Lessening Fears of Failing in Your Academic Career

If an academic career feels like the path of heart and meaning for you, the spectre of failing and ‘not making it’ can be truly haunting.

Of course, aiming for success is good. Yet sometimes a lot of life, love and laughter are sacrificed at the altar of trying to keep loss and failure at bay.

I want the life, the love and the laughter for you instead!

To get some freedom from the unconscious hold that the fear of failure can have, it helps to contemplate actual career failures in academia. So today I’m offering you mine, in the hope that it will embolden you.

This is the story of how I was ejected, after only a few years in, from my tenure-track position. I’ll be telling it in three ways.

First telling: I thought I had a good plan

One way to tell this story of failure is: I thought I had a good plan. It turned out that I didn’t.

When starting work as an assistant professor, I knew I needed a plan to get myself in a strong position to apply for tenure after six years.

So I asked senior scholars for advice. They said to make sure to prioritize my research and writing for publication. To not let teaching take up too much energy and time. Some added that I’d probably have to put much of the rest of my life on hold to maximize my research productivity.

I didn’t feel seen by this advice, nor did I feel greatly helped by it. Instead, when I was serendipitously introduced to a coach, I decided to hire him. Together we figured out an approach to meeting publication goals that felt meaningful and manageable. We came up with a good plan and I was happily working away at it.

But just after my second annual review, my Head of Department called me into his office for a ‘bad news’ conversation. Our Dean considered my performance below par and had lost confidence in my ability to make tenure. I was given one academic year to prove her wrong by quickly publishing some articles. Otherwise I would lose my job.

This came as a big surprise and total shock to me. Choked up, I told my Head of Department: ‘I had thought that I was doing well.’

On the phone with my coach the next day, I was spitting fire. The plan we’d made had been inept. It had been foolish to think that it was okay to go slow, that aiming for a handful of high-quality publications was a viable strategy. I had not considered the need to show productivity in the short term as well as the longer term. I also had not sought specific support for my plan. And now that plan was useless, because now I had to suddenly speed up.

A Zen parable

There’s a Zen parable about a farmer who has a horse and a son. In a short span of time, all sorts of things happen: The horse runs away, then comes back bringing two wild horses. The son rides one, falls off and breaks a leg. The broken leg then stops the son from being drafted to fight in a war. One thing leads to another in a constant series of twists and turns.

The key is how the farmer reacts to each event. Whether his neighbours express their sympathy for his misfortune or congratulate him on a good outcome, he always says the same thing: “Who knows what is good and what is bad.”

Second telling: At the mercy of the powers that be

A second way to tell my failure-story is: in academia, you really are at the mercy of the powers that be.

That day in my Head’s office, an old fear of mine came true: the fear of not doing enough, of not being enough.

But there was also a follow-up question: “Says who?”

Indeed, in talking it through with others there was widespread agreement that the judgment of the Dean had been unfair. It’s unfair to first tell someone they have six years to prove themselves and then after two years to intervene so drastically when there doesn’t seem to be real cause for concern.

Someone speculated that my Dean might be holding her own constant stream of publications as the standard. This is why she wasn’t too understanding towards a perfectionist writer like me.

Someone else suggested that, as a new Dean, she was presenting herself as a tough leader. I had simply been caught up in that agenda.

My mentor at the university went to fight for me, writing letters and initiating conversations to see if the Dean might change her mind. It felt good to get this support. I wasn’t managing to speed up my publishing – the pressure from the ultimatum had the opposite of the intended effect. But perhaps my job could be saved another way.

It wasn’t.

The Dean didn’t change her mind, and the future of my employment was her call to make. At the mercy of the powers that be, I’d struck unlucky. This version of the story allowed my self-image as a competent scholar to stay intact, but with a cost. That cost was bitterness and cynicism about the academic system.

Third telling: Who knows what is good and what is bad?

A third way of telling this story of failure links to the Zen parable I shared earlier: who knows whether failure ends up being good or bad?

It’s now more than a decade ago that my tenure-track failure happened, and I can still connect with the first two stories. I can still see that my plan wasn’t a good one (at least, not to get tenure). I can still call up the feeling of unfairness regarding the decision by my Dean.

But if given the chance to go back in a time machine and ‘fix’ this, I wouldn’t lift a finger.

To say that I wasn’t ‘meant’ to succeed in getting tenure at a university goes too far for me – it reads too much meaning into a confluence of circumstances. But, looking beyond the specifics of the situation, I do believe that a career as a research scholar isn’t a good fit for me, and that I would have found this out one way or another.

My coach at the time let me rant and rave when I told him the bad news. He empathized with me. But he also dared to say something that did not fit either of the first two stories: “Maybe your Dean is right.”

Not: “Maybe your Dean is right, and you really aren’t as good a scholar or writer as you thought you were.”

Not: “Maybe your Dean is right, and the plan we made was indeed crap.”

Not: “Maybe your Dean is right, and that means this was a fair decision.”

Simply: “Maybe your Dean is right.”

And just allowing a little bit of space for that possibility helped me.

It allowed me to let this failure-situation redirect me. With my mentor’s help, I moved to another position at the same university. I worked there for six-and-a-half happy years before deciding to take a next step and become a coach myself.

Moving out of the grip of fear of failure

Ultimately, you are not in control of your career.

You are dependent on other people’s assessments of your achievements and your track record. Those assessments will be what they will be. You can only do your best, with the hand you’re dealt, and with as much integrity as you can muster.

And truly, that is enough.

It won’t secure good outcomes or prevent bad ones at the scale of specific short-term job success. But it will close some doors and open others, all the while offering you ways to get clearer and clearer on what you’re really for and how you can “deploy yourself more elegantly” (as one of my later coach-teachers put it).

The work involved in pursuing a meaningful career is not that of securing success or staving off failure.

It is that of discovering more and more about where, and how, you come to life.


The Zen parable ‘The Farmer’s Luck’ I first encountered in the Positive Intelligence Mental Fitness programme developed by Shirzad Chamine, which I offer in conjunction with my coaching services. A lovely telling of this old parable can also be found in the book Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth. Karen Kimsey-House from the Co-Active Training Institute is the the coach-teacher who used the phrase “learning to deploy yourself ever more elegantly” as a way to characterize personal and professional growth.

Image credit: Michael Dziedzic at Unsplash

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Catelijne Coopmans

Catelijne Coopmans

Life coach, interdisciplinary scholar, advocate for inspired paths in and beyond academia.

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