There is a dirty four-letter word that doesn’t get mentioned often in academia: fail. Or, to be more precise, failure. Yet it is not possible to succeed without it.

Not every research project will pan out as envisioned. Not every essay will get an A or a 100%. Not every paper will get accepted to the journal or conference of your choice. And I can guarantee that not every proposal you submit for funding will be successful (and if it is, please consider giving lessons!).

When something doesn’t go quite according to plan (note I said “when”, not “if”), how you choose to respond will make a big difference to what happens the next time you submit a piece of writing. There’s a reason that the saying “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got” is such a well-worn cliché: at its heart is a kernel of truth. Try reflecting on what went well and what could be done a bit differently to see if you get closer to where you want to be.

  • Read. A lot: A thorough literature review is a given for any type of research. But take a little time to look beyond the content to analyze what you’re reading from the perspective of how it is written. What do you like about some writing and dislike about others? The idea isn’t to copy the author’s writing style, but to pick out the positives (maybe the structure was easy to follow or you felt the author was genuinely excited about their research) and identify which negatives to avoid in your own writing.
  • Pay attention to comments: Whether you’re a student getting papers marked on a regular basis or a post-doc trying to get published, don’t focus just on the immediate result (your grade/paper acceptance or rejection), but also look at any comments provided. How can you use them to improve? Don’t automatically write off negative comments as someone who doesn’t understand your work: what is it that the reviewer or marker found confusing?
  • Ask for constructive criticism: For students in particular, it’s about going beyond the question “What do I need to do to get an A?” Is there something fundamental that will help improve your writing? Perhaps you need to include more evidence to strengthen your argument, or maybe you used the wrong referencing system. If you took the advice in the previous post to seek out those who can provide feedback, see if they can help shed any light on where you may have gone astray.
  • Be positive, not defensive: This is probably the hardest to follow of all the tips I have given in this entire series. Whether it’s a bad grade on an essay, a reviewer who blasts your paper, or a panel who decides that your project shouldn’t be funded, it is very easy to get angry or defensive. However, that doesn’t help you see areas for improvement or move forward. Instead, it traps you in a negative spiral of trying to prove yourself right (and them wrong). Try to step back from the immediate emotional response and see it as a learning opportunity (I know, I know, easier said than done, right? But please consider giving it a go!).

An unfortunate fact about academia is that sometimes you can try your very best and still not get the outcome you desire. However, with time, effort, and a willingness to learn from mistakes, you may be surprised at how much you are able to achieve.

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