when everyone else elegantly moves from success to success?
This is never the case. In academic life, a high ratio of ‘failure’ to achievements is the norm and is the very process for moving ideas and careers forward. And if you can’t so readily embrace failure and stumbles as both ubiquitous and necessary, then write yourself a flash bio and jump on Instagram with a snap of your perfect world. Internet perfection!