Blog Post

Failure is Not an Option Because It’s Not Real

Failure is Not an Option Because It’s Not Real


This is also posted on my site at

I want to say something about failure.

In an early draft of my previous post (@Home), I ended the post with recognizing that no one is invested in you failing. I sat and stared at this sentence for almost an hour. I couldn't decide what bothered me about it and I finally scratched it and ended with, "enjoy writing." After speaking with a few folks in my program who are dissertating remotely, I finally realized what bothered me about the original sentence. The line, "no one is invested in your failure," is a common sentiment rehearsed by graduate student advisors and administrators and it's something I've heard, and the other grads have heard, for years. I don't necessarily have a problem with the idea that people are invested in our success and that no one wants us to fail, but I realize, only after coming to grips with writing the dissertation, I have a problem with the idea that if I don't finish, I fail. Is it a failure to not finish? What am I failing? What about not doing this makes me a failure?

The truth, no matter what grad programs tell you, is that there is no failure when it comes to writing a dissertation. Not writing one, not finishing one, not defending one, does not mean that you fail, or that you are a failure; it may be difficult to not see it that way, but I assure you, there is no such thing as failure in this scenario. I realize now that my fear and anxiety produced by the dissertation had a lot to do with how I internalized the expected outcome of the process I was beginning. My anxiety was directly related to how I measured my expectations, my departments expectations and my perceived expectations of the field.

Accepting the dissertation meant excepting the possibility of failing to meet those expectations. Not only that, but writing the dissertation also meant accepting a particular course of action. It meant finishing on time and defending in the five years the program has given me to graduate, (finishing on-time is another problem for another post - finishing on-time means nothing except to administrators who control the finances of the department) and it meant recognizing the next logical step, going on the job market.

All of this together means recognizing an investment in a standard and accepted practice and that following this process means something. I use italics to indicate the point I'm about to make. Finishing a dissertation, defending it, and having your degree conferred, does mean something. I'm not suggesting that this in itself is not a satisfying and important accomplishment. But when you are asked to invest in a process (dissertation/degree/job/tenure) that glorifies the illusion of success, of being success, then failure no longer becomes a factor because you can't fail at something that doesn't even exist anyways. Writing a dissertation, finishing it on-time, being a successful job market candidate, doesn't guarantee that you will succeed, but this is the measure of success programs/departments, and a few individuals, will expect of all graduates.

Added to this is the anxiety of a particular type of failure, the failure to not only get a job, but the right kind of job. Institutions, especially R1 institutions, speak dismissively about community colleges, jobs with large teaching loads (4/4 or 5/5), and alternative-academic jobs. Obviously this is not the case everywhere, but success on the market is often determined by the right kind of job and this job is reserved, as we are often told in graduate school, for those few rigorous and exceptional candidates. Faculty at R1s have to believe, to some extent, that they are where they are because they are exceptional, and to some extent this may be true. But in a market where there are 900 applicants for the same tenure-track job, at least (and I'm under estimating) half of those applicants will be exceptional according to traditional scholarly  standards.

I recognize that part of this conversation reflects a practice institutionalized in many graduate programs. When graduate programs, especially humanities programs, continue to accept students, train them in the profession, expect them to uphold tradition (write the monograph/dissertation) all while dangling an imaginary carrot (success on the job market/tenure-track = success) in front of their face, we have to openly acknowledge that what they are doing is unethical. Part of this problem stems from the fact that more often than not, departments/universities determine success and failure by comparing student success to the success of their own faculty. In this system, failure is not only imaginary, it's expected of you. That is unacceptable. Nevertheless, it puts failure in a different perspective. Not following, or investing in this process does not make one a failure. Failure has no power in this system.

I want to end by acknowledging that this doesn't mean I don't think anyone should write a dissertation, or that I'm going to stop writing mine. I've come to terms with why I'm doing this and that's because I have the desire to write and to challenge myself, but also because I can't do anything else. I wont to do anything else. But I do acknowledge, finally and with some relief, that I determine my own success and that I have accepted the reality of the path I've chosen. This is where a number of us are at right now I believe.

Talking with other graduate students in my own department, we recognize that we still want to believe there is a carrot even when we know it's imaginary, but that's a different harsh reality to face, we feel entitled. This is also unacceptable, but real. It's also the greatest barrier we, or I (if you hate me using the collective "we") face to initiating any serious change. When we feel entitled to something that doesn't exist--something we know is made up and made up by us--then we are powerless to change it and instead re-institutionalize it over and over. We make a failure of ourselves, and that is shameful.



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