How I Fail: Michele Veldsman (PhD’14, Cognitive Neuroscience)

For this post of How I Fail I’m interviewing Michele Veldsman, a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Cognitive Neurology in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. You can follow her on Twitter.



1. Hi Michele, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

It’s an honour to be part of the series, thanks for inviting me. I am a Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Cognitive Neurology in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. I investigate how different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and post-stroke dementia change the structural and functional networks of the human brain.

I have a BSc in Experimental Psychology from the University of Bristol. Getting the results of that degree are a failure that sticks out in my mind. I very narrowly missed out on a First-Class degree (the highest grade given to undergraduate degrees in the UK). I was devastated and thought it would be the end of any hopes for an academic career! This pretty much sums up my earlier approaches to failure, I set very high standards for myself and so considered even small deviations from these standards as failures. Thankfully I have grown out of this. Needless to say, it wasn’t the end of my academic career and I went on to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge. My first postdoctoral position was in a stroke lab at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia.

2. In January you tweeted about your New Year’s resolution of getting 100 rejections a year. Can you elaborate on this initiative a bit, and update us on your progress so far?

I was inspired by a blog piece that was shared on Twitter. It was aimed at writers, who, like academics, face constant rejection. The idea was to reframe the negativity of rejections by instead ‘collecting’ them. There are some great concepts in the article that struck a chord and convinced me it would be a great thing to try. First, just to make it to 100 rejections, you need to be applying for things a lot! This leaves less time for all the insecurity of whether you are right/qualified for things or whether the work is perfect before submission. The more things you apply for, the higher your chances for the odd acceptance! Secondly, you get a lot of practice in applying, whether for awards, fellowships, manuscripts – all the practice helps refine your skills and hone your ideas. Finally, you learn to reframe rejections – as the blogs says, learning “uncoupling the word “rejection” from “failure”.

Obviously 100 rejections in a year is a lot, and probably unachievable given that most applications are quite specific and academics don’t send the same thing out to several places as writers often do. I stuck to the 100 aim though, and thought I would see how many I could accumulate over the year. So far I have racked up 18 rejections, so it’s safe to say I won’t make 100 this year, but I have still applied for many more things than I ever would have. As a result, I have gotten a lot more opportunities and acceptances than I would have otherwise.

3. How do you keep track of the rejections for this resolution – do you have a list? Does the list contain only “traditional” rejections (jobs/grants/papers) or also other non-successes?

I keep a list of everything I have applied for and then split them into a rejections list and, a much shorter, acceptances lists as the outcomes come in. The list contains mostly traditional rejections such as fellowship applications, small grants, travel awards, papers, applications for committee roles and conference submissions. I only include anything I apply for or submit as the first author or lead applicant. I do include resubmissions as rejections (since they are not acceptances) – which bumps up the rejections numbers a little!

4. Can you share any of your own memorable rejections?

I have been rejected by the same University four times! Two PhD applications were rejected and two job applications. I’m sort of curious if they will reject me at every stage of my career!

5. What kind of opportunities has this resolution moved you to take? Are there things you previously maybe would not apply for due to fear of failure?

The rejection counting really helped me to persist with applying for Junior Research Fellowships in the Oxford College system. These are highly competitive fellowships that are often across all disciplines. I applied for fellowships at ten different colleges – each requiring a different application. I was rejected from nine of the colleges, without interview. My tenth application got me to interview, and was ultimately successful! I would never have stuck it out that long had I not been collecting rejections. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have applied at all, because I knew the acceptance rates were so low.

6. What did you use to do when you receive a rejection and how has this changed through the years? What about when something is successful, do you have a way to celebrate?

I used to be quite defensive in the face of rejection- probably as a way to protect myself! I now work harder to try to learn from rejections. This can be difficult if feedback is not available, or when rejections really do seem unfair. Even if you can’t learn from the rejection, you can always improve on your submission or view the opportunity as practice. I don’t have anything specific I do to celebrate successes. My husband usually does something special for me, as he knows how rare the successes can be and how hard I work to get them!

7. Are there also caveats in this advice?

100 rejections are not really feasible in academia – so be realistic about this! I think it takes some planning and should be done with your CV and long-term goals in mind. If you need publications, then focus on submitting papers (but don’t try to rack up rejections by submitting lots of poor quality work- that’s no good for anybody!). I find it is most useful for applying for things you might otherwise overlook. Like jobs or positions you would otherwise think you are underqualified or not perfectly suited for. This approach helps you realise you have nothing to lose. Saying that, if you are trying to submit to too much, and sacrificing quality at the same time it might be worth re-thinking.

8. Is there a difference between what “rejection” and “failure” mean to you? Should we / should we not be using these interchangeably and why?

There is a big difference between rejection and failure and this approach to collecting rejections helps you to see that difference. Rejections in academia are mostly out of your control and the product of too many people and not enough funding/resources or inexperience. By the time you have your PhD, there are very few times when failure is to blame for being unsuccessful at something.

9. Do you think sharing failures/rejections makes it easier for some people to also be more open about their successes?

I think it is incredibly important to share rejections and failures. I have often been guilty of comparing myself to my peers (and more often than not people well ahead of me in their careers). All you ever see are people’s successes, which can make you feel inadequate. But we are all racking up rejections all the time, it’s just the successes that are advertised to the world. Often the people who outwardly look most successful are the ones who have got the most rejections under their belt! It is really useful to see how much resilience and persistence is behind successes in academia and relate to other’s experience of failure and rejection.

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

Try to keep things in perspective. There will always be up and downs. Rejections, or failures, that disappoint you now, will be a mere blip in your career when you look back on it.

That is definitely a great one to keep in mind! Thanks again for joining the series, Michele!

1 thought on “How I Fail: Michele Veldsman (PhD’14, Cognitive Neuroscience)”

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