Fighting Failure in Academia

I spent the last few months preparing for my comprehensive exams and wrote several posts here about what I was learning. I felt prepared when the day came. Though the process of writing 30 pages in two days was stressful, I made it through and was proud of what I accomplished.

Then it came time for the oral defense. And it did not go as I hoped.

In our department, there are three potential outcomes for a comps defense: full pass, conditional pass, or a fail. I received a conditional pass, which means I would not officially pass until I met my committee’s conditions for revision.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will say it was a painful process. While my committee is full of wonderful people, they also failed to offer encouragement or emotional support in the defense. They say these defenses are meant to feel like conversations among colleagues, but mine felt like the grilling of an inferior.

In a later conversation, my advisor admitted that faculty forget how emotional this process is for graduate students because academia has hardened them to criticism and rejection to the point that it is no big deal.

Criticism is necessary and important, but how it is communicated makes all the difference. You would think we would be better at it as communication scholars. But few people have mastered the process of giving critique that is uplifting.

Similarly, rejection is a normal part of life. And even though it is painful, we can eventually learn from those moments and they make us stronger for our future challenges.

But my main question here is:

Does academia have to be a place characterized by criticism and rejection? Or can we imagine a different culture, one of support and inspiration?

Criticism and rejection will still happen, but how they happen makes a difference. We can change our communication to give supportive critiques, ones that offer encouragement and constructive feedback. We can change our communication so that rejection does not dismiss the individual behind the work. We can change our communication and that can change the culture.

This starts at the graduate level. The cultures we create in our graduate programs will influence the next generation of scholars, and that will have a ripple affect across the academic world.

Failure happens. But it does not define us and it should not define academia.

A week after my defense I received news that I got a revise and resubmit response for a journal article I submitted. This was enough to satisfy my committee’s conditions–meaning I have now officially passed my comps. Although I wish this process went differently, I’m also working on being grateful for what it taught me. It was an important reminder of how I want to respond to the culture of academia and work to change it.

Further reflection: How do you respond to failure? How can we change the way we communicate criticism or rejection? What would you change about your culture?

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