Screwed up a presentation and wish the ground would just swallow you whole? An article about failure and how to handle it.
Ian Kim via Unsplash

After my committee shredded my dissertation defence into a thousand pieces, I went to the women’s bathroom and cried my eyes out. It felt a little bit like being lovesick, just more ridiculous. Crying? Over a presentation? The world wasn’t going to end. There would be other presentations, and after all, failure is just part of an academic career. If you think about it, screwing up a presentation is really a ‘first-world problem’.

I wrote plenty of bad papers and had plenty of bad tests back in school, particularly in maths. Sometimes I was bitter about it, or occasionally disappointed in myself, but most of the time I just didn’t care. If you have a barely passing grade in maths, no one can call you a nerd, and if you can take a bad grade in stride, you will win the respect of your fellow students. Classmates might even reward bad grades by increasing your stature in their relentless pecking order.

After my defence, there was no recognition—just pity. Pity is the little sister to failure. People give you backhanded compliments under the pretext of empathy: “There were a few good thoughts in your presentation” or “It is so important to have young scientists like yourself giving papers” or “Don’t take it too hard. Everyone makes these kinds of mistakes when they are just starting out”. The academic community can have a merciless pecking order, determined by the number of backhanded compliments you dole out. That is why German conferences are so stressful. Harsh criticism can sometimes serve as an initiation ritual older professionals use to “welcome” the younger generation. In that way, the academic community is kind of like a school class.

However, there is one important difference between a maths test and a dissertation: A maths test is produced by the teacher. It outlines clear instructions for what you should calculate and how. But my dissertation is a part of myself—the questions I ask, the way I answer them, the words I chose, how long my sentences are, the literature I select, and especially the literature I leave out. Ultimately, my dissertation is nothing more than the sum of all the big and small decisions I have to make. It is my own little work of art.
When you share your art with someone else, discuss your synopsis with your supervisor, ask your friend to read a section for you, or present part of your work at a conference, you are revealing a part of yourself. That makes academia a somewhat emotional undertaking. You await feedback on your dissertation with a mixture of tension, fear, and anticipation, sometimes all so stressful that you can barely sleep the night before the conference. Good feedback can lift you up to cloud nine, while bad feedback will have you in misery for weeks. Because it is so difficult to separate oneself from one’s work when writing a dissertation, failing in front of an audience can be a source of personal shame. When I screwed up my presentation, I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole, spitting me out at the other end of the Earth so I could just become a surf instructor, never to return. At the time, it sounded like the most pleasant way to handle my failure.

But what if that hole in the floor never appears? You could just give up, although that would also be an exaggerated response, and you might not know what else you would want to do anyway. Through my study, I learned that people who take credit for their own success while projecting their failures on others are ultimately more successful than people who do the opposite, namely those who think they haven’t earned their success, while beating themselves up for every failure. Academics need to listen to suggestions from their colleagues, too. I spent quite some time wallowing in self-pity after my own failure. I got myself all worked up with people who had nothing to do with the situation, but were willing to stand with me in solidarity: my partner, my friends, my close colleagues, and especially my parents. My parents are always on my side. When I fail, they take it as a sign of my misunderstood genius. After spending some time drunkenly exclaiming about how neurotic academia can be about its own image, and about the extremely dumb comments made regarding my (otherwise brilliant) defence, I got sober again after about three weeks. Still nursing a slight hangover, I looked back on the shattered remains of my failure and asked myself: Was it really that bad? Over time, I was able to sweep together all those broken fragments and take a good look at them. What comments were painful to hear but ultimately helpful? Although I felt misunderstood, were there times I hadn’t expressed my ideas precisely enough? And which points of criticism could I just ignore as nothing more than some professor marking their territory, all packaged up in academic jargon?

There is no way to avoid failure; it creeps up on you when you least expect it. The only way to defend yourself against failure is with excuses, and if you have to make excuses, you’ve probably already lost anyway. The best thing to do is accept failure with dignity and grace. You have to make that decision for yourself, and it is all part of the work of art that is your dissertation.