How I Fail: Ellie Mackin (PhD’15, Classics)

Ellie Mackin For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Ellie Mackin, an ancient historian studying archaic and classical Greek religion, and blogging and vlogging about research, planning and PhD issues. You can find also find her on Twitter.

1. Thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Please introduce yourself. What are you doing now, what did you before to get here? Do you have any “notable failures” you would like to share.

I am Ellie, a Teaching Fellow in Ancient History at the University of Leicester. Sometimes I feel like my whole career has been a notable failure – but actually, I think my failures are mainly notable by the fact I have overcome them (in a variety of different ways). I’m currently waiting for my book to be rejected (or, I hope, not!) and starting to think about trying to find myself a permanent academic job.

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

Yes and no. I keep a list of job applications and outcomes, so that is kind of a defacto failure list. I don’t specifically keep track of publication failures, because I don’t necessarily view a rejection as a failure on that front – there is always another chance

3. What do you think about sharing failures online, like a “CV of Failures”? Would you do it, and do you think other researchers should or shouldn’t? Why?

I personally don’t like it. I think it reeks of privilege and doesn’t really talk to the person I want to hear about – a person who genuinely wanted to achieve something, didn’t, and moved on to something else and is happy and successful. And how they managed that. I have recently blogged about this issue, too.

4. What do you do when you receive a rejection? Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure?  Has this process changed throughout your career?

Cry, in a weird and uncontrollable way, into my pillow, and sing myself sad songs. And then, I try and remember that it’s not personal (usually doesn’t help), and that there are loads of talented, wonderful, brilliant people around who are in the same boat as me (also doesn’t help, sometimes makes me feel worse). And then I beat myself up for a while about how silly I am being, and then one day I just wake up and it’s okay. It still hurts – but not in a really bad way.

Obviously that’s the extreme – because there are some rejections that are really positive. I have an article that is imminently due out that was rejected by two other journals first. In both cases, the feedback was really positive and both those experiences made the article much stronger. I wish I knew who the reviewers were in both cases so I could have thanked them properly in the article.

I think I am starting to get to the point where the process is changing. I don’t really care about not getting shortlisted for long-shot jobs anymore. I do the best that I can with the applications, but I also know that in most cases it’s actually not personal. I might not be what they are looking for, but there is something else that is looking for someone like me.

I think the biggest change has actually been my general attitude. I am not interested in being anyone other than who I am now, so if people don’t like that – if that’s not what they want – then oh well.

5. What about when you receive good news? Who do you share the news with, do you have some rewards for yourself?

In some ways I struggle even more with good news than bad. It’s really difficult with jobs especially, when you know a handful of people who have gone for the same job. I tend to keep things to myself until they naturally come out – though obviously I tell close family.

I like to celebrate things, though – usually just quietly with my partner. When I got my job he bought a bottle of Bollinger (my favorite champagne) and we drank it on the couch in our PJs. That was perfect. After my PhD graduation my partner and my parents went out to a super fancy restaurant. That’s the kind of stuff I like to do, spend good time with the people that I love.

Actually, that’s what I like to do after a rejection too!

6. If you would have a CV of failures, do you think it would show more/same/less failures than other people in your field? What factors (strengths/weaknesses, circumstances of your job, prestige of lab/university…) do you think influence this?

Rational Ellie: I probably have around the same number of and kind of failures as other people in my field, at my career stage. I’ve had some successes and some failures – though, by virtue of the fact I have an academic position, I think I’ve been pretty lucky. I certainly don’t take my successes for granted, but I also don’t over-personalise my failure.

Emotional Ellie, Often Directly After Failure: I am the worst and everyone is much smarter than me.

I have been extremely fortunate in my position. I had some time up my sleeve after finishing my PhD and that gave me the breathing space to sort myself out, get my book proposals in, get some other experience. It also gave me a lot more time to spend on my job applications. This fact alone has been a massive influence.

However, I have my fair share of hard stuff too. I finished my PhD as a single parent. I have type 1 bipolar. I’ve been fortunate in some ways but very disadvantaged in others.

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

There are two. The first was not getting a 2 year research postdoc that I really, really wanted and I felt my interview went really well. I think the reason that was so difficult is because I had spent a lot of time evaluating myself and my work in preparation for that job, and I grew as a researcher quite a lot though the process of even applying and preparing for it.

The second was getting to the final shortlist of a major national postdoc and not getting it. So many people congratulated me on getting so far, and that felt like a slap in the face. I knew that getting that far really was a great achievement, but it didn’t seem to help me right then.

8. Are there any opportunities you didn’t take that you wish you had (so you could add them to either your “success” or your “failure” CV)?

Honestly, no. I have tried to do everything, apply for everything I felt would be good. I didn’t waste time applying for things I knew I had no chance for (like Oxbridge JRFs, I applied for a few early on, but realized that it was a lost cause!). I’ve worked really hard, I’ve done everything I can. If I haven’t taken opportunities it’s because I couldn’t – physically, mentally, emotionally. I don’t beat myself up for making those judgement calls.

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

Having my daughter, in the middle of my PhD. Certainly it’s not something I would ever recommend, but I am so proud of what I achieved both in raising her and in finishing my PhD.

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

Talk about it. That’s it. Realise that failing doesn’t make YOU a failure. We all fail, we’re not all failures.

11. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Keep going. You’re doing great. (Also for present and future self).

Ellie, thanks again for joining the series! There’s a lot of great advice and food for thought here.

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