Careers, Guest blog

Guest Blog – Should failure be normalised in academia?

Blog from Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali

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I am currently in the depths of that feeling most, if not all, academics experience throughout their careers, the feeling of failing. There are so many ways to fail in academia, and so many of us experience failure, often repeatedly. So in this month’s blog I decided to ask the question: should failure be normalised in academia?

I have recently failed three times in as many months. Firstly, I failed to get through to the next round with a grant application. Then I failed to get a manuscript published. And finally, I failed to get selected for internal funding for a PhD studentship which would have helped start up my lab as a new PI. There are other ways failure can be experienced in academia, such as failing to get a job offer, failing to get an experiment to work, and failing to get good teaching evaluations (one thing I thankfully didn’t fail on this Semester). I think many would agree that grant applications and manuscript rejections are the two most significant and most frequent catalysts for feeling like you’re failing, that are experienced by academics throughout their careers. This led me to the question of whether we should be striving to normalise such failings, but what would it mean to do so, and what would we be hoping to achieve?

Normalisation has a range of different meanings depending on the context, but to go with how it is typically applied in sociology, normalisation would be the process of something which is not typically thought of as being the norm, then becoming regarded as the norm. Applying the word ‘normalise’ to the feeling of failing in academia would be misleading because failing already is the norm, and arguably always has been. Grant applications are always more likely to be rejected than funded. There are always more applicants for PhD studentships and postdoc jobs than there are positions available. So what we really mean when we talk about normalising failure in academia is normalising the perception of it. This would mean not selectively sharing positive outcomes, and instead openly disclosing when things haven’t been successful. It would mean not curating a social media profile that only shares achievements and ignores the failures which are by far the most common outcome. To normalise failure in academia would mean acknowledging that many of us are not being open about our failings, and perhaps if we were, we would be able to manage the experience of failing better. We would see just how common it is, and therefore be less likely to internalise it as a reflection of ourselves. However, not everyone agrees.

When I spoke about this previously, an old friend of mine who is a postdoc at Cambridge questioned what good could come from normalising failure, when the real failure lies in, for example, the lack of feedback we get from grant applications, or the poor transparency around the decision-making process. If we accept that failing in academia is normal, but nothing is done to prevent us from repeating the same mistakes which led to those failures, we are destined to continue failing. Perhaps failure is so common because we haven’t been shown how to succeed. More support is needed, particularly for early career researchers who are already trying to navigate a precarious occupational landscape and are led to believe their failings are because they are not good enough. In reality, they may, for example, just need to develop their grant writing skills to ensure their proposal is communicated effectively.

For my rejected grant application, I got no feedback at all. I have worked for a research funder so I know the reasons for why this can often be the case, but how can this honestly help an early career researcher who needs funding in order to do any research? Sometimes, when feedback is provided it can be equally unhelpful. Comments can include vague statements that leave you wondering whether the application was even read at all, and certainly doesn’t provide any constructive advice on how improvements can be made for the next iteration of the application.

Perhaps the failure is not ours as early career researchers, but instead belongs to the senior academics, whose responsibility it is to review grant applications and sit on grant panels, who insist on ‘pulling up the ladder behind them’ by failing to support their junior colleagues adequately. Perhaps this is the greatest failure in academia, and in dementia research it could lead to the greatest consequence: failing to provide the breakthroughs needed to deliver disease-modifying treatments.

Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali


Dr Kamar Ameen-Ali is a Lecturer in Biomedical Science at Teesside University & Affiliate Researcher at Glasgow University. In addition to teaching, Kamar is exploring how neuroinflammation following traumatic brain injury contributes to the progression of neurodegenerative diseases that lead to dementia. Having first pursued a career as an NHS Psychologist, Kamar went back to University in Durham to look at rodent behavioural tasks to completed her PhD, and then worked as a regional Programme Manager for NC3Rs.



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