Grad Life: Normalizing Failure, Plus ++

This here blogpost is a focus discussion on failure within the academic sphere. Initially I had planned on pushing the concept a little further by discussing failing in advance or by inaction. Instead, I spent a bit of time reflecting on what it means to fail and whether “success” is all that. The post takes inspiration from a publication from the CV of Failures that has become increasingly popular to discuss and share amongst colleagues following a reflection on an article in Nature Reviews (The Need to Normalize Failure –, which highlights how creating a CV of Failures at an earlier academic stage can be shared.

I think an underdiscussed aspect of a “short” CV of failures is the sheer amount of time it takes to apply to various scholarships and fellowships. I have made the active decision to skip over some scholarships from time to time in order to use that time more productively. While one can say, “applying is good experience”, this feels awfully similar to “unpaid art for exposure”. It doesn’t balance out here. Instead, I find my time more worth while spent making a dedicated effort to apply for scholarships that I have been recommended to, or truly feel that I align within ~70% or so of the required expectations. I then consider the applicant pool and my competition to see if I am fit for the competition. While this process likely cuts me out from more scholarships than I would like (experience shows that I likely would have succeeded more than once had I gone ahead with the application), I find it a reasonable method in which to choose what I do. Of course, with limited experience, I could be spending my time poorly. However, when I found myself with limited mental capacity following a major injury, I realized that pushing through and increasing the number of hours I did “work” was not always a viable method.

Fig. 1. Exposure Bucks! Experience! Image from:

Another aspect that I consider is the necessity to have fancy fellowships to your name. The need for success demands that individuals with a reasonable source of monetary support are also obliged to strive for titles and the financial support that comes alongside them, reducing the likelihood that someone less privileged with fewer experiences may receive the same title. This is not a complaint per se, but somewhat a criticism of the method in which various accolades are handed out. If one does not have a history of receiving awards, then they may be less likely to receive more in the future, which is quite discouraging in terms of time spent. While there are opportunities for one to jump into the race of cascading awards, it is easier to “win” when you have already won in the past.

Let’s talk about my CV of Failures then. The most biting failure was to achieve a Mitacs scholarship that I was informed was very easy to get, where almost no one gets rejected. The liason and my supervisor had gone over my application, its relevance, and various other requirements with a fine toothed comb. It was a stellar application. Not only did I get rejected, they informed me that they could still provide some form of financial support if I found several thousands of dollars somehow. I then had to spend a not unreasonable amount of time looking up ways I could scrounge up the money from different sources and get them all to agree to fund the same project. When the details finally worked themselves out with days to spare, I recall breaking down in public from relief and exhaustion and gratefulness to those involved. Of course, the trip was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent attempts to communicate a work-around went quite poorly. A mixed failure I suppose.

More recently, I took part in an NSERC funded program and competition of sorts to develop some innovative project with a specific theme. Our team pushed the boundaries of the definitions and put forth incredible work connecting various sectors and individuals with legitimate criticisms of various extant policies. I was proud of the work we did. We did not win the competition. While the criteria were unknown to us, I believe it was in part due to being a little too outside the box. While the entire purpose was to make connections and supplement our resumes, the fallout between individuals and poor management decisions still ongoing left a bitter taste in my mouth. I had received what I had been looking for (funding to support my delayed MSc, a failure on its own for various reasons), but lost my enthusiasm for a project I cared about. Another mixed failure. We didn’t win, we didn’t publish, and I was left with a sense of bitterness and lack of trust in terms of the “connections” I had formed.

I suppose it is also worth noting some general failures which meant a lot to me at the time:

  • failing to get into the engineering program I wanted to
  • failing to receive a number of scholarships, mostly industry related
  • failing to get an internship in something actually relevant to my degree and studies (In some cases, I knew who had received the position, and it did not make me feel any better.)
  • failing my first road driving test (in retrospect, I really should have believed everyone when they said I picked the worst possible center to do it at)
  • failing a course (almost, I decided to sensibly drop out and enjoy my time better. Dropping a course was considered a failure to me at the time)
  • failure to remember to apply to some “critical” scholarships

What have I learned during this time? The humans involved with making decisions are often very thoughtful and kind. For smaller awards, the financial status of the applicant is actually taken into account when they say they will consider it. For larger awards, it makes a difference to have concrete evidence of your past successes. Merit based methods aren’t fail-proof. Those who do the choosing sometimes do not make choices that they themselves are even happy with. Maintaining connections and finding a mentor to walk you through some of these details can make a difference in the time spent and wasted. Sometimes failure is not dependent on you, and can be due to other sources. There is sometimes undue burden to achieve scholarships, which can greatly change one’s living and working environment.

I am always optimistic that various awards, jobs, and titles will eventually go to those who deserve it. But perhaps, it would be nice not to have the pressure to aim for such achievements, and doing the work itself would be the achievement. Perhaps we shouldn’t normalize the need for awards other than for very exceptional circumstances and it would be nice if the chance at financial support didn’t require skipping other scholarships to be considered eligible. Let me propose another article, The Need to Normalize Weighing Time Investment and Rethinking Success Factors. Connecting with others over shared failure can be great for bonding, but I would be wary that failure can also become a “success metric” and the normalization needs to be for more than failure.

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