Sunday, July 26, 2020

Embracing Failure in Linguistics

Working in linguistics can be mentally and emotionally challenging. The field is set up in a way to measure performance at almost every turn, and often there is a negative outcome. I will give a list of some types of failure and rejection, and then give general advice on how to handle them. I suggest that failure should be seen in a positive light, as an opportunity for growth. It should not be feared, but rather embraced, and it should definitely not lower your self-esteem.

Examples of Failure and Rejection in Linguistics

Linguistics is a minefield of failure, rejection and disappointment. In my career, I have experienced almost all of the following kinds of difficult challenges:

a. An abstract submission is rejected at a conference.
b. A presentation at a conference is not received well.
c. A paper submitted for a conference proceedings is not accepted.
d. A paper submission is rejected at a journal.
e. A paper submission is rejected with highly critical comments.
f. A paper submission is rejected by return mail.
g. A paper submission is rejected after resubmission.
h. A grant submission is rejected.
i. A grant submission receives overly negative reviews.
j. You apply to a graduate program, and are not admitted.
k. You apply to a graduate program, and are not even interviewed.
l. A final paper for a course receives a low grade.
m. A final paper receives unenthusiastic comments from the professor.
n. A problem set for a course receives a low grade.
o. You receive a low grade for course.
p. You receive a low evaluation for your QP (Qualifying Paper) defense.
q. Your favorite faculty member refuses to be your dissertation supervisor.
r. Your favorite faculty member refuses to be on your dissertation committee.
s. A job application does not lead to being on a short list.
t. Being on a short list does not lead to being offered a job.
u. Your job interview goes badly.
v.  You fail to find a job out of graduate school.
w. You fail to get tenure.
x. Your teaching evaluations at the end of the year are negative.
y. Your year-end job performance evaluation is negative.
z. You fail to get promoted to full professor.

Advice on Handing Failure

In the following, I focus on general strategies. As such, they might not be equally applicable to all the specific cases listed above. Indeed, each of the cases merits its own blog post.

Learn from failure.

A lot can be learned from a rejection or failure or mistakes or poor performance. The prototypical case is a journal submission rejection. When you get the letter of rejection, it is very difficult not to feel negative emotions, such as frustration. Once you get the rejection, and read it, put it aside for a few days. Let your feelings of frustration subside. Then come back to the rejection letter with a fresh perspective. Although some reviewers can rude, lazy, ignorant, sloppy and biased (a good topic for another blog post), the vast majority of reviewers are making an earnest attempt to evaluate the paper in conformity with the standards of the field, and they sometimes have very useful things to say.

On the positive side, it can be very difficult to get useful feedback on your work. So, getting insightful comments from reviewers can be worth its weight in gold. Thinking about the comments can help you not only to present your work better, but also to understand your subject better. Paying attention to the reviews can increase your chances for acceptance when you submit the next time.

Be objective.

A friend told me the following anecdote. There were two nurses (call them A and B) who were taking care of a disabled child. Nurse A was a recent graduate and nurse B had 10 years of experience. Nurse B was in charge of training nurse A in the necessary tasks. One day, nurse B administered medication to the child, but the medication was ineffective. Nurse A checked the prescription and told nurse B that she had miscalculated the dosage. In response nurse B said that she had a lot of experience, so it was not possible that she had made a mistake. They decided to call the pharmacy, and the pharmacy told them the right dosage (agreeing with nurse A). Nurse B had high self-esteem, and that prevented her from doing her job effectively. She was too confident in her own abilities to admit she had made a mistake (and to draw the right conclusions from the behavior of the patient). If her mistake had not been caught by nurse A, it could have led to serious medical problems.

In linguistics, we do not make life-and-death decisions, but sometimes we fail to objectively evaluate our own ideas. If somebody is overly confident, they might deceive themselves about the quality of their own proposals. They may be unreceptive to critical commentary, and shocked when they receive an evaluation (even a constructive one). The lesson is to try to evaluate your proposals objectively, and to always be willing to consider constructive feedback (and not to dismiss it out of hand). You should be able to respond to the points people make in a way that would make sense to a disinterested party.

In effect, you should realize that not every idea that comes tumbling out of your brain is a brilliant idea. You should accept the fact that 4 out of 5 of the ideas will not survive (although parts of them might survive in some form or the other), and even the survivors will need a lot of work to see the light of day.

Acceptance rates are low.

For almost all the categories listed above (paper submissions, abstract submissions, grant applications, applications to graduate school), acceptance rates are very low. For example, typically at the Department of Linguistics, NYU we admit around 10 people to the graduate program hoping for a yield of 6 people (that is, the number of people who actually accept the offer of admission). But we have over 120 applications. So, the acceptance rate is less than 10%. What this means is that acceptance is not based purely on merit. Sometimes it is impossible to say that the 9th and 10th best candidates are clearly more qualified than the 11th and 12th best candidates. In fact, it is even hard to rank the top candidates in a particular order. Rather, what happens in most cases is that the choice from among the top candidates comes down to fit with the department.

It is good to keep low acceptance rates in mind when thinking about graduate school rejections. Perhaps the rejection has nothing to do with your qualifications, but rather with fit to the department. One way to handle this issue is to do research on the departments that you are applying to, and to make sure that they are a good fit. In some cases, it might be appropriate to reach out to a faculty member at the target school and discuss your interests with them. Another general strategy, known to high school students all over the US, is to always apply to a “reach” school and a “safety” school. For example, as an undergraduate, you might apply to MIT (or Harvard) as a reach school, but also the excellent nearby state school as a safety. A similar strategy holds for graduate school applications.

Acceptance rates are low for the other categories as well. The major linguistics journals (e.g., NLLT, LI, Syntax, etc.) are extremely difficult to get published in, and usually have large backlogs of unpublished papers. You might want to consider high quality journals such as Glossa, which do excellent reviewing, but have a higher acceptance rate.

The fact that acceptance rates are low ultimately means that you need to try many times before succeeding once. That is a fact of life in linguistics. Everybody in the field faces the same situation. Once you realize this, you can plan accordingly.

Do you enjoy doing linguistics?

An absolute prerequisite to succeeding in linguistics is that you enjoy doing it. Do you like working with language and trying to figure it out? Are you captivated by the human capacity for language? Do you enjoy the kinds of puzzles that define your subfield?

Failure in linguistics can lead you to become disenchanted with the field. But it may also be the case that you do not enjoy it in the first place. You should take a hard look at your interests and motivations. Maybe linguistics is not for you. You might be much happier in some other field, or with a non-academic job.

Negative emotions cloud your judgment.

I once attended a faculty meeting where a junior faculty member had just received notice that their NSF grant application had been rejected. The faculty member broke down crying in the middle of meeting, and had to rush out into the hallway. Obviously, they had put a huge amount of work into the grant application. It was very important for their career to get that grant at that time. It is impossible, as a human, to suppress these kinds of emotions. You should definitely let yourself experience them.

But left unchecked, negative emotions (e.g., anger, jealously, sadness, frustration, despair, anxiety, fear) will only hurt you and will not help you accomplish your goals. They can get in the way of dealing with the issues you face. They may even cause you to make a bad decision. You might decide, in the heat of the moment, to fire off a rapid e-mail response. But later on, after careful reflection, you come to regret that e-mail message. After a failure or rejection, take a time to think about things, and to get back on your feet. Give yourself a few days to respond (if there is a need to respond) and to formulate your plan of action.

Rise to the challenge.

You can turn a failure into a source of motivation. I met a student who did poorly on a chemistry test in college, getting a C. When she talked with the professor, he was unsupportive and unhelpful, and in fact made disparaging remarks (which could have resulted in an official complaint, but did not in this particular case). She made up her mind that she was going to prove to the professor she could do the work. She increased the amount of studying she did, staying up late at night. On the next test she got a B+. For the whole course she got an A-.

In the context of a paper rejection, you may initially feel frustrated, and it may even cause you to lose faith in your paper. You may conclude from negative reviews that your proposal does not work, and that you should abandon it. But alternatively, some people are able to get motivated from rejection, and to turn negative energy into positive energy. Can you prove the reviewer and the editor wrong?

Talk to people.

I have been fortunate in my career to have close colleagues that I can talk to when I have encountered challenges. If you have a few close colleagues who can discuss the failure or rejection or difficult situation with you, it can help mentally and emotionally. Just to have somebody who will listen to you complain is important. Doing so can help you get it off your chest, and clear your mind. Your close colleagues can also help you think of the next steps in the process.

If you are a student, and you receive a rejection for a paper or a conference presentation, you should also talk to your advisor (or other faculty members) in order to work through it. Treat the rejection as a learning experience, not something to be ashamed of.

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