How I Fail: Eva Lantsoght (PhD’13, Civil Engineering)

For the first post of How I Fail I’m profiling Eva Lantsoght, who inspired me to do this series with the “How I Work” series on her blog.

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you doing now, what did you before to get here? What do you like to do in your free time?

I’m a Full Professor and Researcher in Civil Engineering at Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, and a part-time postdoctoral researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. I’m originally from Belgium, and did my M.Sc. in Civil Engineering at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium. Then I went to the United States for a M.S. in Structural Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. I returned to Europe for my PhD in the Concrete Structures research group of Delft University of Technology. In my free time I run a blog for PhD students and academics, PhD Talk, I play music (cello and vocals), and I do crossfit and yoga.

2. Do you keep track of your failures (rejected papers, grants, job applications…)? Why/why not?

I keep track of my rejected journal papers. I have a Google spreadsheet that I use to have a quick overview of the status of my different papers (in progress, in review, …) and ideas for future papers, and in that spreadsheet I use a color code. One of the colors is for “rejected paper but submitted elsewhere”, and another color is for “rejected paper, need to take action.” Since I’m never deleting any paper from this list, I simply keep the “failures” in there. I don’t do the same for rejected abstracts for conferences, perhaps because an abstract feels much smaller than a complete paper.

For grants and job applications, I don’t keep track of failures, but I must admit that I haven’t had rejections in those yet (but I’ve only applied to very small research grants at my university).

3. What do you think about sharing failures online? Are there disadvantages for researchers who do it?

The first time I tweeted that I received a paper rejection, I had a discussion with my husband. He thought it made me look bad. I think it is just part of life in academia, and that if I only write and tweet about the things that go well, I am not authentic. I can see both sides of the discussion though, so I think that, given the incredibly high expectations and standards in academia, it is uncommon to talk about failure or share these online. It shouldn’t be – we should be more open about how hard some steps in an academic career can be, but at this moment, we aren’t; and the odd ducks that speak up may be eyed with suspicion by some.

4. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure?

Not really. If it’s a rejection of a journal paper, I look at the comments of the reviewers, make changes to the paper, and submit it elsewhere.

5. Did you know about the amount of rejection in academia before you started your PhD or your current job? Did this knowledge influence your career decisions?

I learned about it when I applied for universities in the United States for my second Master’s and for scholarships. That was the first time I became aware of the small chance of me getting funding, and getting into a university. It didn’t influence my subsequent career decision though – I guess the research virus had already taken a good grip of my body by then.

6. Do you think there is such a thing as a “fair” amount of rejection? Do you think you have been rejected more/the same/less than others in your field? What factors (strengths/weaknesses, circumstances of your job, prestige of lab/university…) do you think influence this?

In my field, the rejection rate for journal articles is about 66%, and for graduate school applications, the number sits between 66% – 85%. I’m not sure if 66% is a fair number, but that’s what I have as a reference. I’ve been rejected less than the average for my journal papers – just calculated it as 23%. Part of it must have been a stroke of luck with the reviewers, and part of it is that I’ve worked very hard on my writing over the past few years.

One important element for this relative success, I think, is that we have been doing unique experimental research in Delft over the past few years, and that it is “attractive” work to publish. I’ve noticed that it is harder to publish about my new research topic (field testing), as the majority of the reviewers need to be convinced that what we are doing is not “standard industry practice”. Similarly, it has been more difficult for me to publish from smaller research projects that I carry out at USFQ; the results simply are not that spectacular and we lack resources to bring experimental support to desk research or theoretical studies.

7. Can you share some examples of failures which hurt the most, and why that was?

The first two times a journal paper got rejected! For the first rejection, one of the reviewers was really sour, and I guessed between the lines he/she had some conflict with my supervisor. The second rejection came from an additional reviewer after I had resubmitted a fully revised a manuscript. I thought I had made the reviewers happy, but then the additional reviewer came in and completely broke down my work – by misinterpreting my results. I really wanted to shout at my screen: “Noooo, my paper is not about Failure Mode X but about Failure Mode Y!!”

8. Can you share some failures which, in retrospect, were useful learning experiences?

I guess you learn from each failure? Ever paper rejection is an opportunity to submit an improved version elsewhere.

9. Are there any opportunities that you regret not taking because you were afraid of failure?

No, I’ve never been held back by failure. I’ve always tried, and had a plan B in case plan A does not work. But to my surprise. Plan A has worked in a good number of occasions.

10. Can you think of something you accomplished that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t normally add to a CV?

When one of the BSc students who graduated under my supervision gets admitted to graduate school, I feel so proud. I feel proud of the student, of course, but also a bit of myself, as I’m actively helping our students to continue their studies abroad. Similarly, I sometimes receive mails from readers of my blog that a certain post I wrote really helped them get through a difficult time in their PhD – something like that makes my day/week/month.

11. Is there something we can all do to improve how failure affects others in academia?

Ease up a bit and be more supportive of each other. Be more open about failure rates. Stop thinking everybody else is out there to come and compete against you, and that you need to stop them in their tracks before they get “better” than you.

12. If you could time travel, what is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

My past self that just started in academia? To worry less (and imposter-syndrome less, if that’s a verb). To my much younger self: spend more time with your family and friends – you’ll miss them sorely when you start living all over the world.

Epilogue

I’m very happy that Eva agreed to be interviewed for How I Fail, as well as a few others I have contacted so far. If you don’t want to miss any posts, please sign up for my weekly newsletter in the menu on the left!

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