It’s not polite to say it in certain company, and once said, the tone of the conversation changes. People make an effort (genuine or from discomfort) to assure you that it is not true. But we all think about it, worry about it, and hide it, jumping through all manner of psychological hoops to avoid facing it: failure.
It is a word I’ve found myself unable to escape in the year since not being able to find a job to stay in the academic world as a physicist. Even in the years before that point, during difficult days spent questioning my future, the word lurked closer and closer to my consciousness.
After four years as an undergraduate, five as a graduate student studying physics, and another five years as a postdoc doing research in Tokyo and Nashville, I have reached the end of my academic career. My dream of being a tenured professor of physics, doing groundbreaking research at a world-class university, has crashed hard into reality. So here I am, face to face with failure. Now what?
By "failure" I don’t mean the smaller or larger stumbles and roadblocks that are part of the path of attempting anything worthwhile. Instead I mean failure with a capital F — the end of a long road and many years of hard work, the smiles and tears, the highs and lows, the chasing of a dream and all of the dedication and sacrifice that comes with it.
It’s a failure that may not hit all at once, but develops over weeks, months, and years until there is no escaping that you cannot make it to where you have aimed for so long. As it sets in and you realize everything will be different now, all that seems left is that word — failure — and all the emotion and thoughts that it brings out.
One of the integral parts of feeling like a failure is believing that, somehow, the world knows— that people see it written all over your face, and you are exposed for what you really are: not good enough.
We like to think of ourselves as supportive and understanding when others come to us with their struggles or when they fall short. Yet I think we all have some small part of us that responds to someone else’s failure by thinking, "Maybe they didn’t try hard enough. Maybe they didn’t really want to succeed. They have no one to blame but themselves. I could have done it."
It is difficult to develop true compassion and acceptance. And when it is you who fails, it seems impossible to keep these thoughts from cutting into you over and over. That dark, mean, debilitating part of your mind has suddenly been given free rein, seemingly backed up by empirical evidence that it was right all along. "You couldn’t do it, of course you failed." That’s not fair or true, and worse, it is unproductive.
I left academe in September of 2016, after a federal grant for the group I was working in got drastically reduced and my position was eliminated. I applied for other postdocs and tenure-track jobs, but nothing came through.
In the year since, I’ve been trying to rekindle old passions, initiate new projects, and use this moment to grow in different directions. I’ve traveled a bit and started working more earnestly on my photography and freelance writing. I’m working on a documentary about academe and ex-academics, and have recently begun some data-science consulting work. For fun, I’ve started a podcast with a fellow former physics postdoc, taking our science background as a framing point to talk about things like movies, philosophy, and books.
Gradually I’ve learned that all the clichés and motivational posters about failure — "If you don’t fail, you aren’t aiming high enough" or "It is how you respond to failing that is important" or "There is more to be learned and gained from failure than success" — contain some truth, beyond trying to alleviate the pain of the moment.
Those words ring hollow at first, as you’re trying to tap into some reserves of fortitude and tenacity that seem to have been spent. You can’t invalidate how it feels to come up short in something that was so important in your life, that defined your past, present, and future. It is perhaps more of a loss of part of yourself than it is a failure of accomplishment.
Thinking in terms of loss and grief — the perspective of recovery — is, I feel, more accurate and helpful in the immediacy of such a life-altering event than focusing on failure.
It is a loss.
The fact that it leaves you feeling numb and utterly adrift only reinforces the profound impact this failure has, and will have, on your life. Like many overwhelming events in life, the first big hurdle is to accept what has happened, but not let it crush you (for too long) or ignore what good may yet come of it.
With suddenly feeling ejected from the world of academia and physics came many thoughts and feelings that I did not expect. I felt without purpose, that I had lost the world I had inhabited in some form or another almost since leaving home for college, over a decade ago. There has been a dulling of such a large part of my life, not knowing what to do next.
I did not plan to be in this position, despite it being something that constantly weighs on anyone trying to make it in academe. It is still difficult, every day, to feel this loss of identity — to not know who I am or what I am doing, to have lost the vision of where I am going and sense a dream fading into the past.
No matter where I end up, I thoroughly enjoyed my academic journey. It’s just not easy to leave it behind.
Ever so slowly I started to move again, trying to pursue old interests and new ideas. My mind wants to race off into new dreams, but is constantly tempered by what I am still coming to terms with. Most fortunately, I have found encouragement and support from my friends and family. They can’t do it for me, but they are a strength I can draw from as I feel ready to move on.
I’m not there yet. I don’t have the answers for myself, let alone anyone else. Perhaps I can offer some commiseration and empathy, to anyone who is going through something similar. You are not alone in your feelings of isolation. Those feelings will not disappear overnight, and as much as they fade, they will return stronger than ever on bad days. Over time, with a concerted effort to move forward, I know they will recede into the background: often unnoticed, but always there, having set the stage for whatever is next.
John Kehayias was formerly a postdoctoral scholar in the department of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University. Since leaving academe he has been pursuing a career in photography and freelance writing .