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Redefining success and failure in academia

by Maïka Sondarjee
Woman working on laptop on couch

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

This article was originally published by University Affairs

I’ve failed more often than I’ve succeeded, but you wouldn’t know that from reading my CV.

Last year, I failed to get a postdoctoral grant from the Social Science Humanities and Research Council. Two years in a row, I failed to get a postdoctoral fellowship from the Fonds de recherche Société et culture du Québec. At the beginning of 2020, I was deeply questioning my value as a scholar.

But then, in the space of just a few months, both Banting and SSHRC awarded me postdoctoral fellowships, and the University of Ottawa hired me in a tenure-track position. You can be sure that these honours are reflected on my public profiles.

My failures, in contrast, remain invisible to the public eye – and even to most of my closest friends. That’s because I only share my successes.

Academic culture dictates that success defines us. Those who fail at grant competitions or publishing are “losers.” So publicly, I give the impression that my hard work has paid off, and most things work out for me.

In academia, we sustain a toxic reward system and we are pressured to compare ourselves with others. And sadly, success is more than just hard work: it is also a matter of privilege, conjuncture and luck.

A huge part of my own success can be attributed to luck. Not all of it, but a lot of it. This is not a call to diminish our accomplishments (especially for women and racialized people!) or to stop working hard. It is a call to relativize success in academia, to criticize this toxic culture, and to change the way we evaluate candidates for jobs and grants.

CV of failures

To remind me of that, I followed the example of Melanie I. Stefan, a lecturer in the school of biomedical sciences at the University of Edinburgh, and wrote my “CV of failures.”

Keeping track of my setbacks helped me to relativize success and failure in this harsh academic world. Personally, it helped me gain perspective not only on my own success, but also on other peoples’ achievements, which I was clearly overestimating in comparison to mine.

I agree with Princeton psychology professor Johannes Haushofer who states in his own CV of failures that academics « are more likely to attribute their own failures to themselves, rather than the fact that the world is stochastic, applications are crapshoots, and selection committees and referees have bad days.” Some applicants can also have a few bad months or write one poor application. This doesn’t mean that they are undeserving scholars.

Listing my failures doesn’t mean that I am unworthy of grants or a tenure-track job. But they give context to my triumphs, reminding me that many unsuccessful applicants deserved to receive funding or appointments, too. Nor are the setbacks injunctions to “work harder, you’ll get it next year.” Sometimes, working hard is not enough.

Privilege, conjuncture and luck

We often disregard the fact that privileges played a major role in our successes. They influenced which graduate school accepted us, what level of material and psychological anxiety we experienced, how much others respected us.

I am a second-generation immigrant from an Indian-Malagasy background. But because I can pass as white, I never had to prove my worth as much as my black and brown colleagues. I was also born in Canada, and I studied at the University of Toronto. This is an undue citizenship advantage in comparison to my cousins in Madagascar.

Even at the worst of times, while living on my meagre $15,000 student funding package, I knew my family would help me if I needed rent money at the end of the month. I also never struggled with mental health. Though my path was challenging as a French-speaking woman from a non-academic background, my privileges contributed to me getting a Banting postdoc as well as a tenure-track job.

As per conjuncture, I was fortunate that the decision-making committees who evaluated my applications in 2020 were apparently interested in women’s empowerment in India and decolonial thinking. As my record of rejections indicates, this was not the case in 2019.

My first thought when I received my rejection letter from FRQSC in 2020 was that I was not good enough. But then again, I was also awarded a Banting fellowship, so I didn’t understand. Reading my CV of failures alongside my successes made me realize that I am not more or less worthy of praise now than before. Sometimes I was offered money and jobs, and sometimes I was not. Sometimes, for the same research project.

We should participate in changing the academic reward system and its culture of comparison. This means we need to be talking about (and sharing on social media!) our failures as well as our successes.

Maïka Sondarjee received a Banting postdoctoral fellowship from the Université de Montréal. She is an assistant professor in the school of international development and global studies at the University of Ottawa. She also co-leads Informed Opinions’ French language initiative, Femmes Expertes.

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