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The Black Hole

On the CV of failures, downtime and being normal


Last week, I stumbled across a Princeton professor’s oddly entitled “CV of failures” (PDF) and obviously I fancied a click-through to give it a look. It, and its accompanying introduction from Johannes Haushofer, were a good read and an even better reality check. As he says in this introduction, “failures are often invisible” and I could not agree more. Each time we get knocked down in our careers, we would do well to remember that everyone else has been knocked down too. I had a particular chuckle at his “meta-failure” at the bottom where he lists the fact that this CV of failures has received far more attention than all of his published work combined (but hey, at least the alternative metrics section on his grant applications will be deemed “impactful” with tweets and shares)

Dr. Haushofer cites Melanie Stefan as his inspiration for compiling this list in response to her 2010 article in Nature which contrasted a scientist’s very private set of failures with a professional athlete’s very public failures. The latter is very healthy – sometimes you miss the penalty shot in the big match and it is important for young athletes to see this. Failures in science are not often shared – we don’t share failed experiments, we don’t publish lists of failed grant applications, we don’t see how many journals a manuscript went to before being finally accepted. Rather, if you look at the CV of an academic, you see a constant barrage of successes that do not reflect the reality of the journey. I applaud these efforts to share failures and maybe I will get around to tracking/sharing my own list of failures, although I think the message has been delivered by others already: we’re all human.

What I’d really like to share in this post is the other aspect of our humanness: we rest, we relax, we waste time. When looking at these failure CVs, it is very easy to drift to thoughts of how these people even had time to apply for all of those things – their actual CVs already made their productivity rate seem unachievable.

I often run into students who marvel at how a certain person can “fit it all in.” Every time they see this person, they are doing something productive, pushing their career or their project ahead, and – on top of all that – they are annoyingly nice. Some of us get jealous, others get sad, and we always seem to do our best job of comparing when we’re midway through a James Bond film and a bag of chips – scientists are good at comparing the biggest differences after all.

Maybe living in Europe has warped my mind, but I struggle to see how someone can spend 24/7 “being productive,” so I feel like it is equally as important to discuss down time. First things first: down time is OK. Maybe it isn’t what everyone needs, but some incredibly successful people find a way to take vacation, have regular daily breaks, and to spend time with their families. At the end of the day, most of us are normal human beings who waste normal amounts of time. Embrace it, enjoy it, relax in that space and come back to work with twice as much enthusiasm.

I write fairly frequently for someone whose job doesn’t formally involve blogging, science writing or science outreach, and people sometimes ask me how I fit it in on top of writing academic papers, doing experiments and running a lab. The thing that has saved me is learning a long time ago that my brain could be completely fed up with one type of work, but another type was perfectly fine to take on. During my undergraduate years, I tackled the double major of English and genetics in exactly this fashion. Fed up with memorizing Krebs cycle? Read a novel. With blog writing, I only write when I am writing productively – if something just isn’t working, I leave it and go do something else (an experiment, have a snack, go for a walk) and revisit it when I am writing productively again. Sometimes it takes my subconscious weeks to finish an article, but that doesn’t mean I sit down and stare at a wall until it is written.

If you are a scientist and you are in graduate school or beyond, I bet you have worked hard to get where you have gotten and deserved your success. I also bet that you have at some time or another run into people who have worked harder and done better – the grass is always greener, etc. But ask them what they do to relax and I’m sure the stories will come flowing. Without sounding too ridiculous, we need to make down time productive too (e.g., don’t use it to stress about how much stuff you have to do!). Some of the best tactics I’ve had in the past all seem to involve periods of detachment, sometimes lengthy (hiking/kayaking/camping) and sometimes short (walking, cycling and “no phone/computer” Sundays). Take real breaks and be comfortable and confident enough in your own work and yourself that seeing others do impressive things doesn’t make you feel insecure. Heck, maybe you could even congratulate them (genuinely!) on doing something amazing.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Brett / May 27, 2016 at 14:34

    I enjoy your blog David– keep the articles coming– and you are absolutely right that taking a break can be the best way to stay productive.